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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: Anachronox
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 11 April 2014, 20:36:12Tags: Anachronox; Ion Storm; Tom Hall
[Written by Deuce Traveler and VioletShadow; edited by Infinitron]
Anachronox is not your typical mediocre JRPG console port. Produced in 2001 by Ion Storm Dallas and Tom Hall of id Software fame, it is an epic science fiction RPG heavily inspired by console classics such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, but designed for the PC and western audiences. Featuring cyberpunk and noir elements, it follows private detective Sylvester “Sly Boots” Bucelli who lives on the small planet of Anachronox. This city-planet functions as the game's main hub, but the player will visit many other locations as well. Anachronox was the first game in what was meant to be a series, but sadly Ion Storm closed down, leaving fans yearning for closure and wondering what might have been.
VioletShadow: As mentioned in the introduction, a large part of the game takes place from Sly's point of view, starting on the world of Anachronox. Cities are located on the surface of constantly shifting tectonic plates, which connect to different parts of the planet as they move. The planet is believed to have been built by an extinct alien race and floats inside an artificial sphere called Sender One. Many different Senders form an expansive network, which is used by ships to reach many places in the galaxy instantly.
The game starts out with Sly receiving a request from city officials to collaborate in the investigation of a possible illegal transaction taking place in the Mystech Tunnels, where valuable relics from a past era promise to … HAHA who am I kidding, not even close. Sly Boots is a washed out, broke as hell bottom feeder who was once a hot shot PI, but now barely manages to get by in the dystopian city slums (which are known as “The Bricks”). This game has possibly one of funniest, most attention-grabbing introductions of any videogame I’ve ever played. Boots gets beat up and thrown out of the window of his own office because he owes a lot of money to a crime boss named Detta, and he needs to pay up or else. After the intro cinematics end, you are tasked with finding a job ASAP and the story picks up from there with Boots tracking down a lead for some paying work. Plot-wise the first few hours are definitely slower compared to later on, when you meet your first companion and encounter more interesting mysteries.
Deuce Traveler: This does start off as a tale of a world-weary, streetwise detective whose investigation uncovers a situation which he finds himself unprepared for. That sort of plot setup always works for me, even though it's been done a hundred times before. What really sells this game's story is how crazily it deviates in its telling. One moment Boots is tracking down clues on the streets of Anachronox. Soon after he finds himself dealing with such things as capitalistic monks residing in a palace which is part-Vatican, part-Disney World, democratic systems run amok, and planetary invasion. The oddities keep stacking up as the game progresses, causing me to wonder if there was going to be some kind of plot twist in which Boots actually went into a coma during an event in his tragic past and he was dreaming all of this as he lay dying. But I was wrong. This game has its own twisted sense of comedic reality with no established rules to keep it grounded, and it works quite well due to two reasons. First, there is a series of flashbacks in the game that slowly unveil the details of Boots' tragic fall into the gutter, which serves to remind the player that Boots is a detective and that the main quest is about investigating a great mystery. Second, the random zaniness helps the story from becoming too dark. When you strip away the many bits of humor, you find a tale full of lost dreams and death, with a constant sense of dramatic tension. At one point in the game one of my characters went to rescue a little girl from an area full of death traps. In just about any other tale there would be no tension here, since little girls needing saving by a hero do not die in the majority of Western tales. But in this game I didn't know what to expect as I had already seen characters’ lives tragically cut short. I'm a great cynic at heart, but surprisingly I found myself emotionally involved in the outcome of this short quest. I think that is the most remarkable fact about this game. I can't remember the last time a single game caused me to care so deeply about the fictional people in its world.
VioletShadow: Anachronox uses a modified Quake II engine, which means it looks a bit dated, with blocky characters. However, I don’t think that detracts from the game's enjoyment at all. Personally, I quite like the game's looks and find them aesthetically pleasing. It’s not just the “old game look” nostalgia, either. Characters have many different facial expressions, and small details help portray their unique personalities and their reactions to events, which are usually hilarious. Environments have a lot of detail and feel full of life; inhabitants go about their business (watching them do so walking upside down from a distance due to the city’s artificial gravity is very entertaining), ships can be seen coming and going from outer space in the platform areas, and the different planets you visit have a variety of environments depending on factors such as climate, regional culture and technological advancement.
