Anachronox is the swan song of developer Ion Storm. Although they crafted amazing titles like the Deus Ex games, the fiasco that was Daikatana did them in. Anachronox was purported to be the start of a series, but poor sales and a lack of money meant that Ion Storm had to close its doors. This is too bad because Anachronox is a fantastic game that I'd kill to see a sequel to. I never thought that an American RPG on the PC from 2001 would give me what I've been craving from a Japanese console RPG in 2008. In fact, I think Anachronox even surpasses some of the best console RPGing that Japan has to offer, and that is no mean feat.
The console RPG nature of Anachronox is both its asset and liability. Console gamers who enjoyed RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII (two of Anachronox's biggest influences) will fall in with it rather quickly. However, PC gamers used to more sandbox RPGs like The Elder Scrolls probably will not take as well to it. Really, if you have played games like Final Fantasy VII, Anachronox's gameplay should feel familiar. The game also has a lot of graphic adventure elements that are quite enjoyable as well.
The familiar RPG trappings are all here. You explore towns, talk to people, buy items and equipment in shops, traipse through dungeons, fight battles, and all that good stuff. The turn-based battle engine works like the Active-Time Battle system in Final Fantasy games, where each character has a meter that fills up over time and the character can perform an action once it's full. Basic actions such as normal attack, special attack, MysTech (the game's equivalent of magic), use of items and the like are all present. In addition to the regular formula, you are able to move to a different spot on the battlefield during a turn to either dodge a potential enemy attack or move a character within attacking range. Battles are fun, but I would have liked an option for a fixed camera; the moving camera made battles look more cinematic, but sometimes made enemies hard to keep track of. The magic system is fairly robust if somewhat twiddly. It starts out simple enough where each party member can equip a single MysTech stone which offers the use of a single type of spell at different strengths, but eventually, the Elementor system comes into play. Elementors are special pieces of MysTech with slots in them that you can put various colored beetles into to use magic spells. Depending on the color and level of the beetle, some slots can become connected to create combination spells. It's very much like the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII. I tended not to use the Elementors very much, preferring to use the simpler MysTech stones, but having these kind of gameplay options is very nice. Tweakers can spend hours working out Elementor combinations and non-tweakers can sit pretty with the simpler MysTech stones.
When exploring new places, the denizens do not always make progression easy for our heroes. Instead of an NPC just telling you where to go and what to do next, you need to work for your information in Anachronox. This is where the graphic adventure elements come in. Not only do you have to pump information from and do favors for people, but each character has a "WorldSkill" that he or she can use in certain situations to meet objectives and get ahead. Some WorldSkills include a robot's CompTalk skill where he can interface with and hack into computer data ports, a detective's ability to pick locks, and others. My personal favorite is an eccentric old man's "Yammer" skill where talks a person's ear off until they cave in and volunteer information just to shut him up. In order to engage the skill, an interactive mini mini-game needs to be done, and they're usually fun and simple. Anachronox has a bunch of more substantial mini-games scattered throughout the game and they're all nicely designed, fun to play, and offer a nice break from RPGing. Some mini-games, like a first-person spaceship shooter into a planet-sized insect hive, need to be completed in order to advance the game, but if you crash and burn on those mini-games, the game often gives you the option of skipping that mini-game section and moving on. Why can't more RPGs do that?
The keyboard and mouse interface works fine with the game, but there is no gamepad support. Using software such as XPadder, Joy2Key, or the keyboard-to-gamepad button software that comes with some LogiTech gamepads can remedy that. Still, some aspects like exploration feel more intuitive to me with the gamepad, and other aspects like menu navigation, are more comfortable with a mouse.
Saving is usually done at save points, though there is the option of anywhere saving as well. Save points occur frequently and the game even auto-saves periodically so there is no fear of losing one's progress. Before starting a new game, one of three difficulty levels can be selected, so both challenge seekers and easy riders will be satisfied. All in all, control and interface are fine in the game.
The game uses a modified version of the Quake 2 engine, but although the graphics are not exactly cutting-edge and both player and non-player characters look slightly blocky and the backgrounds become pixilated close up, the game still looks solid and aesthetically pleasing to me. The various alien races in the game all look unique and believable. The character designs for the cast are nicely done, especially their expressive faces. Monsters faced during battles are also uniquely designed and there is no palette swapping. What I really like is the creatively designed worlds. The futuristic locations look high-tech without looking sterile, and the more organic locations look appropriately organic. The cinematic cutscenes use the in-game engine and are directed nicely, especially the ones that incorporate elements found in comic book panels. To sum up, though the graphics will not compare to games of 2008, they still look good to me and the overall creative design of everything gets a thumbs up.
