Note: Originally published 21 Feb 2002
Release Date: 2001
Calling all adventurous adventure players! Looking to try a game that's out of the genre but nevertheless "Adventure Game Player Friendly?" Look no further, my friends. Listen to the sound of my voice, get out a post-it, write this name down and stick it to your credit card:
A N A C H R O N O X.
You want adventure? This game has it in spades. You want characters? This game's characters could support a raft of sequels. You want story? Anachronox tells a story worthy of a rich, complex science fiction novel. You want humor? This game has a galaxy of funny. You want pretty pictures? Don't even get me started.
It's hard to know where to begin to talk about this wonderful game.
Let me first tell you that this game was supposed to be a disaster. It was developed by Ion Storm, the Eidos-owned subsidiary of Eidos. And before you say, Hey! Didn't Ion Storm create the spectacular Deus Ex? Yes it did, but that was that was the Austin-based, Warren Spector-led Ion Storm group that is now basically doing the work that Lookinglass Studios left off (they're currently cooking up Thief III and Deus Ex II. . . at least they were until Ion Storm's continued existence came into jeopardy recently . . . but that's a different article) No, Anachronox was made by the Dallas-based Ion Storm team. Yeah, the same guys who made the now-legendary-disaster Daikatana, the Heaven's Gate of recent games.
Add to this the buzz I kept hearing at E3 last year. I kept scouring the huge Eidos area for signs of the game - nada. The scuttlebutt was that the game was a train wreck and they weren't going to let it stink up the showroom floor.
It turned out the joke was on the naysayers. This is one honey of a game.
What kind of game is it? The designers attempted to adapt the structure of a Japanese anime-style RPG (Final Fantasybeing perhaps the most famous example) and give it a decidedly American flair.
The game's main protagonist is that mainstay of B-movies everywhere, the down-on-his luck detective. This particular detective is named Sly Boots, and he lives on the very strange world of Anachronox, which is a hollow sphere constructed by a long-vanished alien civilization some time before humans (and others) discovered this, and a whole network of abandoned worlds and promptly moved into them.
As the story begins, Sly owes the local political boss money, and this gets the story rolling. I can't even begin to describe the gigantic plot that unfolds in this game, but it includes the reawakening of a long-dormant magical substance called "mystech," and how this development literally threatens the very existence of our universe.
But don't get the wrong idea. Anachronox is a very good-spirited and light-hearted game, and this is evident from the very beginning. The Japanese-style RPG format may well be unfamiliar to many players, but this problem is taken care of by the fact that the very game cursor itself is a person, albeit a dead one. She's Fatima, Sly's deceased secretary, whom he had digitized after her death. She's your guide in the game, and she takes you by the hand and teaches you how to play the game. The learning curve is gentle and very user-friendly.
The character-development in the game is nothing like that of D&D-based RPGs. Through the course of the game you develop a team of seven characters, though only three can be active at any one time. These characters are already set, and while you can develop them by gaining experience and better equipment, you're working along a preordained track. The abilities and skills each character can acquire are pretty much set in stone.
This doesn't matter a bit, though, as it's a delightful septet. In addition to Sly, there's a grumpy old Grumpos, a mysterious sort of archaeologist; Rho Bowman, a feisty and iconoclastic scientist who thinks she's on the verge of a major breakthrough regarding Mystech; PAL-18, a robot valet; Stiletto Anyway, a buxom and very dangerous woman from Sly's past; and two very strange characters I'll mention a little later.
There is a lot of combat in the game, but nothing that should scare adventure game players. The combat system is a bit strange - it's not actually real-time and it's not actually turn-based. But as it does in all areas, the game provides a seamless way for you to learn the techniques of fighting. And the battles are so easy I probably only had to play two or three of them more than once in the entire game (and that was on the Normal, not the Easy, setting).
What distinguishes Anachronox is the fact that the entire game feels utterly drenched with an infectious sense of fun and good gameplay. Every corner of the game has fun things to discover. Even the Options Menu, for example: When you pick the "Easy" setting, you see a graphic of Sly facing down a fearsome bunny rabbit. The game is full of hilarious dialog, frequently from completely unimportant characters. Example: in a shuttle station there's a character sitting on the science-fiction equivalent of one of those luggage dispensers at the airport. When you talk to him, he simply says, gleefully, "I love the way this thing vibrates my butt."
The storyline is consistently innovative as well. In addition to the vast underbelly of Anachronox itself, you get to visit several other planets, space stations, and space ships. Every one of these environments is teeming with life, and the populations and environments are wildly diverse.
In a game full of highly imaginative twists, two truly stand out. First there's the fact that one of your party members is a . . . planet. Yep, you heard right. A planet. Second, during one ill-fated jump through hyperspace, Sly and his team get pulled in by a huge Villain starship. This starship is from a famous "superhero planet," and for this sequence the entire format of the game changes to that of a comic book. You also end up with a party member who's a superhero (albeit a washed-up alcoholic superhero). It's an inspired bit of silliness, and it's just an example of the various ways the game remains fresh through the very end. There are dozens of minor examples, such as the fact that you can gain experience points by properly voting in a local election, and you can make money by dancing in a gay bar!
Graphically, the game is just plain gorgeous, from the very first areas of the game, which introduce Sly's neighborhood inAnachronox in all its eye-boggling, Escher-esque challenging glory. The colors are lush and the characters themselves are truly convincing.
The characters are so vivid, however, that the game has occasional moments that transcend what a game should really be able to do. There's an interesting non-player character, a flying alien who's a wry, amoral informer. The character is so beautiful visually, and performed by the voice actor so convincingly, that it gives his part of the story unusual weight. At one point Sly asks him how he comes by so much sensitive information, and at which point the alien answers by languidly flying out of site and saying, "You'd be amazed, Detective, how seldom people look up." It's a lovely, bittersweet scene, and it's one of my all-time favorite moments in a game.
In short, this game has everything that adventure gamers are supposed to like: A fantastic story, great characters, beautiful worlds to explore, fascinating puzzles to solve, and lots of great humor.
After thinking real hard I can only come up with one criticism of the game: Limited save slots. This is a pet peeve of mine in any game. What's so hard about giving me unlimited save slots, damn it? Even that much-hated feature so common to console-type games - the limited ability to save - is a feature that can be turned on or off in the Options menu. Yep, there's just not much to complain about.
Eidos, Ion's Storm's parent company, did an even worse job of promoting Anachronox than UbiSoft's unforgivable fumble with Myst III: Exile. Despite the fact that it's been winning all sorts of awards (including Best Story - from any genre - from GameSpot), it didn't sell well at all. Which means you can probably pick it up cheap, sports fans. So what are you still reading this for? Get thee to a software store. Trust me, you'll thank me. Play this game. Right now.
If you liked Anachronox:
Read: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
See: Sorry, I can't think of a single movie that reminds me of this game.
PII 266 or equivalent
64 MB RAM