Deuce Traveler: I also enjoyed the aesthetics of the game, and how each location had its own unique look. The blocky characters looked alright from a distance. There was a limit to the amount of facial expressions the game was able to convey for each character, though, and I found it to be quite ugly when the camera focused too closely on a character's face. One example is the game's opening, where Boots' face is being used as a punching bag by a mafia thug. Despite the use of facial expressions, I still thought both characters looked stiff and deadpan during this sequence. However, the game designers did quite well in their use of camera angles, camera shots, and short bits of music to add a special feel to each cutscene. I can't help but wonder what movies influenced the cinematics in this game.
Deuce Traveler: I found Anachronox's user interface quite familiar and easy to use for the most part. You walk around using the typical WASD keyboard interface, using the mouse move the camera around and to interact with people and objects. The only thing that threw me off was the menu you access when pressing the 'ESC' button. I thought that would bring me to a savegame menu, but instead it brings you to a series of menus and sub-menus which you have to navigate through in order to load a saved game or quit the game. You can only save by finding small winged creatures within the game called 'Time Minders'. You also have the ability use a camera; I had to use a help menu to figure that out, but it was easy enough after some practice. Anachronox contains various minigames, which use the game's standard control scheme for the most part. The only time I ran into trouble was during one sequence in which you find yourself in a space battle firing a mounted weapon. I had to stop the game to find out how to reload after I spent all my ammunition. My only real complaint about Anachronox's interface is the lack of fast travel. I realized at a certain point that I was spending a lot of time holding down the forward key, walking around places I had already cleared out in order to track down clues. Even the much older Ultima IV had moongates for teleportation and vehicles to speed up travel.
VioletShadow: There's actually an alternative method for saving the game besides the Time Minders, which can be enabled in the Options Menu and allows you to save anywhere except during combat. The camera feature was a nice touch and very appropriate, as it makes sense a PI would carry one around. A few times I took pics of things that caught my attention, such as suspect characters and landmarks that stood out, and they later turned out to be clues to side quests. This made playing Boots feel much more genuine, because a good detective would have great intuition, right? As for fast travel, I used the Taxi System in Anachronox a lot. I liked that you had to pay for each trip and since the party was tight on money during the earlier part of the game, you couldn’t just fast travel from the get-go. Later on, it was a big help and saved me from having to run past the same corridors for the thousandth time. The fast travel taxi was not part of the game at release but was implemented in the official 1.01 patch.
Deuce Traveler: The real-time JRPG style of combat usually doesn’t do much for me, since I feel it limits tactical complexity, and I can’t say Anachronox does much to change my mind. However, it does have some interesting ideas. Combat is fought on a field that allows two-dimensional movement, and you can try to move your characters into or out of melee. Ranged combatants cannot shoot through occupied squares, adding another tactical consideration. Sometimes the environment can be used during a battle. For example, you might be able to activate switches that have some harmful effect on your foes. Unfortunately, these environmental factors usually only have a limited effect on the battle, and they're used so sparingly that they're not really a factor at all.
Characters can use melee or ranged attacks, inventory items that can heal allies or damage enemies, special abilities and MysTech. The MysTech system is described in the lore, but for all intents and purposes it is the game's magic system. By equipping MysTech you can do things like Poison the enemy, attack with Fire damage, and so on. Some enemies are more vulnerable to magic, while others may be weak against physical damage, so learning your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses through trial and error is important.
Anachronox isn't a difficult game, with a more-or-less consistent difficulty level throughout most of the game up until the end. In the finale, there are two boss battles. The first I found incredibly easy, while the second was ridiculously difficult. I had no idea what I was even supposed to do to win at first, and when I did figure it out a bug occurred. A certain spherical enemy appeared below the ground, making it impossible to hit, while it attacked my party repeatedly and caused various status effects.
VioletShadow: The "real time with turns" combat system took me a couple of hours to get used to. Each character must wait until a meter fills before performing an action such as moving, using Mystech or weapons, healing, etc. Even though the game can be paused while in combat, it isn't possible to explore any options such as skills off cooldown or movement to strategic positions while paused, since the game unpauses as soon as you click anywhere. As for the battles themselves, they're nothing special at first. A few of the boss battles are fun and allow for some use of strategy. But once Mystech comes into play, combat as a whole becomes much more enjoyable and doesn't feel like as much of a drag. My favorite Mystech is the type that enslaves enemies and makes them turn on each other. The game has difficulty settings, but higher difficulty only increase your opponents' ‘lifetotal’, as far as I know. Since that doesn’t present any real challenge, I played the game on Normal.
