Anachronox - Review  

Space Opera for the Rest of Us
by John Boske

20-25 hours


Rating definitions 

   Space. A big bunch of emptiness, liberally sprinkled with stuff. Someday we're going out there to find that stuff. Some of that stuff might have once belonged somebody else, but that won't stop us from using it. Finders keepers, right?

   Such is the setting of Anachronox; a distant future where mankind has ventured into space, thanks to handy lil' devices known as Senders, which warp ships from one end of the galaxy to the other. Who built them, nobody knows. Why they were left behind, nobody knows that either. Why there's one Sender at the center of the galaxy that's so big it houses an abandoned city, again nobody knows. Not that any of this matters to Sly Boots, down-on-his-luck private investigator and the protagonist of the story, who is currently on the receiving end of a beating by a rather well-dressed (if diminuitive) thug. A one-way trip through his office window later, it becomes obvious that Boots is living on borrowed time. Owing money to a certain bigshot gangster, and nagged by his holographic secretary Fatima, Boots picks himself up, dusts himself off, and sets out to find a job before someone throws him from a higher window.

   The sci-fi veneer shouldn't fool anybody. This is a role-playing game through and through, and it has more in common with console-style RPGs than its PC brethren. Throughout the adventure, Boots will acquire six companions, up to two of which can accompany him at any given time. Movement is handled by the traditional WASD layout, with the mouse guiding the camera while the player moves and interacting with the environment while standing still. Combat bears several similarities to Chrono Trigger, with encounters occuring at fixed locations, characters lining up according to their surroundings, and players selecting options (attack, magic, item, etc.) once a sequence meter fills. Though inventory and other menu systems are somewhat cluttered, overall the controls are intuitive and easy to learn.

I call shotgun! I call shotgun!

   Which is a good thing, because the world around Boots is anything but 'simple'. The game is built on the nigh-ancient Quake 2 engine, and pushes it to the fullest. Each of the game's worlds is rich in detail: the city of Anachronox is grimy, full of twists, turns and distinctly alien architecture; robots and ships buzz around the air, pedestrians wander to and fro, grav-paths lead to walkways on the ceiling, a booming voice announces plate-shiftings in distant sections of the city. News bulletins cover the latest in local information, and Fatima helpfully keeps the player on track by listing current mission objectives. Though ill-rendered, NPCs are often distinguishable, the aliens and robots being particularly imaginative, and the main characters are remarkably well modeled and detailed.

   The story and script deserve special mention, for though it indeed becomes another 'save the universe' plot, the writing, directing and acting are far and away superior to most games on the market. Cutscenes are rendered with the game engine, and are directed with all the dramatic flair of a big-budget Hollywood production. Not a line, not a word of the spoken dialogue sounds out of place or off key, and even the written dialogue is generally of high quality, and often genuinely funny. The cast is wide and colorful - from Boots, to his assistant/toy robot PAL-18, to his arch-rival Detta - and they all sound authentic. Hearing Boots and party member Grumpos con a guy out of his sock is worth the price of admission all by itself.

YOu won't feel a thing... until I jam this in your face! You won't feel a thing... until I jam this in your face!

   Sadly, style alone does not make a game, and a few bugs and design flaws keep this from being a must-play. A patch is a bare necessity, and getting it to work on Windows 2K is an exercise in trial-and-error; XP is only somewhat more stable. Unofficial patches by the dev team come highly recommended, particularly for notorious glitches like 'this door doesn't open' and 'battles lock up when you do this' and 'you can't actually finish this sidequest'. Of equal concern is the difficulty. It tends to swing wildly between easy and hard, even in Normal Mode, and some regular encounters may be unreasonably difficult while some boss fights are amazingly simple; meanwhile, minigames range from innocent to annoying, culminating with a rail shooter that lacks crucial direction. The magic system is also unwieldy, with characters equipping objects called Mystech to cast spells. While the spells can be useful, generally they take a backseat to physical attacks, and the Elementor system (which pops up later for Mystech customization) is needlessly complex, and can safely be ignored.

   Although not necessarily a triumphy of style over substance, Anachronox is easily a game that could have benefitted from more time in development. The core systems are intact, and ultimately it's a straightforward sci-fi RPG with the plot of a globe-hopping epic, but even a casual eye will spot the rough edges. Still, at the end of the day Anachronox is a meaty, highly cinematic RPG, and deserves to be played simply due to the strength of its presentation. It's fast-paced, it's funny, it's fun, and it's worth a look for anybody who likes some story with their RPG.

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