Let's Play... Anachronox!

Anachronox, Casinox area

Let’s play… Anachronox!

Anachronox is a 2001 American JRPG for the PC, developed by Ion Storm. It’s an RPG made by Tom Hall, that guy behind Deus Ex, one of the founders of id Software. A JRPG, you say? Only on PC, you say? Indeed, Sir – this is an odd one.

So, let’s get to it! A dear fluffy friend has graciously lent me the game on 2 CDs. Installed. Patched with the 1.02 Build 46 update. (I think there’s another unofficial patch that might fix some of the issues I’ve experienced.)
After some twiddling of the settings, I find it runs properly in a window without any hacking. I almost expected some timing issues, as with Deus Ex, but thankfully not.

The game has three difficulty levels which primarily affect the amount of damage taken by and dealt to enemies; another issue is saving. Saving is handled like a console JRPG and requires that you find save points, unlike a typical Western RPG where you can save via the menu almost any time in the game. If you choose to play on Easy, enemies deal less damage and you can save anywhere, while Medium and Hard will both require you to save at ‘Time Minders’, small alien creatures placed strategically around the world. I’m playing on Normal, so regarding my appraisal of combat: YMMV.

Let’s start… We’re greeted by a view of space, then a rather impressive fly-through of Anachronox. The city was once the home of aliens, but they died of some horrible disease, so now we’re here with some other aliens. Killing ourselves with our own horrible poisons. It’s a great city, 10 murders at a festival seems to be a record low, and the districts of the city actually move themselves on some schedule set by the original builders. Oh, and some streets are upside down, using gravity-reversal fields. Not strange at all. There’s definitely elements of ‘Super Huge’ design here, as was common in the early 2000s and late 90s: buildings are impossibly large, objects are massive so you can see them easily (and so their detail isn’t lost on lower resolutions), and as with other sci-fi games the primary building material isn’t concrete, but metal.

Romantic, isn't it?Pretty soon we see our hero, Sylvester ‘Sly’ Boots, a washed up private investigator. And now, a flying investigator – the opening sequence shows him flung through the window by a debt-collector, landing in a filthy bar. He’s… not your typical hero. So it’s our job to take control of the situation, get him a good case to investigate, along with the help of his dead secretary. Poor Fatima has been digitized and stored in a floating ‘Life Cursor’, which is also the player’s way of interacting with the game. You’ll run around with the usual WASD keys from a third person perspective, but interact by pointing the life cursor and left-clicking. This is just one of many things that make Anachronox feel like more of an adventure game than anything else.

It looks like a 2000 game. Makes me think of Deus Ex a lot, Boots may even be a more comedic take on the Serious Susan protagonist DE. The sound suits the game very nicely, it’s quite a bit like the original Hitman’s score. Lots of spacey, soothing pads, the occasional electronic beats. Dark and mysterious, but anything but oppressive.

Anachronox, battle booty results screen :D LEVEL UUUP!

After going through some tutorials (woven into the story and delivered by NPCs, not menus or video tuts) we find Boots working for Grumpos Matavastros, the first NPC to join our party of merry persons. He’s a… well… a bit like The Prospector from Toy Story, crossed with a dwarf and a hair stylist. He wants to get down into some tunnels to find alien artifacts. Getting to the tunnels is pure adventure and takes me about an hour at least, but the tunnels are purely a monster dungeon. I’ve not had very much combat up to this point, but I manage just fine. Despite being a JRPG, I haven’t been grinding at all. Enemies spawn on the map when you enter an area, and you must fight them to move past. Once they’ve been defeated, you can safely traverse the area – no respawns while you’re in the same location, but those enemies will be back if you revisit it later. This is pretty painless, and fights seldom require more than 2 hits per enemy, making for a technically speedy battle system – if only the engine played along… Sadly, the camera is just buggersome. Actions in the game seem to be tied to the camera, so when the camera has stopped moving, the action is complete. The problem comes in when I attack an enemy, then have to wait an additional 5 seconds after the animation has stopped, for the camera to stop moving. It’ll slooowly come to a halt behind my team after what seems like ages of it creeping along. This brings to mind the problem of “If I have to walk 2 miles, and every step I move 50% of the remaining distance, I will never reach my destination”. This doesn’t only crop up in combat: sometimes when stepping off elevators, you’ll wait a while before you can actually start moving again, as the camera is doing microscopic movements to align itself perfectly behind Boots. I hope this is addressed in the unofficial patch, assuming it exists.

Combat is semi-turn based. Each participant in a battle will wait for his/her/its/their meter to fill up, then he/she/it/they can attack. You can also use some skills, these are unique to each character. Items used in battle are shared.