Deuce Traveler: Anachronox's main quest is annotated in the game's log, which is pretty straightforward about you need to do and where you should go. However, the game has lots of little side quests that you can easily miss if you do not take notes and pay attention to every person's dialogue. Even minor characters will sometimes casually mention that they are looking for another person or object in an off-hand remark. Later, you may find said object or learn this sought after person's location, and go back to the seeking person for a reward. These optional quests (with the exception of three item collection side quests) are never recorded in your log. I did not solve every quest that I encountered by the time I completed the game, but doing so would have undoubtedly added many more hours to my experience. I liked these side quests because most were connected to tidbits of lore that added more life to the game's universe, such as when the police ask you to take some action in their thuggish and racist bid to keep a certain alien race down. I found that Boots' camera was useful for certain sidequests, as I sometimes took a photo when written notes would just not suffice.
VioletShadow: Interesting and well written dialogue is something Anachronox is definitely not short on. Talking to random people or robots might lead you to a side quest, or it might not. My main motivation for striking conversation was never “Let’s see if this nets me a side quest” but rather “I wonder what hilarity awaits me here”. I liked how sometimes an unexpected NPC would offer you important information about the game world, like when a random man in the slums gives you an incredibly sophisticated explanation of the nature of Mystech. Another way of completing side quests and obtaining skills, upgrades and rewards is to use your companions’ "World Skills" (described further on). Depending on what an NPC wants or what his problem is, it will often be very obvious which companion World Skill is required.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
VioletShadow: Over the course of the game, Sly will be joined by various unconventional characters due to shared goals or circumstance, resulting in a final party of eight. The game succeeds at avoiding boring archetypes and clichés, and the result is a merry band of well-developed oddballs, full of depth and personality and with interesting backstories. Characters all have unique skills in combat, which they either start out with or acquire as you progress through the storyline. They also each have a unique “World Skill” that can be used in specific places and to achieve certain party objectives. Once you come across a situation where it’s possible to use a WS, the game will offer a “seems interesting” cue, but it will not indicate which character’s WS it applies to. To use a WS, the player must beat a minigame. These minigames require some degree of reflexes, but are generally simple and fun to play. The active party consists of Boots and two other companions, which the player is usually free to choose, except for a couple of story missions which can only be completed with certain party members. Additionally, each character has a solo mission, but only Boots' and one other companion’s can be completed in a single playthrough.
One of the peculiar aspects of the game’s design is that even the interface is connected to the story in the form of the Lifecursor, which contains a digitalized manifestation of Boots’ deceased secretary Fatima as well as all the game menus. Fatima is a major character with a very sad but important backstory connected to Boots’ own past, which is revealed as the plot advances. She keeps track of the main quest log and offers advice at crucial points of the game, sometimes showing herself as a hologram. She basically helps counterbalance Boot’s rogue-like and disorganized lifestyle, and despite existing in digital form is one of the most ‘human’ characters.
Grumpos is an eccentric scholar living in Anachronox who used to be the curator of the Mystech Museum and likes to beat people up with a staff that looks like a walking cane. He is the first companion to join the party and never hesitates to give Boots a piece of his mind or hit him with his cane. He actually beat up Sly unconscious during their first meeting and is obviously my favorite character in the game. Although initially setting out to do a simple job for Grumpos, Sly eventually gets caught up in something much greater but decides to stick by him due to being promised the big bucks. The old man’s World Skill “Yammer” involves him talking people’s ears off until they can’t take it anymore and give out info or goodies just to get him to shut the hell up. Using his WS can also get him weapon and skill upgrades. Despite his grumpy personality, he is a very likable character, provides many humorous moments, and his voice acting is superb. He is the brains to Boot’s brawn and a driving force to the game’s main storyline. I believe that towards the mid-end game, Boots had come to like him and consider him a friend. He stars in some of the game's most memorable moments including his meditation sessions at the Pay2Pray, which just thinking about them makes me laugh out loud.
PAL-18 stands for Personal Android Lackey, model 18. Sly got him (can’t bring myself to use “it”) as a birthday gift when he was nine, and PAL was programmed to be his babysitter and friend. He won’t join the party until a couple hours into the game, but when he finally did I felt a real sense of accomplishment. He is charming and adorable with a bouncy, playful, snarky personality. He starts out as Boots’ smart ass baby robot but grows into someone who chooses to prove himself and contribute to his friends’ cause. Despite his wisecracking attitude, PAL seems to have some insecurity issues regarding Cordicom’s newest model, the PAL-21. His World Skill is called CompTalk with which he hacks into data ports. This is one of the most useful World Skills to get extra items and information as well as being frequently necessary to advance the main storyline. He was voiced by Tom Hall and is the cutest character of all.
