Lately, I’ve been getting into time loop stories. SyFy’s The Magicians is my favorite TV show right now, and its overarching plotline is bound by a whole bunch of time loops and their complications, such as people from one timeline entering other timelines, some even replacing their departed selves, characters from different worlds where time flows differently, and other shenanigans. Ergo, when I heard about Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns, I wanted to check it out. The game was released in September 2019, but it got a mild renovation earlier this year. With a fresh coat of paint and the promise of a smooth, bug-free experience, is now the right time to give Ann Achronist a look? Let’s find out.
You play as the titular Ann, an 18-year-old homeless girl whose chance encounter with a strange man leaves her with a magic ring that lets her repeatedly revisit one particular day in the distant past. There (or rather then), she meets a vagrant boy named Matt, who’s her ancestor. She then has one in-game day to explore her environs, interact with the townspeople, and set events in motion that could influence her future (hopefully for the better). An in-game day goes by extremely quickly, so the game never feels too repetitive; every play cycle held so much I wanted to do but so little time to do it. Depending on what you do, how much you do, and who you do it with, there are several emotionally charged endings, and it’s possible to see them all in a weekend binge.
The narrative has an identity crisis, though. The prologue and epilogues’ writing tugs at your emotions, even if their bookending storylines are somewhat over the top. By contrast, the middle section (where the meat of the game occurs) has incredibly hokey writing filled with groan-worthy puns and anachronistic pop culture references. This made the overall tone of the game feel inconsistent because I couldn’t tell whether it wanted to be a silly or serious endeavor.
The visuals also suffer that same inconsistency. The prologue and epilogues consist of still pictures with copious amounts of text to read, yet they have the most visually appealing artwork. On the other hand, the middle of the game (where most everything happens) has plainly designed and mundane-looking 16-bit sprites, tiles, and character portraits that don’t match up with the prologue and epilogues’ more lush style. The game doesn’t feature much music, and what is there is completely forgettable. However, as expected, the best composition is reserved for the prologue and epilogues.
Gameplay can best be described as an interactive version of the 1993 film Groundhog Day where Ann repeats the same day in the past in order to hopefully secure a better future. Once you witness one of Ann’s endings, you can revisit the day as the version of Ann you just ended the game with and use her newly acquired skills to open up previously locked avenues in the game. For example, you can only do so much the first time around, since Ann is a homeless illiterate. However, if she apprentices Matt to the librarian, then you can replay as a literate Ann who’ll have more of the town square opened up to her since she can read. The more you play, the more the town square develops. The setting is like a character unto itself, and the more you explore, the more interesting it becomes.
Early runs through the game consist of simplified graphic adventure gameplay where Ann gathers items, locates clues, solves conundrums, and does tasks for people. Later runs using Anns with different skills (e.g. lockpicking) incorporate more interesting mini-games. All of this combined with the short length of an in-game day keeps Ann Achronist fast-paced and engaging enough to either be played in small doses or as a “binge play” for all the endings.
The game saves automatically as you go along, which is great for when you’re getting into the binge. However, I’m old-school and would have liked the option to save manually. I also would have liked there to be more than one save slot. Most importantly, though, I sorely wanted a way to remap the game’s default control scheme, which I found somewhat awkward to use. The WASD + mouse combo is the most logical choice here, but some of the button mappings for alternate commands like skipping text or fast-forwarding time put my keyboarding fingers into uncomfortable positions. And forget about using a gamepad. I tried it and felt like I was driving a car where the steering wheel was at my feet and my pedals were where the steering wheel should be.
If I had to describe Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns in one word, it would be “indecisive.” The game has an identity crisis about what it wants to be, and its dichotomy between silly and serious is off-putting. I wanted more of the artful visuals and heady writing of the prologue and epilogues and less of the uninspired graphics and corny writing from the game’s middle. These two extremes do not mesh together well at all, and it feels like eating a sandwich featuring tasty artisan bread but with a slice of cheap, processed cheese in the middle. Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns is not a bad little time-waster, but it’s difficult to recommend unless you can snag it at a bargain bin price.