This is an import review of the Japanese edition of Anarchy Reigns (known as Max Anarchy), first published in July last year. We present it again - with a few minor edits to bring the review up to date - to mark the game's release in North America today and in Europe on Friday 11th January.
Anarchy Reigns is one of the defining meetings of boot and arse in videogames. In fact, to say this is a game about kicking arse undersells it. This is the Colosseum of arse-kicking, an arena where huge numbers of arses are kicked with a gigantic boot, and then there's some more arse-kicking to follow. If Anarchy Reigns is only good at one thing, then by God it is brilliant at it.
A third-person brawler from Platinum Games, many of Anarchy Reigns' developers have previously worked on classic fighting games. They all have their moments here, from Cybrid Joe's slow-motion flame kicks to Bayonetta's winning cameo. But there's one presiding spirit. Anarchy Reigns isn't a game that hits you immediately; it takes a few hours to settle, but once it does you realise this is as close to God Hand 2 as we're ever going to get.
Anarchy Reigns isn't the first multiplayer brawler, but there's never been anything quite like it. You're unable to customise your move-set (as in God Hand) or weapons (as in Bayonetta), but instead of one player character there are eventually 18, each with their own style. Basic controls are two attack buttons, a grab, a block, a jump and a 'killer weapon' trigger. The trick is that attacks are timing-based, with moves dependent on pauses between inputs as well as the introduction of things like the killer weapon mid-chain. As the name suggests, this is a weapon like a giant chainsaw that can be introduced to eviscerate someone in the blink of an eye.
Anarchy Reigns introduces a unique rhythm to third-person combat because it has to account for multiplayer. In single-player games like Bayonetta, long strings and beautiful transitions are what you strive to master. But here there needs to be more room for the other party to interrupt. Every character has a 360-degree attack that forfeits a little bit of health but will clear out the immediate area, and these become key against overzealous pokers.
Your guard's an interesting mix, durable against almost any individual blow but vulnerable to sustained pressure and simultaneously setting you up to roll in any direction instantly. Flowing and devastating combos are still a part of Anarchy Reigns, but fighting between decent players tends towards shorter, more explosive flurries.
It's a brutal world online. My first game was against two level 50 Japanese players, who both proceeded to smash my head into the ground again and again for five minutes. I couldn't do a thing. The next couple of fights were exactly the same: I got pasted, absolutely ground into the dust.
After a lot more single-player you learn the way to fight - when to block, when to dodge, when to wait and how you can really put the hurt on when you've got a chance. Anarchy Reigns gives you the keys to the castle from the off, with every character capable of amazing things, but it doesn't spoon-feed you beyond the basics and a few hints.
Getting the hang of all these individual systems and then bringing them to bear on other human players takes a good few hours and a good few beatings. But you'll get there - and then Anarchy Reigns becomes magnificent. The fights it begins serving up go all the way from Rocky-style comebacks to Royal Rumble-style extravaganzas on the top of skyscrapers.
Sometimes it is literally chaos: all you can see on your screen is dust and limbs, a flying truck smashes you into a wall, and next thing you know there's a pole through your head. Sometimes you're in control, and sometimes you're just getting a kicking.
The camera is free, and you can toggle a lock-on that flicks between targets with the right stick. One of the reasons Anarchy Reigns takes a while to settle in your hands is the importance of quickly switching between the two options, because if left to its own devices the camera can lose track of things. That's not to say it has a bad camera system. Anarchy Reigns, especially in multiplayer, depends on regularly switching between free-aiming and focused attacks, and this kind of quick-change is ideal once you've got it down.
The single-player campaign is a substantial one; there are one-off variety missions, like hanging on to a helicopter's undercarriage and shooting as many enemies as you can or dropkicking giant bowling balls through groups, but the game's wise enough to keep them simple, infrequent and to never repeat itself.
The campaign shares its arenas with the multiplayer, and these environments really are something - large but discrete chunks of real estate connected by zooming jump pads, teleporters and airlifts. Crazy stuff is always happening, like rampaging trucks, hurricanes, airplanes crashing, microwave bombardments, and there's even a Kraken in there somewhere. When you jump off a building your character hurtles towards the ground like a torpedo, lands in a perfect handstand that smashes the ground, and springs to their feet.
There are a few issues with Anarchy Reigns, only one of which is serious. Throws can be a real killer online, with some severe latency issues on occasion. It has to be acknowledged that I'm playing an import copy in the UK against Japanese players, but all the same it didn't become manageable until I unlocked a perk that auto-guards against throwing.
More of a subjective issue is the visual style. All of the pizzazz has gone into the combat animations and effects, perhaps as it should be, but Anarchy Reigns lacks the style of a MadWorld or Bayonetta, and there are a few rough edges to boot. That's not to say it doesn't look amazing in places, but you feel the roster in particular could have benefited from looking more distinctive. They boast a varied bunch of styles, but too many share the same visual foundations.
But forget the problems, because so much more is right with Anarchy Reigns. It just never lets up, setting up every type of fight you want in single-player, and quick matchmaking for multiplayer that keeps changing the rules. Online Anarchy Reigns is often built around large team battles, objective-based as well as straight-out bootfests, but things are spiced up with the odd one-on-one cage match and the absolutely mental, mesmeric all-out brawls.
"Anarchy Reigns is exactly the kind of game that 'gamers' say they want: original, high-octane action with bags of depth, plenty of modes and multiplayer. It's all game, all of the time."
In these last, in particular, you can reach a state where your eyes are kind of processing what's happening on the TV screen, but your fingers are moving automatically. It's almost trance-like, a big daft grin spreading out as the hours of getting beaten up suddenly repay themselves and you utterly smash some fool in the chops without thinking about it.
This kind of satisfaction is something only the best action games can deliver, a mental zone where the rest of the world recedes and for a time your focus is absolute. The more I play Anarchy Reigns the more this happens. I'm not going to pretend I know whether this is a 'balanced' fighting game or not, because to be honest I'm not even sure what's going on half the time. But I'm pretty sure it's brilliant.
The sad thing about Anarchy Reigns is that it's exactly the kind of game that 'gamers' say they want: original, high-octane action with bags of depth, plenty of modes and multiplayer. It's all game, all of the time. And yet it has sold pretty badly in Japan, leading Sega to opt for a sub-Ł20 budget release in the West.
The games industry loves nostalgia, particularly when it involves something under-appreciated in its own time. The Dreamcast's posthumous valorisation is like this. And so, criminally, is much of Clover Studio's finest work - especially God Hand, the daddy of 3D brawlers and a total sales flop. Anarchy Reigns already has this whiff about it, the smell of critical success, commercial failure and subsequent cult status. That's a damn shame, and much less than this deserves. But the only thing Platinum Games can control is the quality of its product. In Anarchy Reigns, as ever, it is exceptional.