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Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181697)
Written on  :  May 15, 2004
Rating  :  3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars3.5 Stars

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The Good

Anachronox is a peculiar experiment made with a rather strange design philosophy in mind: eschewing "serious" Western genres, it takes nostalgic, 16-bit-era Japanese RPG mechanics, and builds a constantly flowing, cinematic and humorous experience around it. Basically, it is a collection of varied, yet lightly treated gameplay elements peppered by excellent writing and well-directed cutscenes.

I won't talk here about the designers' unexpected choice of the main genre. In a way, Anachronox manages to be attractive in spite of that choice, thanks to all the other creative stuff it throws on top of it.

Conversations and quests have much more weight in Anachronox than in "real" Japanese-style RPGs. This is where the game takes the right cues from its Western brethren, resulting in a more flexible and refreshing experience than mostly heavily combat-oriented Japanese games. The quests are for the most part interesting, varied and amusing; they often require you to to think and use your special skills to solve them. For example, at one point you need to gain the trust of the High Council on one of the planets, so you'll have find out how they will vote on the elections. What's really good is that besides the main, story-advancing quests there are also optional assignments, collecting and other things that increase the game's life span.

Your companions are a great bunch of unusual and comically appealing characters. Ever had a planet in your party?.. More importantly (and this is where Anachronox beats its Japanese progenitors again): the various NPCs you meet while playing the game are not just item- or quest suppliers; each one has something to tell you, and the amount of different, original lines written for each NPC is really impressive. They will tell you about their religious or political views, complain about some silly stuff, or say a joke or two about your appearance. Although most NPCs are not important for advancing the story, talking to them and listening to what they have to say enriches the experience.

This is also where Anachronox displays its strongest trump card: the writing. It's a delight to read (and listen to) the dialogues in this game. What makes the humor great aren't even the jokes and hilarious situations (the scene where Sly talks "science language" almost made me roll on the floor), but the way they are incorporated into the narrative, contributing to the ironic attitude towards the characters and creating an unusual form of a "semi-parody", though not at all in the same way Japanese writers would do.

No review of Anachronox would be complete without mentioning its fantastic cutscenes, all made with in-game engine, with great camera work that would do an honor to a movie. The game is naturally cinematic, elegantly using cutscenes to advance the plot in a fashion that is often more spectacular than its Japanese "teachers".

The Bad

Some parts of the game may seem unpolished, underdeveloped. I've heard rumors about cut content, and judging from my experience with the game they ought to be true. Often interesting peripheral locations and well-written secondary characters seem superficial because they were probably supposed to be more important to the game.

There is some discrepancy in tone, mainly caused by clashes between the cheesy, "epic" Japanese-like story and the humor - which, when applied to supposedly emotional events, becomes condescending and unpleasant. Two scenes come to mind: the destruction of the planet where you meet Rho, and the end of the comic-book chapter. In both cases, the scenes of mass destruction and death should have been made in such a way that we would feel the tragedy, but instead they are treated with the irritatingly inappropriate ubiquitous sneer.

The main flaw of Anachronox, however, is the choice of genre. Now, I don't know whether there is a "politically correct" rule to consider all video genre games equally good - speaking strictly for myself, I feel that Japanese-style RPGs are most certainly inferior to Western ones. However, the problem is that Anachronox is not even a good Japanese RPG; in fact, it is good at everything else except that. In other words, it's a game that excels in every way - except at being a good game. Clearly, the choice of base game mechanics followed the careful creation of jokes, cutscenes, and minigames.

What kind of core gameplay do we have here? Battles are sporadic, primitive, and much too easy; the character growth system, while interesting on paper, becomes a pure luxury: no matter what you do, you will win. You'll gain stats and learn spells, but they won't make any difference. Why would you hunt for special magical abilities if you can win any battle with bare-bones moves anyway?

Worse is the game's aggravating linearity. The game's locations look impressive, but what you see are mostly decorations - you can't go anywhere unless you are "supposed" to go there, as dictated by the ultra-linear plot, and each individual location is, in fact, small and cramped. There is little sense of discovery, as your hand is being constantly held, with everything given to you just in the doses that the game's restrictive mechanics allow. The bulk of the game is spent running from one NPC to another, completing simple quests, and then proceeding through a tiny area with pre-set, primitively handled battles.

The Bottom Line

No amount of cinematic direction and witty dialogue can alter the fact that Anachronox is a watered-down Japanese-style RPG that feels very much like a talented fan tribute than a serious gaming experience. If you are looking for some laughs, check it out; but if role-playing is your poison, you should look elsewhere.