Retrospective: Anachronox

Hall of fame.

What a strange beast Anachronox is. Ion Storm's 'other' game, unfortunately buried at the time by Deus Ex hype and Daikatana-related snickering, is a grand and ambitious adventure with trimmings of Japanese RPG. Sumptuously weird, it's set in a sci-fi world that bustles with imagination, filled with characters that dodge every video game stereotype. It's an unusual, brilliant thing.

I'm hoping its recent appearance on GOG.com does wonders for its popularity, because Anachronox, despite a bit of a cult following, isn't an especially well-known game. Many reviews at the time raved about its wonderful weirdness, but I'd guess the creaking Quake 2 engine put people off. In reality, though, the things it does with that engine are spectacular, the art design working hard to overcome its technical shortcomings, and it still looks fantastic 11 years on.

Beginning on a small city-planet, though regularly heading off on jaunts around different parts of a giant outer-space sphere, Anachronox is the story of an out-of-work detective who owes money to a shady band of thugs - and it wastes no time on expository nonsense as the game begins. Thwack! That'd be a punch to your character's face. Smash and thunk! See that guy being lobbed through his office window and falling to the ground two storeys below? That's you.

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These guys don't like you very much.

It's a wonderful, unexpected opening, sinister yet hilarious, and it paves the way for all that's to come. You'll team up with an angry old man and an excitable robot, and you'll visit a recluse who'll only speak to you if you present him with the pus-filled sock of a man with a gangrenous foot. He likes to chew on such things, don't you know.

Anachronox is relentlessly silly, absolutely revelling in its own ridiculousness. This is a game that lets you invite a planet to join your roleplaying party. News bulletins on data terminals scattered around the city are hives of tremendous jokes, and even the incidental characters always have something preposterous to say.

Remarkably, though, it doesn't rely only on its humour to form its personality: the game world also is one of the most exciting I've ever explored. Anachronox itself is a grand central hub for the game, an impressively large city split into different districts, all buried inside a hollowed-out planet whose tectonic plates shift around every so often. Artificial gravity allows different sections of the city to operate over the top of each other, so you'll stroll round a corner to see people nonchalantly getting on with their lives halfway up the wall opposite.

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Anachronox itself often explodes with a sense of sci-fi cool. It combines a typical neon aesthetic with something a lot weirder. This is a fiercely imaginative game.

Largely speaking, the game alternates between sections of ambling exploration and extended combat-centric missions. You'll do a lot of item hunting, a lot of trekking between characters on other sides of the world and a lot of minor errands that help bolster your savings. It stays interesting, even through an uneventful opening few hours, thanks to the range of environments it invites you to visit, and an uncommon variety to even the most menial tasks it asks of you.

Combat missions drop you into maze-like but ultimately linear maps, around which you'll face bands of various foes in Final Fantasy-esque battles that combine turn-based and real-time systems. Wait for a meter to fill and you can perform an action; whoever gets there first takes the next turn. As the going gets tough you'll employ a number of special skills, but the combat is largely the least interesting part of the game, with excessively drawn-out sequences removing much of Anachronox's pacey appeal.

It's the game's consistency that enamours me the most. You'll flit between snow-covered space-villages and high-tech neon splendour, but the world always feels convincingly alive, all part of the same magical, conspiracy-laden universe. You'll spend an hour doing nothing but talking to people, then an hour doing nothing but fighting, but it always feels like you're working towards the same ultimate cause.

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The game quickly adds additional characters to your pack. My favourite is a grumpy old man whose special skill is yammering people into submission.

Its sense of humour never wavers, and its understanding of dramatic techniques is so frequently obvious. Anachronox is, at its heart, a triumph of storytelling and world-building, and it's a feat that deserves commending.

I don't want to be the guy who says 'they don't make games like this any more' but, well, they don't make games like this any more. You could probably look at the sales figures of something like Anachronox and understand why - it's the same reason Psychonauts 2 would need Notch to fund it, or why we'll never see a follow-up to Giants: Citizen Kabuto. Anachronox is of an age when publishers could still take risks on bonkers ideas, but too many of those ideas didn't see adequate financial returns. Since then, the industry has grown, and conservatism's understandably grown with it.

Lead designer Tom Hall has repeatedly expressed an interest in making a sequel. In fact, Anachronox's story was never intended as a one-off, with work on a second game already underway before the first one's release, let alone before Ion Stormís Dallas office closed later in 2001. Hall doesn't hold any of the rights any more, those presumably still belonging to Eidos, but his suggestion has long been that he'd snap up the opportunity to continue this fabulous space-age tale.

Will it ever come to be? Sadly, there's probably only a small chance. If the decade passes without an Anachronox 2, Hall says he'll lob the rest of the story up on his website and let the dream die a death. I think that would be a waste of something tremendous: a video game where the joy of seeing a world exist, of meeting remarkable people and stumbling upon unthinkable situations, is paramount to its success. I don't want to read the rest of the story; I want to live through it. But failing that, I'd be more than happy to see another game of this ilk. I really hope that could still happen.

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