What is it?
Anachronox is one of the few games that developers Ion Storm ever actually released. Unlike the massive hype and disappointment that surrounded their best-known game Daikatana, Anachronox had a relatively quiet time on the shelves. Development began, using the aged Quake engine back in 1997. But by the time the game was released in late 2001, the developers had upgraded it to use the Quake 2 engine. To very good effect, as it happens.
The game is now available on the Sold Out label, rather than from the original publisher, Eidos Interactive. In fact, Eidos's website no longer even mentions Anachronox. This is a shame.
Anachronox is a role-playing game with plenty of adventure attached. It isn't just a sequence of fights with bigger and bigger enemies, though the game does contain its share of combat.
Is there a plot?
Plot? What plot? Well, as a matter of fact, there's plenty of plot. That's what happens when you have a game with seven player characters and a wide range of non-player characters. Seven? Yes, seven! The main character to begin with is Sylvester Bucelli or, as he's better known, 'Sly' Boots. He's a detective. You know the drill; private eye, down on his luck, up to his eyeballs in debt to the local crime boss, seems to have a drinking problem (well, he does live above a bar), desperate enough to take any job that comes his way before the debt collectors start extracting payment in 'un'-kind, if you know what I mean.
From such an unpromising start on a weird tech-planet that used to be occupied by an unknown race of aliens, we travel to a number of other planets, space stations and space ships, meeting, beating and greeting a wide variety of humanoid, mechanical and alien creatures. Including a planet! (I'll say no more on this subject, because I want to leave that one as a surprise for you!)
All of the characters have a backstory associated with them. This succeeds in giving them a little more depth than is often the case. Some of those other characters join Boots in his various quests to, you guessed it, 'save the universe from the forces of chaos.'
How do you play?
Okay, enough with the clichés, on with the game.
As I'm coming to expect from these games, the controls are right hand on the mouse (for the camera), left hand on the 'W, A, S, and D' keys for driving character movement, plus a few other miscellaneous keys for menu functions. When there are multiple characters in the active party (there are never more than three in the current party, even though there are seven to choose from), you switch between them by using the 'tab' key. During a later part of the game, you control three sub-parties, swapping between the sub-parties with 'shift-tab'. As complex as this might sound, I found it worked out just fine, as the level of complexity in party control ramps up gently through the game.
If you're a lefty, there's no reason why you can't swap hands, and have the mouse in your left hand, and your right hand on the cursor keys.
Most of the time, the lead character will run around the environment, although there is a walk option (holding the 'shift' key whilst moving forwards). Interaction with the world; opening doors for instance, is achieved by left clicking with the mouse.
Menu functionality - load game, save game, options menu access, quest goals, inventory and character/party status and so on - are activated using the function keys. F1 leads to the menus that are framed in terms of Boots' Life Cursor - the device through which his former secretary continues to 'live' after the fatal accident that is the subject of one of the subplots of the game.
Inventory is handled in a simple manner - each character can equip five items of weaponry and shields, and all other items are held in common. There are a few inventory-based puzzles, one of which involves the smelliest, greenest, most disgusting-est sock I have ever known.
Each character has a 'World Skill' - lock picking, in Boots' case, computer hacking for one of the other characters. Using this requires a Ctrl-click. The game provides a nice 'Seems Interesting' cue when you come across a place where a world skill is applicable. However, it does not indicate which character's skill it is that's applicable, so the indication can come even when you don't have the relevant character in the active group.
These World Skills require the player to succeed in a mini-game to cause the skill to work. In the case of the lock picking skill, the player has to break a combination lock with the aid of a Sonic Screwdriver-like device. These mini-games require some small degree of reactions and dexterity, and so might cause some players some difficulty. Keep a junior member of the household handy if this should prove to be the case, because some of these are essential to getting through the game, though plenty of them are only used to gain extra healing items.
Combat is handled turn-wise. In any given combat situation, you can only have three party members involved - the controls for more would obscure the screen for action. Each character and opponent gets turns in which to shoot a weapon, use a hi-tech device (MysTech), apply an inventory item, use a combat skill or move. Combat takes place in the same view as the rest of the game, but movement for all participants is limited to a grid of positions in the 'arena'. Each of the characters has his or her own set of unique combat skills and weapons, some of which have 'area-based' effects, but most of which are targeted at an individual.
