Hall of Fame: Anachronox

Every week we try showcase a game that we're playing, that you should or you should not play.  This is Hall of Fame is, a place where each month we talk about some of our all time favorite games, like Anachronox. You can checkout last month Hall of Fame here.

In the late 90s, a guy named John Romero started a studio in Dallas called Ion Storm.  That studio created the game DaikatanaDaikatana got delayed.  Then it got delayed again.  It went over budget.  Then it went over budget some more.  The game was finally released in 2000, and it was pretty much a disaster.  Since then, the name Daikatana has become synonymous in the industry with “failure.”  Ion Storm Dallas dissolved about a year after Daikatana, but not before they released another game that has since become a bit of a cult favorite.  The game got good reviews despite being unfinished and buggy.  It was essentially a JRPG made for the PC, a market that has no interest in JRPGs, and was poorly marketed on top of that.  Subsequently, that game failed too, serving as the final nail in the coffin for Ion Storm Dallas.  A talented studio joined the scrap heap of history, but not before it left its lasting legacy – a masterpiece of film noir and sci-fi storytelling by the name of Anachronox.

Anachronox is, by far, not the best role playing game that I have ever played.  It was released with a lot of warts, and many of them persist to this day despite official and unofficial patches that have made it more playable.  The areas are too small and loading screens are too frequent.  Most of the combat is a milk run, even on the hard difficulty level.  The series of layered menus that can loosely be defined as an “interface” sucks.  It was a game pushed out the door before it was ready and, at times, stitched together with shoestring and bubblegum.  That’s okay, though.  I love it anyways.  The exploration is terrific and item collection is rewarding.  The tongue-in-cheek minigames are fun.  The art direction is incredible, which is why the game’s blocky, outdated visuals have aged better than any other game of its era.  The soundtrack is wonderful, and the voice acting for the game’s hilarious script is perfect.  Most importantly, Anachronox has what I consider to be one of the best, if not the best, stories ever told in gaming.  At the very least, it is better than anything that I have experienced since then.  It is a story about superheroes, scientists, gangsters, gods, unrequited love, loss, redemption, and, of course, saving the universe from cosmic forces beyond our comprehension.  Combine the humor of Sam and Max with the characters and epic tale of Mass Effect, and you might get something resembling Anachronox.

Anachronox tells the story of Sylvester “Sly” Boots, a down on his luck private detective who is in debt up to his ass and has the local loan shark breathing down his neck.  Sly soon meets Grumpos, a dour, cranky old man who hires him to be a bodyguard for an expedition to recover some mysterious artifacts.  The two of them start off on a quest to make some money, but soon find themselves on an interplanetary adventure, meeting all sorts of colorful characters.  In the meantime, they pick up some additional allies, and this rag-tag group of hard luck cases collaborates on a quest to save the universe from destruction.

Anachronox is probably the funniest game that I have ever played.  Its satire is clever, and none of it seems dated if you play it today.  The dialog is so well written that it is almost flawless.  Even the hundreds of random NPCs roaming the game’s various areas usually have something interesting to say, even if it is just one line of dialog.  If you play the game, then it may disappoint you on startup to learn that only the game’s cut scenes are voice-acted, and that everything else is written dialog.  If that is the case, then you will also find that the quality more than makes up for it.

As funny as I find Anachronox to be, it also resonates with me on an emotional level, as much as any game made before or since.  The story occasionally shifts its tone from humorous to serious, and in doing so it reminds you of what is at stake.  The bad guys are still bad guys, but your companions feel like real people whose lives are worth saving.  As a general rule, everybody and everything in Anachronox feels well developed and fleshed out.  The Anachronox universe is jam-packed with charm, character, and depth, and it is bursting at the seams to share its many treasures with you.  You learn so much about the worlds that you visit by observing people, talking to them, taking in the sights, and immersing yourself in those worlds.  Whereas many RPGs provide background with info dumps and codexes, Anachronox educates you with its visuals, music, characters, and quests.