I quite like the sound in the game. The music is nicely understated yet never washed out or forgettable. The music that plays while exploring various environments is atmospheric and suits its respective locations perfectly. Battle and boss themes also tend to be quite understated, but never boring and also fit the context of the game. In fact, there are a couple of battle themes that I simply cannot get enough of. Sound effects in the game are solid, particularly during battles. The crowning jewel in the game's sound is the voice acting. Voice acting is only present during key cutscenes, but all of it is excellent. The actors all deliver their lines expertly and the voices fit the appearances of the characters perfectly.
Story is a big reason why many of us play and enjoy Japanese console RPGs. Unfortunately, many people believe that the storylines presented in JRPGs of late have become stale retreads. Fortunately, Anachronox did not fall into that trap. It has a terrific story that's more original than that of your average JRPG. Its futuristic, outer space science fiction setting is more favorable to me than typical swords-and-sorcery high fantasy. And I'm not going to lie, it's pretty nice to play a console-style RPG whose cast does not include a whiny, sullen, spiky-haired, amnesiac teenage pretty-boy who takes himself way too seriously.
The main character in the game is Sylvester "Sly Boots" Bucelli, a down on his luck private detective who owes money everywhere, but has not had a case in a long time. Back in the day, Sly was a hotshot detective in a nicer neighborhood, but is now bottom-feeding in a dystopian slum called The Bricks. While Sly's out doing a few odd jobs for various townspeople to try and pay off his debt to a mob boss, he eventually winds up taking on a fairly substantial job for Grumpos Matavastros, an eccentric old man with the ability to "blabber a person to death" (to quote the instruction manual). Grumpos' task quickly becomes something greater than either he or Sly expected, and a reluctant Sly is caught up in a whirlwind interplanetary adventure with some weird old guy who's promising a massive payout. Sly's quest takes him to many unique planets with equally unique alien races, and though the future of the universe is the main thing at stake, Sly's past also comes back to haunt him (in more ways than one).
Sly is joined on his quest by a motley crew of funky characters. Some of the characters include a heretical scientist, a self-aware toy robot, and a fallen superhero. They may seem a bit nonsensical at first, but they make sense in the context of the Anachronox universe. My personal favorite character in the game is Fatima Doohan, Sly's virtual secretary who is with him from the get-go. She's rightfully unhappy about her lot in life, and though she provides helpful information to guide Sly on his way, she's not shy about accompanying said information with biting sarcasm and insults. The instruction manual is worded as if she herself wrote it and is fun to read.
This leads me to what makes Anachronox's story so good: the writing. The beautifully written dialogue is very clever, often very funny, and gives the people in the game plenty of personality. Other writing in the game, such as the notes Fatima puts in the quest log, are also written with sharp wit. The game is not all laughs, though - there are some thought-provoking aspects to the story as well, such as theories about the finite yet infinite nature of the universe. Basically, Anachronox proves that a video game storyline can be smart without being pretentiously philosophical, be satisfyingly complex without being obtuse, and be funny without resorting to immature slapstick and toilet humor.
My only complaint with the story lies in the ending. Although Anachronox's ending is sufficiently lengthy and resolves some important plot points, it still leaves off with a massive cliffhanger. It feels like only two-thirds of the story has been told and that our heroes still have a lot more questing to do. Normally I would fault a game heavily for this, but Anachronox is just so darn good that I can overlook this normally glaring fault as just a minor hiccup. Despite being a cliffhanger ending, I think Anachronox's ending is actually more satisfying than the final endings of many RPGs I've played in the past. Ion Storm intended to continue Anachronox and potentially turn it into a series, but the studio dissolved, and no matter how much I may cry and beg for a sequel, I don't see one happening. This is too bad, because not only is there plenty of material to work with for a sequel, but there is also plenty of story surrounding Boots' past that could make for a great prequel.
Simply put, Anachronox is an awesome game that I found charming, witty, intelligent, fun, and easy on the eyes for its 25 hour (or so) duration. I could tell that this game was lovingly crafted to the very end (the final dungeon is a hoot to play). The game is notoriously buggy, but a pair of official and a pair of fan-made patches took care of that and I played it with virtually no issues. The game is obviously out of print, but as of this writing, used copies can be found all over the Internet, often for under $10. If you're like me and enjoy console-style RPGs but are getting jaded by the rehashed console RPG offerings coming out of Japan, give Anachronox a try. I'm really glad I did, as it proved to be the shot in the arm my jaded self needed to restore my faith in console style RPGing.