Anachronox 
by Barcardi Jim
January 13, 2005

 

ANACHRONOX (2001)

Developer: Ion Storm

Publisher:  Eidos

 

Where has Bacardi Jim been for the last two weeks?  Why haven’t we heard from him?  And what the heck is up with reviewing an RPG on an adventure game site?  All these questions have the same answer, Constant Reader:  BJ discovered the sublime joy that is Anachronox.

Let me say this right up front:  This is one of the most pleasurable, smart, sly, funny, engrossing and flat out fun games I have ever played.  Take the writing and plot construction of the Gabriel Knight or Journeyman Project games, the humor of a Douglas Adams book, the slick pop culture and film noir references of Discworld Noir and set them all in a galaxy far, far away and you’ll have some vague idea of the pleasure to be had.

“Of all the gin joints…”

At heart, Anachronox is classic film noir.  In the game’s introductory sequence, we meet the protagonist, Sylvester “Sly Boots” Bucelli, a private eye whose office is a saloon’s storage room in “the Bricks” of the planet Anachronox.  When the game starts, Sly is getting his face rearranged by a lieutenant of crime boss Detta… prior to a message-emphasizing defenestration.  When Sly shakes off the shattered glass and wanders into his host bar for a post-beating drink, we meet his long-suffering secretary, Fatima.  Actually, “long-suffering” is an understatement.  Fatima is dead.  Long dead.  Pushing up alien daisy-counterparts.  Recognizing Fatima’s indispensability (and maybe a little bit more), Sly has had Fatima digitized into a holographic “life cursor.”  She acts as your “smart cursor” through the game, storing important info on quests and the various planets you visit while remaining free to offer asides about your missions and her boss worthy of Myrna Loy.

Desperately in debt and seeking anything that remotely resembles a job, Sly soon finds himself on a mission that will repay his debts, bring him back in contact with the woman he used to love, settle old scores with Detta and (incidentally) save the Universe.  Along the way, Sly collects (in true RPG fashion) a party of compatriots.  They include Sly’s faithful robotic lackey (think R2D2 meets Eric Cartman), the crusty old prospector/museum curator, an alcoholic comic book superhero, Sly’s former protégé (now a stripper-cum-assassin), a physicist who watched The Matrix a few too many times, and an entire planet that exemplifies why there is an Electoral College while demonstrating (and this will be message of hope to male RPG players everywhere) that size doesn’t matter.

Here we have a game that succeeds in merging far-flung science fiction, comedy and film noir in a way that Discworld Noir could only hope to approximate.  Whether you are meeting the Galaxy’s biggest pop group (The Meatles—and make sure you talk to them until you finally exhaust all conversation), sneaking through alien sewers or visiting Sender Station’s famous Red Light District (where you can get Sex-While-U-Wait), Anachronox pays homage to its roots in both Bogey and Lucas with loving fondness and inventiveness while poking hilarious fun at those conventions in often unexpected ways.  I simply do not recall laughing as much or as hard at any game ever.  It is also one of the few games I stood up and applauded at the end.

“This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Before I am flayed alive by angry villagers and have my empty skin run up the nearest flagpole, I’d better explain why I think adventure game fans might want to give this title a try.  Although there is some crossover audience, AG enthusiasts and RPG players traditionally look for different things in games.  While AG fans are interested in plot, writing, puzzles and exploration,   Those who prefer RPG’s look for depth and detail of environment, open-ended exploration, interesting non-party characters (NPC’s) and a bizarre fixation, shared by sim/tycoon game players, to micro-manage their characters.

Anachronox manages to include all the AG elements that are normally missing from RPG’s and minimize those elements that turn off adventure enthusiasts.  At the same time, it remains true to its role-playing roots, allowing but not necessitating endless free-form exploration.

There most definitely is puzzling in this game, though little of it is of the traditional AG type.  There is some decoding and figuring out “riddles.”  But most of the “puzzling” comes into play in either figuring out what character or skill is needed to achieve a certain goal, finding a requisite item, or determining what specific strategy is needed to defeat a particular opponent.  Where Anachronox may let adventure gamers down in the puzzle department, it more than compensates in every other way.  The overriding plot managed to keep me prisoner, twice imprisoning me in twenty-hour sessions just to see what happens next.  The script had me bursting out laughing, often at 3:00 a.m. (much to my girlfriend’s chagrin).  The non-traditional puzzles had me wandering away from the computer to smoke and mutter through possible solutions to myself.

The really good news for those who hate RPG’s is twofold.  First (and maybe most importantly), there are no random monster encounters.  Much of the downside in RPG’s rests in the fact that you never know when you are going to have to encounter another fight on your way to some objective.  Coupled with this is the fact that in order to achieve some goal, you must run around outside a city doing nothing but fighting monsters in order to “level up” to the strength necessary to beat the next “Boss.”  Anachronox does away with all of that.  Encounters with monsters are pre-scripted and occur only at particular times.  The 3-D interface even allows you to see such encounters before you get to them; permitting you to refit your party if you wish or go back to a previous save-spot before you wade into the bloodshed.  If you want to, you can leave an area and fight the same monsters again, but there is no need to do so.  As a bonus gift to adventure gamers, there are really relatively few of such fights (for such a long game) and there are only a very few areas in which you will have to face more than a couple of such encounters.

The other tedium for strict adventure gamers when they play a role-playing game comes in the character management.  If they are involved in the story, the last thing most adventure gamers want to do is take a break and decide which character is wearing which armor and carrying which sword.  Anachronox has a feature that I believe should be incorporated into all RPG’s:  an “Equip Best” button.  With a few quick clicks, you can assure that every member of your party has the gear best suited to their needs.  On the other hand, there are times when you can, if you want, improve your party even more by going in and tinkering with the distribution of items.

In short, this may be the most AG-friendly RPG I have ever run across.

“More than just a pretty face…”

I have to take a minute to discuss what may be Anachronox’s main drawback for adventure gamers.  It is presented in real-time 3-D.  Furthermore, it requires two hands to navigate, one on the arrow buttons to move you and one on the mouse to steer.  And yes, even the cutscenes are presented in the same polygon-filled 3-D style.  If that isn’t enough, the 3-D graphics were already being panned as “outdated” when the game was released.

Let me jump up and assure you that this is absolutely no problem!  It is extremely rare that you will have to press any key other than the UP-arrow key to move, and you can adjust the mouse sensitivity and even the mouse movement range within the screen to fit your individual needs.  Both the mouse and the keyboard are completely customizable to provide a two-handed interface with which you can get comfortable.

As to the graphic quality, while I wasn’t blown away by the beauty of the game, I had few complaints.  Syberia it ain’t.  But the 3-D engine by id Software (who gave us both the Doom and Quake engines) do a more than satisfactory job this time.  Non-verbal expressions and subtle subtext were more-than-adequately conveyed with character facial expressions, and the freedom of movement/viewpoint allowed by the engine was not just welcome but essential at many points.  While it is true that the limitations of such a design in individual character or location detail result in “all the NPC’s looking alike,” the writers have managed to supercede that, giving these characters individual personalities and locations.  And there are even “in-jokes” about the graphics themselves.  “No, that wasn’t me.  It must have been someone who looked just like me!”

A fly in the ointment

All this is not to say that Anachronox is not without its flaws.  There are a couple of sections where the continuing battles will wear thin the patience of an adventure gamer.  There is one character who has a skill that requires massive pixel hunting in order to use… usually for little reward when you succeed, but essential in places.  I hit occasional crashes.  And there is the omnipresent fact that wherever you need to go on a planet (even if you’ve been there before) is as far away from your current location as is possible.  There is a lot of needless running down long empty corridors and rampways just to get a vital bit of information and then travel back up the same corridors.  (Think Schizm and then choose your favorite multiplier.)

Without a doubt, though, the game’s biggest flaw lays in a poor melding of its linear and non-linear nature.  For the most part, Anachronox is laid out in traditional adventure game linear style.  However, as is the case with most RPG’s, there is the ability to go back and explore regions you have already visited, searching for items you missed the first time around.  The problem is that there are a couple of “best weapons” and skills that can only be acquired the first time they are encountered.  The requisite skill is essential to finishing the game… and there are three different occasions in which you can screw it up and find yourself at the end of the game with no way to complete it because you can’t get through a particular doorway.  Given that the path to getting this skill starts at the very beginning of the game, you could find yourself at the 99%-completion point and discover you need to start over.

Again, this is not a problem!  The game includes a “cheat mode” which is only slightly ornery to access, allowing you to equip your characters with any skills, weapons or other paraphernalia you missed along the way.

Stability is a bit of an issue.  There were major problems with Anachronox in its development stage.  Amazingly, a patch was released on the same day as the game itself!  The patch is available from the Eidos website.  It fixes pretty much all the game flaws and even includes fixes for XP compatibility.  Personally, I crashed the game a total of five times.  Four of those occurred after I modified certain files using the “cheat” mode.  And, to be fair, you are warned that doing this may cause crashes.  Fortunately, you are never too far from a save point.  While there are only eight save-game slots, careful management of them should allow you to get through any crashes with a minimum of trouble.

The stuff that dreams are made of…

If you are an RPG fan it is easy to dismiss Anachronox as “too easy.”  If you are an adventure gamer, it is easy to dismiss it as “too much detail.”  Strict devotees of either genre are doing themselves a disservice if they write off this little masterpiece.  Anachronox manages to bridge the gap between the two genres, melding them seamlessly into exactly the game that you want to fill the current void left in both markets.  If you missed it the first time around, I strongly recommend getting a copy now.  I got mine for $12 and I spent about 50 hours playing it…. loving every single minute of it.  If you can find a better bargain today, jump on it!  And then… play Anachronox anyway.  You won’t regret it.

Final Score: 9 ˝ (out of 10)

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