Speaking of the cut scenes, there are a lot of them and they are wonderfully directed.  As I mentioned before, the voice over work is superb.  Interestingly, none of it comes from well-known Hollywood names or prolific voice actors.  Anachronox’s voice cast is composed almost entirely of people that you probably never heard of and never will.  Lead designer Tom Hall actually filled in some of the key characters.    There is no Jennifer Hale, Nolan North, or Mark Hamil to speak of, yet the cast puts together a performance that is easily is convincing as any game that I have played.   A game like this makes you wonder why games nowadays need to have big names and huge, expensive voice acting budgets when this game did perfectly fine without that luxury.

Anachronox has been met with a lot of mixed opinions over the years when it comes to its gameplay.  A lot of harsh criticisms have been leveled at it, many of them are valid.  Its turn-based combat is short on depth, challenge, and tactics.  Its role playing system has little value, since every character behaves pretty much the same in combat.  Every character has a basic attack, and special attacks that either stun/freeze the enemy, do a ton of damage to one enemy, or damage multiple enemies.  A lot of the combat animations are crude and primitive, even for their day.  With that said, the effects that accompany some of the special attacks are really impressive.  I still find combat to be somewhat enjoyable because of the music and some great sound and visual effects.

The game’s problems were somewhat exacerbated on release by the game’s instability and annoying save system.  Anachronox used a checkpoint save system at a time when virtually every PC game had a quick save feature.  In a few spots, this design decision proved to be a disaster.  One mini-game in particular is very hard, and it comes right after a long, unskippable cut scene.  Every time you failed that mini-game, you had to watch that cut scene all over again.

While it does some things wrong, Anachronox still does so much right.  A lot of developers nowadays could learn from Anachronox about how to make exploration fun and rewarding.  The collectibles are relatively few in number, but valuable when you find them.  Many of the side quests and item collections give you a new power or special attack in combat.  A lot of them involve taking new party members to areas that you have already visited, or getting new dialog in an NPC that you met a long time ago.  Early areas have items that you can’t get until much later in the game.  There are a ton of secrets in the game, and in the few times that I have revisited it I have discovered a few lines of dialog or some items that I missed out on before.

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Each character in Anachronox has a special world ability and can use them in a collection of minigames.  Some of the abilities are standard fare like lockpicking and hacking.  Others are of a more humorous nature.  One character has the ability to annoy the living hell out of people by yammering at them.  Another character can hit distant buttons by throwing coins at them.   The minigames are generally of high quality and they are used often enough without wearing out their welcome.  If I had any complaints about the minigames, it would be that the characters who join you later in the game don’t have enough opportunities to use them.

It is worth mentioning that Anachronox also has an excellent soundtrack.  Just about every tune is perfectly scored to suit the area and the mood that you are in.  Some areas have a laid back, playful theme to them, while others carry a darker, more urgent tone.  Every track works perfectly with where it is placed in the game, and many of them sound beautiful just on their own.  Making great soundtracks that sound unique and identify perfectly with their game is a lost art nowadays.  It seems like only the small indie developers are putting out games with memorable soundtracks, while the AAA developers fill their generic brown and gray action games with generic scores.

Although it wraps up its story nicely, Anachronox was at one time supposed to be longer and even more epic.  A lot of content was cut to get it out the door, and a sequel was planned.  As you have probably figured out, that sequel never happened.  I had given up hope for that sequel a long time ago, but with the rise of indie games and funding sources like Kickstarter, a world of possibilities has been reopened.  Could we ever see Sly Boots and his pals again?  It isn't unthinkable.

When it comes to story, atmosphere, and writing, Anachronox is truly one of the all-time greats.  If you missed it when it first came around or you never heard of it until now, then I can’t recommend enough that you give it a try.  Its rough edges can be hard to overlook at times, but it is worth the effort.  I will warn you though, playing Anachronox can have some negative effects.  Once you realize that Anachronox did a lot of things in 2001 better than games do nowadays, then you may come to the uncomfortable conclusion that storytelling in games hasn't really gotten much better in the past 13 years.   You may find yourself asking why today’s games, with all of their big name voice actors, advanced technology, and massive budgets, can’t produce more compelling characters than Sly Boots, Rho Bowman, PAL-18, and Stiletto Anyway.   In other words, playing Anachronox might make you cranky, so beware.

Well, that does it for this week's Hall of Fame entry. Check back next week as we look at a  game that you should definitely not play.