Conceived by former id Software and 3D Realms designer Tom Hall, Anachronox is an epic role-playing game inspired by classic console game like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series, but rendered entirely in real-time 3D on your PC, right down to the carefully choreographed cutscenes.
So You're Here To Save The Universe?
The story centers around Sylvester "Sly" Boots, a down-on-his-luck private detective living in a mysterious city called Anachronox, built by an extinct alien race and sitting at the heart of a vast network of "senders" which can transport ships instantly across the galaxy. The game begins with Sly being thrown through a window by the local mob boss as a result of a bad debt, and things go rapidly downhill from there. Planets explode, alien artifacts are activated, and the very existence of the universe itself is at stake.
Gradually you will gather a rag-tag group of oddball characters to help you in your increasingly important quest, including a sentient robot, a maverick scientist and a depressed comic book super-hero. Only three characters can work together at any one time, but you have a pool of seven (including Sly himself) to draw on by the end of the game. Understandably your choice is usually limited to some extent, but all of the characters will get used at some point and each has its own unique abilities which can prove useful both in combat and for exploration and puzzle solving. The interaction between the characters during cutscenes can also be highly entertaining, while some of them have a tangled personal history to uncover.
The settings which you visit are as varied as the characters you meet there, ranging from the make-shift multi-cultural chaos of Anachronox to Sunder's scientific research labs and the inevitable lava world of Hephaestus with its money-grabbing monks.
All of this is handled by a heavily modified version of the Quake 2 engine, and despite the best efforts of Ion Storm's programmers the result looks a little primitive at times. Imagination, excellent level design, intricate texturing and bucket loads of atmosphere make up for this usually, but a few locations are hideously ugly, with huge slab-like polygons, dodgy backdrops and pixellated low resolution textures. As most of these problem areas are towards the end of the game it seems likely that the developers simply ran out of time to polish things up.
One area where the game's graphics can't be faulted though are the special effects, which are in a league of their own. Even the most basic attacks result in a pyrotechnic display worthy of a Jean Michel Jarre concert, and the more powerful "spells" available towards the end of the game are every bit as spectacular as those seen in recent Final Fantasy titles. Gateways open to hideous alien dimensions, unleashing spectral horrors that impale your enemies on chains or fire off blinding shockwaves. Balls of fire rain down on your characters and spin around them like a tornado before converging on their body and exploding in a vast screen-burning explosion. Sufferers of epilepsy and motion sickness should steer well clear of this game.
As in the console games that inspired it, combat in Anachronox is a stylised affair with characters lining up facing each other and taking it in turns to pummel the living daylights out of their opponents with spectacular special abilities, weapons and spells.
Each character has a different speed in combat, which governs how frequently they can carry out actions. When the ring showing their readiness is full, a character can choose to move, attack, cast a spell, use an item or carry out a special attack. The latter drains a seperate reserve known as "bouge" which builds up gradually during a fight. All of this is neatly explained during training at the appropriately named "Whackmaster Jack's" combat club near the start of the game, and once you get to grips with the basics it's far simpler than it may at first sound.
Unfortunately at times combat can get rather repetitive. The glorious special effects which accompany any attack are a little long-winded, and once you've seen the same flashy ten second sequence several times you may start to wish that there was a shorter version to speed things up. And although there is a wide range of monsters and bad guys to fight across the various worlds, some locations rely too much on constant combat with the same creatures over and over again. It doesn't help that you are often forced to backtrack across levels you have already cleared, or that the game sometimes respawns enemies that you killed half an hour earlier when you return to an earlier map. It can all get rather frustrating at times.
There's Bugs Crawling All Over It
What makes this doubly annoying is that Anachronox is one of the least stable games I've played all year, even after installing the ubiquitous patch. It has an annoying habit of hanging up while auto-saving your position during map transitions, simply showing an Anachronox logo without any explanation or error messages. Unless you know how to get into debug mode there is no way to escape from this "title screen of death" short of rebooting your computer.
There is also no obvious way to skip most of the lengthy in-game cutscenes, and coupled with the frequent crashing and save game issues this can prove to be a real headache. This is especially true during the game's grand finale, which features three boss battles in a row interspersed with lengthy cutscenes, and no way of saving your game or changing the equipment load-outs of your characters in between. If you die or the game crashes you can't even use the cheat codes to skip fights which you have already beaten, because this leaves you stuck or hangs up the game entirely. After some thirty hours of playing the game and with the end quite literally in sight, I can't begin to describe how frustrated I am at this point.
Sadly bugs and design flaws like this are all too common in the later stages of the game, where presumably less testing was done. Pointless backtracking becomes increasingly common and combat loses its edge. By the time I reached the game's final chapter fights were more about attrition and patience than challenge and experimentation, as I had amassed enough equipment to heal and resurrect my characters ad nauseam, and developed special powers and magical items capable of wiping out entire armies in a single blow. Apart from the boss encounters there was little real challenge, and the game drew to a close with a whimper rather than a bang. Which is a shame, because the first half of the game is incredibly enjoyable, and the rest could have been every bit as good with a little more time.
And that's the problem. Anachronox was in development at Ion Storm's ill-fated Dallas office for four long years before finally emerging earlier this summer, almost two years late and a few million dollars over budget. A patch was available before the game was even released in Europe, but as the team that created it was kicked out the door right behind the game, the chances of any significant support in future are faint to say the least. It also seems highly unlikely that the planned second part of the game will ever see the light of day, despite the fact that much of the content for it is apparently already done.
This leaves Anachronox as a flawed classic, with moments of true genius marred by bugs and rough edges which could really have used a few more months of polishing.