The last time I reviewed a Science Adventure game, I closed my thoughts by stating, “If [Mages] can get back to what they do well, with mind-bending plots and intriguing characters, they might get me back. Maybe.”
Yep. Here I am again.
Despite my frustrations with recent entries in the series, particularly with the downright offensive Robotics;Notes DaSH, I keep returning for more. I hope against hope that this time, with the knowledge of where they went wrong, they can learn how to do better. Hoping they hit the right buttons in the right order and lead us to something mind-bending and emotional, just like they did with Steins;Gate. In my mind, they haven’t quite hit the correct event triggers since, but even in the worst Science Adventure game, you can see seeds of what used to make the series so special.
Mages appears to be listening to criticisms, and they’ve improved on some of the recent tripe they’ve released, but Anonymous;Code still doesn’t come close to the series’ highs. All the pieces are there, and there are some great ideas and cool set pieces, but it feels rushed and half-baked, causing it to be an enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming experience.
Appropriately, the game places you right in the action with our protagonist, Pollon, and his friend Momo on the run from a militant group. When Pollon miraculously outsmarts his pursuers, he and Momo get a ride from a mysterious driver. From there, the game quickly takes a step back to let us know where we are: Japan, 2037. The augmented reality introduced in Robotics;Notes is everywhere now, and basically everyone uses it to adjust what they see, hear, and feel in daily life. Pollon is a mid-tier hacker who, along with his friend Cross, works to take on small hacking jobs and help people along the way. Pollon eventually stumbles into Momo, a girl in an odd outfit who doesn’t want to say anything about who she is, and they quickly find themselves on the run from people trying to capture her. When they’re trapped, Pollon realizes that he has a new app in his AR—one that allows him to “Load” back into an old “Save” file—and he uses this to his advantage to outmaneuver the people who are after him. Thus, we find ourselves back at the beginning.
Anonymous;Code gets off to a solid start, and I was invested immediately. From here, it ventures into the same wild places we’d expect the series to go: Simulation Theory, AI, time travel, religion, and the end of the world (and every world, this time). Frankly, it’s a bit lighter on the “science” in Science Adventure this time, and it leans into the “fiction” part more than previous entries, but it all makes sense in this case. Anonymous;Code pulls ideas from all other games in the series (though you needn’t have played them to enjoy this game), recontextualizes them, and honestly makes me really excited to see what the future holds.
I’m here for all of that. But for a game with so many wild ideas, they don’t get much time to breathe. I managed to clear Anonymous;Code in fewer than 15 hours, and I wasn’t ever bored. It’s just missing a lot of what made even the weaker entries in the series click: emotional investment. I liked Pollon and Momo, but both of them are remarkably one-note, and I can define their personalities in a sentence. The rest of the characters, though? There’s really nothing to them. Cross is always there to help you out, but I sincerely can’t tell you anything about him. That goes for the rest of Pollon’s crew, too. The villains don’t fare much better, though one younger character does get a few moments to shine.
Anonymous;Code is almost entirely missing the “slice-of-life” elements from previous entries. I think this is intentional: they wanted a faster-paced game this time. But even when they slowed down Robotics;Notes a little too much, it made the ending land beautifully because I was so invested in the characters. Here, my indifference to the characters makes the typical twists and the true ending fall flat despite how mind-blowing its ideas are. It all feels like an outline for a much better, deeper game, but its ambitions seem foiled by either budget or time.
A big part of why the characters suffer is the linearity that the “Save/Load” feature introduces. In previous entries, you have different triggers, whether it’s reading a “Twype” at a particular time or responding to an e-mail with just the right words, that set you off toward different paths. These paths often focused on different characters and helped flesh out the world. This led to a non-linear experience that made your choices feel important, and while the event triggers were often very annoying to get right (at least without a guide), they led to some great overall storytelling. That’s not how it works in Anonymous;Code. Oftentimes, if you don’t load your save at just the right moment, you’re led very quickly to a “bad” ending where you fail. As a result, the whole experience is much more linear, making it go faster but in turn pushing us away from the quieter moments that flesh out the characters.
But the most irritating part of the “Save/Load” system is precisely how finicky it is. On many occasions, I would see the bad ending, back up to the old save, and then press the button at what I thought was the right moment to trigger the in-game load. But if you miss even slightly, you’re back on the wrong path and have to do it all over again. I often found myself reloading and then just hitting the trigger button over and over again to get it, which felt a bit unnatural. The fact that Pollon loudly complains every time you try to load at the wrong moment makes it even more annoying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool idea, and sometimes it’s used to great effect. Most times, though, the mechanic feels misused and more of an annoyance than a fun, organic part of the storytelling.
This annoyance infects other parts of the game, too. Anonymous;Code is the first Science Adventure game to be dubbed into English, which is a great move to help lagging sales numbers in the West. While the English dub is serviceable, it is a little stiff. The characters feel like they’re often speaking at odds with each other, or their emotions are just a little off, which has me wondering whether the dub was a little rushed. The English voice work was never distracting, but it didn’t add much, either. So, you’re thinking, why not just switch it up to the previously stellar Japanese voice work? I tried that, too, and was again underwhelmed. The voice work lacks the spark that helped bring previous entries to life; it’s not too bad, but in a game almost entirely driven by text, it does hurt the overall presentation. The soundtrack is full of the typical excellence we expect from the series, though, with a lot of fun callbacks to the previous entries, so that helps, but it’s not enough to overcome the voice work.
The visual presentation may be the place where the “half-baked” feel is most obvious. For the most part, Anonymous;Code looks a lot like Robotics;Notes ELITE: pleasant animations, crisp style, but without anything that makes it pop like the incredible style of Steins;Gate. There are even several comic book panel sequences when things get intense, which is stylish and ups the ante. It feels like they wanted to make a fully immersive VN experience with the blend of animations and comic book strips, but after the opening hours, the visual presentation suffers because it’s inconsistent. There are often “big” moments where there are no characters on screen or there’s no animation at all, which diffuses any tension or investment. Again, I admire what they wanted to do here, but it’s jarring for some major sequences to be animated and others to have virtually nothing going on.
Does Mages have me back with Anonymous;Code? I think so. That might be a surprising answer given everything I’ve said above, but I can see the bones of what the developer wanted to pull off here. There are some fun moments, and I enjoyed my time with it, but that outline of something better makes it clear that this game doesn’t live up to what it could have been. So, I once again live in hope, hope that the next time I load into a Science Adventure game, I can see their full ambitions realized.