Why did I play this?Why did I play this?

Posted on Jun 27th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under western jrpg, rpg, pc, science fiction, sci fi, turn based


Ion Storm was an interesting company. Its active presence on the market was relatively short, being founded in late 1996 and going belly up in early 2005. For being around nearly a decade there are only two games that most people think of when they hear the company's name. The overhyped and woefully underwhelming Daikatana from Ion Storm Dallas, including one of the most legendary and tasteless advertisements any game has ever had. On the flip side Ion Storm Austin produced the critically acclaimed instant classic Deus Ex. The company later produced a sequel to Deus Ex in 2003 and the third game in the Thief series in 2004, months before closure. Sandwiched between all of these was a game called Anachronox, releasing in 2001.




Anachronox is arguably the most interesting of the games that Ion Storm developed and published, but suffers from a mixture of problems that bring the overall experience down. This game was developed as a melding of East and West. The visual presentation, story, exploration style, and world design is all as Western as it gets. Its combat system is based on turn-based Japanese games, namely Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system mixed with Chrono Trigger's battle encounters on the main map. One major difference involves the game's magic system, which uses technology called MysTech. Characters must not only equip the MysTech they wish to use, and eventually be able to do a bit of customization of abilities, but also another item that gives them the game's version of magic points, NRG. With this type of interesting combination of design philosophies then Anachronox could be a hidden gem that released in the sea of early 2000s PC games, or it might be as disappointing as Daikatana.

Sadly, what seems like an interesting mixture of systems is bogged down by many of the same issues that plagued the entire industry of that era. The game is played in a third-person perspective, which means the 3D camera is the game's worst enemy. The combat system feels extremely slow since the progression of the turn bar is based on the position of the camera, which is slow and clunky. The camera must move into the absolute perfect position based on the game's logic before the bars start to progress, which can take five to ten seconds since the camera zooms all over the place during attacks. Turn-based games are always the most fun when the pace of the battle is controlled by the player. With this system, the player is forced to deal with downtime no matter how quickly they can inputs commands. Since each character and enemy has their own turn bar this just makes the problem worse. However, this camera works perfectly outside of combat, since its movement is tied entirely to the player's mouse control.


Unlike Japanese games combat is not a constant in terms of the gameplay loop. Once the introductory segment is gone through it becomes clear how the game is designed. There are exploration segments that take up a bulk of the time spent in the game. These sections are a marriage of modern and archaic. Major quests are logged in a journal, but minor side quests are left to the player to not only discover, but follow and solve. Even some points of main quests can see a notepad and pen come out to jot a quick note down, since they rely on memorization such as specific numbers, binary inputs, and similar. Combat tends to be limited to specific, dungeon like areas. Progression is also relatively quick. Through most parts of the game it does not take too many fights to gain a level on each character. This keeps the flaws of the combat system to a minimum, and lets the player mentally prepare their self for the next round once enemies start showing up on the map.

The game's greatest strength is its story. The characters are varied and all fairly high quality, but Grumpos is in the running for the best of the old man archetype in gaming history. Each character has their own skill that fits with their personality. The main character, Boots, can pick locks. Rhos, an active scientist, can analyze difficult documents. PAL, the robot, can hack into computer systems. Stiletto can flick a coin to hit specific switches. Grumpos will chew your ear off in a way that only a smart old man can do, and these moments are easily among the most entertaining in the game. You'll hear everything from a failed ranching experiment that lead to the eating of his singing pet, the promiscuity of his sister, typical wailing about medical issues, and plenty of other well executed rants.


The game spent a few years in development hell, and the plethora of issues show as there was obviously wasted development time and resources on poorly executed mini-game segments. There are actual mini-games included in the form of arcade cabinets, the first one the player runs into a Pong and Breakout mixture called Zong. The problem with this game is both the ball and paddle move far too quickly, and after multiple tries the difficulty of scoring more than one point makes the game not worth even playing. There's also a Galaxian ripoff that is the most well designed of the bunch, and its still not worth much more than a distraction for a couple minutes at most. There are also story triggered mini-games that the player is not even forced to play more than once. Its as if the developers knew their own mini-games were too horrible to force the player to complete. The worst one is a first person rail shooter in the vein of games like Sewer Shark. The shooting cursor is controlled by the mouse movement, which is red for most of the time and green only when you are in the perfect position to destroy an enemy. The player must click on a small circle in the lower left corner of the screen to reload their ammo. The problem with this game is the so called perfect position the cursor must be on is completely arbitrary. There were completely stationary enemies with the cursor directly on top of them, and the cursor was still red, which forced the player to take damage. Since hitting stationary targets literally does not work, then imagine how hard it is to hit the more plentiful moving targets? This one should be purposely failed and immediately skipped, the player will save their sanity. These poorly thought out, and horribly implemented mini-games show that the developers were trying to be a bit too big for their breeches. The story forced mini-games could have been completely ignored, and should have been shot down in early design. This could have saved development time, and allowed more work to go into the combat camera's issues.

Anachronox is a flawed game, but not an age flawed masterpiece like Deus Ex. The turn-based combat is horrifically slow. Its far too easy to bug the game out so bad it breaks, requiring a reload or restart to fix. This makes it the perfectly average game for a developer like Ion Storm, which saw the highest of highs, and was beaten over the head with the lowest of lows. The story and characters are the highlights of the game, with it firm roots in science fantasy and film noir, with a peppering of a cyberpunk aesthetic. The fact that combat is so slow makes the game hard to recommend, but if you're not put off by that fact then this is a surely entertaining game that can keep the player hooked. The various peoples in the different worlds are interesting and rather unique. This would be a great game to have remade to modern standards, with the mini-games axed and combat highly polished and made much quicker.





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Comments
 
Awesome.  I just finished playing this game and was lamenting that I didn't take notes while doing so (and thus wouldn't be writing about it).  Thanks for that then.

As for me, I found the story so entertaining that it overcame a lot of the inherent issues the game has that you mentioned (camera, annoying and unnecessary "ATB" battle system, etc.).  There are flaws, but I believe the writing and plot are so tight, at the worst I was merely annoyed (and that was at the slowness of the "ATB" system).  I love that creator Tom Hall sees a lot of this as a love letter to some console RPGs, but I think just ditching it to speed up the combat would really have made the flow better.  The music is also pretty enjoyable, and really brought me into the experience.  It offers a lot of variety outside of the typical "spacey-strings/piano" that sci-fi games normally get, and ventures into tribal, electronic, and jazz at one point.  Maybe not everyone's cup of tea but I believe it complements the general atmosphere and gameplay.  I don't remember ever turning it off.

It really is too bad that Ion Storm died when it did (and really sad that creator Tom Hall has never been able to procure the rights for the game), as I would have loved to see more with these characters and this universe.  I know Hall has said he'll at least finish the story, but I don't really see that ever happening.  It's sad, but Anachronox is more of a forgotten gem than a hidden one.

I also wanted to mention this game is only $0.97 on Steam currently (normally $6).  Personally I like to stick to GoG for digital, but whatever; it's less than $1 USD.  Physical is around $10, though only jewel case is readily available.
Boxed is around the same price but also rarely found.
 
Very interesting. I'd heard of the game, in name only, but didn't know anything about it. It seems like it ends up beig less than the sum of its parts, which is a shame, because conceptually, it sounds cool. Good, detailed review.
 
@MetalFRO: The story is good enough to keep to keep you going, the gameplay is just weak enough to make me recommend watching the movie version of the game posted on youtube.

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