Having played Gooka - the Mystery of Janatris a few years ago, I found the combat system quite easy to get used to as the systems in the two games have much in common. So much so that, despite knowing I'd selected the 'Normal' difficulty level at the start, the combat seemed very easy for about three quarters of the game, only to ramp up quite steeply in the last 10%. All the same, I found it enjoyable to do, and the graphical effects in combat are rather good.
The environments in Anachronox vary widely from the conventional spaceship interior, to artificial worlds with gravity set in arbitrary directions - like an M.C. Esher drawing. There are also natural planet-side, space station, and hive environments to tickle your fancy. Furthermore, there are lots of mini-games, above and beyond the characters' world skills. These include a space-age checkers game, a Galaga clone, a sequence comparable to parts of the arcade game Descent, and river rapid riding. Some are optional, and most of the harder reaction-based mini-games can be skipped if you find them too hard. I skipped a couple when the option was given to me.
Any other novelties?
The biggest novelties in this game were the wide variety of environments, and the (almost) fair balancing of male and female party characters -- 3 male, 3 female if you count the Life Cursor, 1 other, and an android -- all of which had plenty of opportunities for being involved in the adventuring. All (bar one) of the female characters were decently dressed too! And for the other, the costume made sense. Well. Nearly, anyway.
The Anachronox developers, Ion Storm, are no more as a company, but individuals from the team have continued to provide unofficial support for the game, in terms of community building and the provision of patches. It is thanks to them that, amongst other things, the game can be played on Windows 2000. They've also fixed a number of bugs, and provided a more comprehensive configuration program for the game.
A really nice feature, I felt, was the availability in the shops of comments from the various party members as to the usefulness of particular items. Each team member was shown either facing away from the player, or towards, to indicate whether the currently highlighted item was applicable to them. Not only that, but this feature was subtitled with comments like 'Boots really likes this item', or 'Boots doesn't like this item', to indicate whether an item is better, as good as, or worse than the one(s) already in the inventory. I think this one was underused... or maybe that's just because I didn't spot it until some distance into the game.
As with any product, there were a few things that let Anachronox down. The cut-scenes, of which there are many, some fairly lengthy, all play without interruption. This is good if you don't want to miss anything the first time through, but it is particularly annoying if you have to re-load from a save game just before a big cut-scene.
Due to the graphical scaling method used to give the game more graphical modes, there are graphical glitches around text which I found distracting. Some of the text for some areas of the menus was also small and difficult to read - particularly when examining the details and getting the characters' comments for items in the shops. I've since discovered that by dropping the resolution to one of the more original settings, the graphics look much cleaner.
This has been an enjoyable experience. Anachronox may not feature the smooth, high-polygon count graphics of games in 2005, but the storytelling, the variety of settings, the music, voice acting (which was universally excellent, by the way) all combine in a way that is rarely seen to provide an engaging game. In fact, during a long weekend when my family were away, I found myself playing Anachronox for three days straight, and taking an extra day of leave from work to play for a fourth!
One final warning, however, if you have a problem with running around 'a lot of twisty passages all the same', beware. There are times when you are in location A, you realise you need to be in location B, but you have to spend five minutes running through half a dozen complex sections in between, including several loading screens. I suppose there is always a price to be paid for an extensive, wide-ranging and engaging environment.
What do you need to play it?
- PII 266 MHz (or equivalent)
- Windows 95B/98/ME
- 64 MB of RAM
- 12 MB 3D accelerator card with full OpenGL support
- DirectX 7 (included)
- 4x CD-ROM drive
- Controls: Windows-compatible keyboard and mouse
- AMD Athlon or Intel Pentium III processor
- Windows 98/ME
- 128 MB RAM
- 16 MB 3D accelerator card with full OpenGL support
- DirectX 7 (included)
- 8X CD-ROM drive
- Sense of humor
(I used Win XP, AMD XP 2400+, 512 MB RAM, and ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP)