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SummaryPixel Hunt-tastic disappointment
The GoodAll the good things about Anachronox are related to the creative content in the game: the storyline, characters, scripting and general production values are all top rated features in this title.
The storyline is a clever and interesting piece of sci-fi that while dealing with most of the "epic" cliches of the rpg genre manages to inject it's own brand of creativity by mostly dealing with the mysteries of the game's universe (a far future where humanity has spread through the stars thanks to the leftover technology of a mysterious ancient civilization) and the noir-styled adventures of a down-on-his-luck private investigator that suddenly gets involved on a galaxy-saving quest which involves that ancient civilization's secrets surfacing. Old love interests, ancient prophecies, gangsta confrontations, betrayals and lots of great twists and bends make the game's story an enjoyable aspect from start to finish even if it was chopped mid-way and narratively speaking the game ends at the start of the 3rd act.
This futuristic P.I. isn't alone in his quest however, and he eventually recruits the aid of a host of characters that include a former superhero, a grumpy old man and an exotic dancer/assassin who shares a shadowy past with our hero. As with most console styled games (which is the main genre Anachronox tries to emulate) each character is much more than simple fighting muscle, and they provide a lot of ambiance and color with their interactions, quips,comments and their own solo moments which flesh out their backstories and conflicts, with everyone from El Puño to Stiletto and her love triangle with Sly and Fatima fleshed out with great care and attention to detail.
The other big element to take into consideration when you look at Anachronox's story and characters is the excellent use of humor that has become a staple of Tom Hall's work ever since Commander Keen, and Anachronox allows Hall to strut his stuff in ways that even surpass his earlier comedic hit, the classic Duke Nukem 3D (THE title to check out if you find Anachronox's humor a blast). Everyone who played Anachronox would be lying if they said they didn't double over in laughter in the game's many comedic situations, with each one having his or her favorite gag/sketch (mine being PAL's sensitive reaction to the female issues of Rho and co. with a well placed "...Bitch" :)))
Moving on you have the production values, which stand out as simply exceptional (remember that at the time Eidos was dumping every last penny on Ion Storm's Hype machine and neglecting much more worthy developers like Looking Glass) so you get professional voice acting and incredible music which helps construct the many different locations of Anachronox's world. Said world is brought to life thanks to the good ol' Quake 2 engine, which while dated technology by 2001 surely came with the added benefit of years of testing and an extensive list of features which while already tested on the infamous "Quake movies" really get to strut their stuff here. Field-of-view distortions, forced perspective, pans and dollys all come together to form the most elaborate collection of game-engine cutscenes ever to be placed in one of these games. Seriously, "Someone went to film school" will be the first thought in your mind when you see such moments as Sly picking Grumpo's door or the destruction of Rho's planet, it's no wonder they get so much praise and they are well deserved.
The BadWell wadda ya know? The game sold less copies than Def Leppard's comeback album, and why's that? Anachronox's small but loyal fanbase would have you believe (as you'll see if you read pretty much every fan review) that it's because the gaming community is filled with dumbass gamers who shy away from anything that proves to have some sort of brain under the hood. And while that may be partially true it's also true that Anachronox fully deserved it's meager sales and constitutes it's own worst enemy seeing as how it's a blatant example of gaming design and gameplay taking a backseat to a specific author's own fetish interests, which in this case include sci-fi, humor and console rpgs.
(Actually, there's no way of knowing whether Tom Hall really is gaga over SNES-era rpgs and if we are really cynical and paranoid (as I am when thinking of Anachronox) we could write it down as simply the whoring down of his original game concept to what was the hot cookie at the time: Final Fantasy 7...)
That's right, in case you forgot it Tom decided to base his first (and only) Ion Storm game using Square's template for success. Unfortunately he got it all wrong and instead seemed to port everything that's wrong with the genre, namely the totally linear nature of gameplay, lack of challenge, mediocre arcadey "diversions" kiddie fodder, etc. while adding lackluster elements of his own invention.
So let's see: for starters the roleplaying aspect is dumbed down to Square levels, you know... the bigger gun is better, and there are some things called stats that apparently improve when you level up, but you will never care about any of that "crap". Specially when they don't really make any difference at all. I'll be damned if there's some advantage to using this or that character in combat aside from the fact that some prefer short range weapons over long range ones. So Rho has better fire magic compatibility? Well look at that... nope, still don't care. Oh!You can customize your own magic items via the "Elementor" system... but guess what? They ain't worth jack.
Combat is a kick in the balls. Blatantly ripped off from FF7's turn based system, the game whisks you away from the main gameworld and takes you to a small generic arena in which your team (of up to 3 characters because more would be like.... uh... wrong, and besides Square never does more than 3!!) face off with their opponents in turns were every action they make triggers a lavish (yet boring by the umptenth time you see it) animation a-la FF (and yes, there are limit breaks...yipeee). Incredibly simple and straightforward, the battles are merely filler material that happens to be jammed between the "meaty" parts of the game. However, it's not all plagiarism, there are some new options that try to cover the fact that you've seen it all 3252345 times before are the addition of a move command that allows you to walk around the arenas and the option to use some switches or buttons. Unfortunately these options never rise above the level of "gimmick" and come into play only ocassionally when you face off against certain bosses. Nowhere else are switches to operate or big enough arenas to make it worth for you to move at all, and aside from the optional boss (another nice detail lifted right off the FF games) 99% of the battles pose as much challenge as scratching your head.
Of course, the bulk of the game isn't all combat, so we needn't come to tears just yet. There's still a shitty adventure/arcade hybrid that is the interactive equivalent of connecting dots with a pencil. Yes, they are carefully developed dots with interesting characters and situations, but that's still all you do in the game: go from point A to B, with some lame excuse for a puzzle inbetween that always involves getting to person X who has the item that person Y needs in order to give you information Z or Item Q. This would be lame-ass by itself but when you add the mechanics of a console-styled rpg game things become even more cumbersome, after all consider how your average adventure game handles NPC interaction and then insert into that mold the generic console "signpost" npcs which upon clicking spout important plot points in a completely incoherent and out of context way: "Hey there, try our tasty fruit but don't go near the junkyard because it's overrun with thieves ruled by a mysterious character that knows everything about everyone and who'll surely give you the information you are looking for..." ??? WTF??
Shhhyeeaah... And then there's the mini games!! Ahh... that staple of Interactive movies made to cover the fact that there's no clear gameplay concept that somehow survived in the console rpg genre as a way to stir players out of their boredom and remind them that they are, you know, playing a game or something... that is if they are somewhat interesting diversions that don't boggle the player with a new set of complicated mechanics and are minimally entertaining. NOT if they are absolutely forced, unimaginative and dumb exercises like PAL's "hacking" pipe-dream boredom and the rail-shooting portions ripped right off from Rebel Assault. Say what you will, the truth is the many mini games sprawled over Anachronox are nothing but a tiresome annoyance that must be endured over and over again whenever you try to use some of the character's special skills or reach one of the scripted "action" sequences in the game, and quite frankly with some exceptions like Sly's lockpicking game they are the most tired example of lazy "filler" material, in which you can tell the programmers were desperately trying to jam something, ANYTHING to artificially lift things up.
As for the many sidequests that populate the gameworld they are a testament to how easily some "gamers" are able to forgive mediocre gameplay for the sake of a good story. Seeing as how many people praise what's essentially the worst collection ever assembled of pixel hunts in a game. They all revolve around the excuse of a digital camera that allows you to take photos anywhere in the game and thus send you on merry chases in order to take a snap of the 8 furry little red dipshit aliens all over the galaxy, or the stupid red biker that is speeding in the highway or whatever shit the designers tought would be a "clever" variation of a pixel hunt. No, really, if you are a novice gamer and want to know what the term "pixel hunts" means then just take a look at Anachronox. It's the perfect example for it. Yes, there are also a lot of Fed-Ex quest (Yeah! I'll tell you what you want, just get me a chewy item!!) but the real stars of the show are the pixel hunts.
The reality of it is that the more you get into Anachronox the more you hate it as a game, and by the end the great story with clever twists and characters, and the interesting gameworld don't mean shit when faced with the reality of a mediocre game that would have been barely passable garbage if released as an interactive movie back in the mid 90's. In fact, after a few hours with Anachronox the gloss comes off completely and you see how the much vaunted "living, breathing world" which is supposed to be the hub of the galaxy and a place of constant buzz and activity is not unlike the haunted mansion in Clive Barker's Undying: a lot of doors leading to lots of places, but all locked except the one that you are supposed to take next. That's how Anachronox is, no matter how many gravity-defying sidewalks you see, or how many colorful aliens you see fooling around. And guess what awaits you behind those doors? Pixel hunts, PIXEL HUNTS and more PIXEL HUNTS, oh and after you are done some dull combat, a little Fed-Ex-ing, an annoying, irrelevant mini-game and then more Pixel Hunts! yipeeee... Oh! and if you ever get tired of all that (wonder why??) then you've got even more pixel hunts in the way of collectable items that reward the gamer that decides to spend hours searching for each one of them with as much joy as when finding a nickel in your couch.
Last but not least there are a host of technical issues to be taken into consideration here. The game has some bugs, but the most important problem seems to be the graphics. Anachronox's true detractors (believe me, I'm extremely generous towards the game regardless of all my bitching) love to take potshots at the graphic quality of the game and while somewhat justified they do have reason to object them. Yes, the blocky models and choppy animations are intentional designs aimed at giving the game a comic-book feel, ditto the buildings and locations. Yet there's no denying that the Quake2 technology was dated at the time and clearly not up to standards. No matter how much you jack the resolution up the textures are still blurry as hell, which causes plenty of problems when the camera decides to do a close up of a character (and that happens a lot) and uh... curved surfaces?? Not here no siree...
The Bottom LineRe-reading this thing I get the feeling you might understand me as irremediably biased and resentful towards a silly little game which when it comes down to it was ignored by the critics and gamers alike and whose only sin is to have a small following that seems to think that just because it has a quick wit and a clever story we should forget the fact that it's a mediocre game.
So basically there you have it, a lame, boring and utterly mediocre game which thinks that submitting a lot of quality creative content into a bastardized version of a faulty design concept to begin with, is the way to go.
To be fair, I might make it sound as if it's the worst game ever, but that's not the case. Anachronox has good storytelling, a nice story, interesting characters and lots of great creative choices. If you are the sort of "backseat gamer" that is content solely with that and who thinks gameplay is always secondary to story and writing, then Anachronox is probably gonna have the same effect on you as it did on it's fanbase: you are going to go gaga over it and think that the rest of the world must be mad to have ignored a game like this... The truth however, is that Anachronox can be everything BUT a good game. It is dull, it is NOT innovative, it's boringly easy, and generally plays like a shadow of the games it tries to copy.
I still have to this day the many PC Gamer sneak previews and reports, chronicling 4 years in which the game pretty much went from the "One to watch for 2000" to "The game that could save Ion Storm" and finally to the "4 years for THAT??" that the industry said when it was finally released. And you know what? It deserves every word. Hall and co. really blew this one, I'm absolutely serious when I praise the camera work and scripting, and would actually encourage the ones behind these aspects to extend their horizons and seek out other venues in TV, cinema or novelizations, as there's clearly plenty of talent over there. As for gaming design? Leave that to someone else...