Anachronox battle against 5 monsters/monstwhores

Still on the topic of grinding and combat, this is definitely not a forced-grinding game like many JRPGs. You are able to grind, if you perhaps want to gain an edge over opponents, but it’s unnecessary. The amount of enemies you are exposed to, in the course of adventuring and solving quests, appears to be enough fighting to level up sufficiently to face the next level of threats. Also, as with the JRPG format, character growth cannot be controlled and everyone levels up stats according to a predefined curve; the primary way of personalising and enhancing your character is through equipping new weapons and accessories. Very item-based approach, much like an old Final Fantasy game.

 

Now that I have Grumpos in my party, I can alternate between Grumpos and Boots. The rest of the party will caterpillar along behind the leader, and you’ll have access to special abilities as the leader. For example, when controlling Boots you will be able to pick locks, and Grumpos can violently trash talk people to confuse them. Besides this, different active characters can elicit different dialogue from some NPCs. Talking to a certain character as Boots got a pleasant greeting and a bit of random trivia, but Grumpos was told off for being a creepy old man; this makes me want to run around talking to everyone again whenever I get another NPC :D

Anachronox Party Shot

Dialogue is excellent. Despite the rather dodgy animations (a limitation of the technology, I suspect. Quake II engine doesn’t even have skeletal animation, unless they added it for this…), cutscenes are nicely executed with decent timing, which is essential to the game’s many comedic moments. For example, seeing Boots and Grumpos yammering away as they advance (rather gingerly) on an almost-amputee to ask him for his pus-soaked sock.

Also interesting is the photography element. A bit like Beyond Good & Evil, Boots can take photographs of things, both for solving cases, remembering visual clues (like taking a photo of a list of tenants and room numbers), and collecting photos of special objects. Early on you’ll get a collect-’em’-up quest to photograph all the Anachronox symbols in the city. It’s also worth noting that you have a limited number of slots to store photographs in, so some economy of clicking is necessary. Sadly, the default F11 key for activating the camera is rather obscure and doesn’t promote being snap-happy but there haven’t been any instances of photo targets running away from me yet, so it might not matter. Later games like Beyond Good & Evil take photography further and use it frequently on moving subjects, and Bioshock started a trend of using photography to ‘research’ bonuses against enemies. This wouldn’t have worked in Anachronox as you cannot activate the camera in combat, but I suppose you could take photos of enemies before you get in range to start fighting.

Beards vs Ponytails. Pageants of the future are a killer.

The point & click interface brings adventure games to mind, and so does the emphasis on cutscenes, dialogue and problem solving. Combat is really just a distraction, a pleasant way to get down and dirty in between running around investigating. Battles never last too long. The meat of the game is in the story, character interactions, and the puzzles. Early on you’re led with a carrot on a stick, but things get more complicated soon enough. Plenty of backtracking to see how areas are changed and unlocked, handing in quests, etc., which could have been tiresome, but isn’t because of the brisk movement and surprisingly easy to navigate game-world – the starting world of Anachronox may be labyrinthine by design, but after one trip around you’ll find it a breeze to get from one place to the other, thanks to clearly marked signs and unique area designs. Realism be damned, this game has made everything feel different; a serious approach to a place like Anachronox would be as miserable to play in as it would be for the residents.

This really begs the question of ‘what is an RPG if not an adventure game with combat?’. Is an RPG just a way of defining a certain progressive model for character progression and semi-tactical combat, with no implication of story telling or actual ‘role playing’? Or is an RPG meant to be an adventure game with some combat and numerical character development as a complement for what’s happening in the narrative? Anachronox is definitely the latter.

It’s a really fun game, and very long (from what I hear). The characters will delight you and disgust you, and the scenarios you’ll find yourself in are all suitably adventurous, and just silly enough to be funny while still serious in the context of the game. It is, after all, a game where you can fight alongside a planet. I look forward to playing more!

Assorted Favourite Fun Scenes So Far Include, But Are Not Limited To (a.k.a. AFFSSFIBANLT):

  • The aforementioned sock scene.
  • Waking up your pet robot PAL-18 and having him freak out about you leaving him offline for over a year.
  • Everything Fatima bitches about, especially that she’s “still dead”
  • Encountering Prof. Visser and Van Dijk. I’m sure they must be a reference to something, but I’m not sure what. Apparently our names made it to space, though.
  • A museum curator who thinks the museum’s prize collection is nothing more than ugly alien art, and that nobody has reason to be interested in it.
  • An alien fruit vendor whose fruit is… for display purposes only. “Do not touch the fruita! The fruita is for display only!”
  • A protester breaking the 4th wall “If you doubt me, listen to yourselves! Try and say anything besides the one or two meaningless lines you have been granted!”

I think there's something in your hair, old man

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