Dr. Rho is a badass scientist with fabulous hair who is great at analyzing things, has all sorts of crazy devices, and runs around in great style. Did I mention she’s a badass? Yeah, don’t get on her bad side. She used to be the top dog of the scientific community until she published the highly controversial book, MysTech Awake! This predictably caused the community to turn on her and label her a heretic. Being shunned by her peers caused Dr. Rho to not take it personally but forced her to leave the spotlight and rely on private funding to continue her research on Mystech. Her World Skill is, you guessed it, Analyze. The actual mini-game is fun to do but I didn’t find many opportunities to use it save for the scripted ones in the main quest. She is straightforward, intelligent, compassionate and fully dressed.
Stiletto “Sera” Anyway
Probably the game’s least original companion, this femme fatale is beautiful, sexy and she knows it. She doesn’t hesitate to use people’s emotions and play them like marionettes or… kill them with knives, whichever works best. Her backstory is directly connected to both Boots’ and Fatima’s pasts and she joins the party fairly late in the game. Her character wasn’t as well developed as the rest, and I found her a bit shallow, selfish and one dimensional. Her World Skill is ThrowLoonie, which involves a mini-game to get her to accurate hit a target and unlock hidden compartments. Compared to the other companions, she was fairly useless in combat.
Democratus/Paco “El Puño” Estrella
Democratus represents the game’s total embrace of the glorious unconventional. As an RPG sidekick, this companion doesn’t fit into any archetype and is wonderfully unique. If there were a competition for the most unexpected and original party member, Demo would surely win. His World Skill ‘Tractor’ allows you to reach into places you couldn’t otherwise. Paco has raging fists and great physique. He is sort of finding himself again when you meet him. The last character to join the party, he is one of the most useful in combat and his World Skill is called ‘RageMight’. It’s very difficult to give any more details without some major spoilers but it’s not like I need to. When your name is “Democratus” or “El Puño”, it’s impossible to not be kickass.
Deuce Traveler: I cannot add anything else without getting too much into spoiler territory, but I will say that Paco and Democratus were two of my favorite party members, mostly because of the way they are introduced to your group and how they interact with the other party members afterwards. Stiletto was also my least favorite character in the game, which is unusual since I typically like my girls on the bad side. But Stiletto wasn’t just a little wicked, nor was she some sort of amoral realist. She seemed to be a psychopath who liked killing simply because it was fun, and I found myself hoping that she would be kicked to the curb by the end of the game. There were hints that she may have had some greater motive, but I never learned what that may have been since I used her so rarely. My favorite character in the game was Rho Bowman. She was smart, confident and seemed to have a stronger moral compass than any of the other characters except maybe Paco. Whoever did her voice acting also had a solid sense of comedic timing. Unfortunately, I didn’t use her much mid-game, and my failure to do so meant that she became underpowered towards the end.
Deuce Traveler: Characters develop by levelling up, with their abilities increasing in a static manner. There is no way to choose how your characters develop, so the only way to customize them is with special abilities that can be learned through side quests, and by using equipment that modifies their offensive and defensive abilities. Some of the special abilities that you find can make your characters quite powerful. For example, Paco can learn a special area attack, which is much more impressive than the single enemy attack he starts out using. Equipment works the same way. PAL, for instance, starts as a melee fighter, but picks up a stronger weapon later on that allows him to attack at a distance. For characters that I failed to level up sufficiently by the end of the game, I felt that MysTech helped make up for their weaknesses somewhat and so I used them as primary ‘spellcasters’. Still, the more developed characters had better special abilities which greatly surpassed MysTech by the end of the game, especially when it came to area of effect attacks.
VioletShadow: Anachronox's levelling system works well, with party members becoming satisfyingly powerful towards the end but not absurdly overpowered. Each character has a total of four unique combat skills and weapons which can be upgraded from barely working all the way to excellent. I like how the use of each character’s World Skill is integrated into their weapon and combat skill progression, such as Boots finding a combat skill by lockpicking a chest, or Grumpos yammering nonstop until some monk gives him a better weapon. It's possible to buy upgrades from a store later in the game, but exploration and side quests are the main way of obtaining them. Most of the companions can just use the item that unlocks their combat skill right away, but not all. A couple of them require extra steps that make sense in the context of the character, such as Grumpos needing to meditate using the skill item at the Pay2Pray, or Democratus’ upgrade plans having to be taken to the engineer. It works so much better than ‘character leveled up, skills unlocked’.
Deuce Traveler: I'm glad you covered the World Skills. They were very diverse, both in their applicability and the interface for using them. I enjoyed Democratus’ World Skill the most due to its comedic value, and felt that Paco's was the most challenging. PAL's was the easiest, since failure just meant trying again and avoiding the spots that caused you to fail, and they never changed. I'm guessing Grumpos' was probably your favorite!
VioletShadow: Anachronox's soundtrack is excellent; understated yet atmospheric, and never forgettable. All of the tracks fit the sci-fi setting and the different planets and locations that you visit. My favorite was the mysterious, Victorian-like piece that plays in the town Boots lands in halfway through the game. This part of the game is basically the beginning of Boots’ solo mission, which involves detective work, unravelling a big mystery and being reunited with the party members that have been left stranded on the planet surface. The music fits the subplot and the town architecture beautifully. Honorable mentions go to the Red Light District theme and the game’s Main Theme. The voice acting is also outstanding. Although only used during very important cutscenes, it is extremely successful both in delivery and in how well it fits the characters’ personalities.
Deuce Traveler: I have to agree about the voice actors, who seemed to have taken the time to really understand the characters they were portraying before getting into the role. For example, the old man was voiced with an expectedly crackling voice and with a short-tempered attitude, while Fatima comes across as passive and sad as you might expect someone to be in her situation. The combat sound effects were nothing special, with the appropriate thuds and explosions where one might expect. I did like the musical score in some of the cutscenes, like the funky beat that plays when the heroes walk out together in the game’s ending scene.
Choice and Consequence
VioletShadow: The game progresses in an almost completely linear fashion. You have a small degree of freedom regarding the order in which you visit a couple of planets, but I’m not aware that completing one or the other first has any impact on the storyline or game world. Different events that happen throughout the game do have an impact on people and locations that you will see when you go back to those places, but there is no choice involved. There is the freedom not to pursue the main quest immediately, and explore, talk to people or gather info instead, but at some point certain parts of the storyline must be completed in order to advance and that’s that. The only choice Boots is presented with that I recall having an observable consequence happens almost right after the opening cutscenes. There’s a resistance movement going on in Anachronox, trying to counteract the cities’ mounting corruption. Two of their members, Marina and Mardoman, hang out at Rowdy’s which is the establishment where Boots’ office is located and the game’s starting location. Marina will ask Boots to find someone and as you run around Anachronox a guard will ask if you know Marina’s location. Turning her in will result in not being able to continue the Resistance subplot and will have an apparent effect on the Resistance movement itself. Besides that, side quests are optional and the only consequence to not doing them is not getting the money or reward. As far as I know, there is only one “solution” to all the side quests in the game, and whether completing them would have had any consequence in the sequel (such as with the Resistance) is something we will never know.
Deuce Traveler: There wasn’t really much C&C in this game that had any significance. For instance, I did not turn Marina in because I was having an anti-authoritarian streak, but I can’t say the result had any real impact on the game. Part of me wants to say that this was C&C because making these decisions did have an impact on the game world, but when I think about it more I realize that we are really just talking about a bunch of side quests. Nothing you do changes who you will fight at the end of the game, what companions will be available, or what faction wins. So ultimately, make whatever choice you want, because there are no real consequences to be feared.
Deuce Traveler: Let me answer the most important question: Is the game worth playing? I have to say that it is, and I have to thank VioletShadow for suggesting the game to me. I really did not have high expectations going in, and I wasn’t sure I would enjoy playing it, since I usually care more about the gameplay and combat than about the story and graphics. While there were some tactical options in the game's combat system that helped make the experience more enjoyable, ultimately the story and setting are its biggest selling points, and they are done incredibly well. This is a science fiction game with a certain degree of technobabble, but lots of it is actually based on scientific theory, and the game definitely expects a bit of intellectual maturity from its audience. I also liked the characters, and the way in which the story was told. It is a shame that we will never see a sequel, as it is quite obvious that the tale was meant to continue. I finished the game with about half of the side quests done, around the 35 hour mark.
VioletShadow: Anachronox is a wonderful game; weird, charming, unique, and original in its presentation. I’m glad that I chose this game for Deuce and I to play. Despite a bit of a slow start and often repetitive combat, it manages to provide an engaging experience with superb writing, storytelling, setting, humor, music and voice acting. I had a blast playing it and highly recommend it, especially for those with a soft spot for the bizarre and unconventional. Even though there’s hilarity at every turn, the game also explores serious topics such as corruption, bureaucratic ineffectiveness, the infinite nature of the universe and more, and not half-heartedly.