SummaryAfter slogging through pale Lovecraft imitations, someone finally gets it right.
The GoodWhen a distant relative of your husband dies, he inherits the Verlac family mansion located in the fishing town of Anchorhead. Michael, your husband, is quickly offered full professorship by the local university, leaving you with time to explore the town. Actually, it isn't much of a town. Their prime fishing days seem well behind them, since most of the fishermen haunt the local tavern, not the wharf. The town's papermill, its other industry, seems more focused on dumping ash on the shantytown surrounding it. Anchorhead's lighthouse doesn't have a working beam and its lone church is boarded up.
There's something discomforting about all this decrepitude, a discomfort exacerbated by the dismal weather and Michael's… distance. But it's more than bad weather, or getting lost in twisting alleys, or the knowing glances of the town's denizens, that's getting to you. There's something wrong here, and you're going to figure out what it is.
Anchorhead is a horror-themed interactive fiction game that works as a brilliant Lovecraft pastiche, never entering the realm of parody. It won the 1998 XYZZY Award for Best Setting, which was well deserved. Even before the main character's life is endangered, Gentry creates disquieting situations and settings: An ancient obelisk stands in the town's center and the grass around it is withered. A local child has gone missing, an event that seems to happen every few years. Your husband seems obsessed with the esoteric reading material at the university's library.
Uncovering the mystery, or series of mysteries, hanging over Anchorhead means thoroughly exploring your environment, solving puzzles, and paying attention to clues hidden in the texts you find and your dreams. Gentry creates a three dimensional atmosphere, inviting the player to look under objects or behind them. Items can be opened, areas searched, and inventory used together. In one of the game's few acceptance of convention, almost every one of the game's many items fits comfortably into the pockets of your trenchcoat.
The time progression shows Gentry's skill as a writer, since it gives the game a pace and creates a sense of mounting horror. The day ends once everything that *must* be done for that day, has been done. Approaching this as a reader, I liked how certain areas opened up or people became available as the game progressed. As a gamer, I had to get into a different mindset instead of fixating on doors which couldn't be unlocked yet.
As a Lovecraft pastiche, Anchorhead beats The Lurking Horror hands down—without using the word squamous! Lovecraft references run from having the Whateley Bridge cross the Miskaton River to dealings with a fishy librarian. Story elements are somewhat more obvious with Gentry drawing heavily from The Dunwich Horror, but also hinting at works like The Music OF Erich Zann and The Festival. This isn't to say that Gentry created an amalgamation of existing works. Instead he blends them with an original, and visceral, story filled with madmen, murder, incest, and cosmic horror.
The BadJust two things:
Anchorhead wasn't that hard overall, but there were a few times I resorted to a walkthrough—embarrassingly enough, once was at the very beginning and again at the very end of the game. The first time I didn't realize how tenacious the main character was and the second time I had trouble using a fool-proof item. I'm willing to accept some of the blame, but a helpful push would have been nice.
Thank god for the trenchcoat of holding, because you never know when you are going to need something. Not really a complaint towards the game, since Gentry warns the player not to discard inventory items, but it would be nice not having to lug everything around. Luckily, I only had to backtrack once—who knew brooms were so useful.
The Bottom LineAt last, after slogging through pale Lovecraft imitations, someone finally gets it right. People wonder how text games can be involving, but Gentry has you right there: in a sewer with a flickering flashlight, learning why a portrait's eyes seem to follow you, confronting a shapeless horror in the dead of night. If you can lose yourself in a book, then you can lose yourself in this game.
Anchorhead is a well-written, wonderfully designed adventure game. I highly recommend this to adventure gamers who are tired of the glut of cookie cutter games out there. This may seem like a relic from the past, but give it a shot and I think you'll enjoy the experience.