The founders of Ion Storm's Dallas branch wanted their company to be the stuff of legends. While they got their wish, they didn't exactly get it the way that they wanted to. The now defunct studio will perhaps be most remembered for incredibly over-hyped and under-developed action title Daikatana and its dot-com-like excesses, not for making great games.
When Ion Storm's Anachronox didn't even bother to make an appearance shortly before its scheduled release at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show, many thought that this console-like role-playing game was similarly destined to failure. But as it turns out, Anachronox is a very fun game that unfortunately got caught up in the rest of Ion Storm's troubles.
You play Sly Boots, a once respected detective who fell on some hard times and now works out of a storage room over a seedy bar to try to pay off his debts to the local mobster. But Anachronox is much more of a tongue-in-cheek comedy than a hard-boiled detective story, and it's a very funny comedy at that. Your party will eventually include a retired museum curator who can yammer his opponents into submission, a wise-cracking but insecure toy robot, and a mercenary/exotic dancer named Stiletto Anyway. Expect oddball quests to match, like looking for a stinky sock to please a crazy informant or escaping from a prison of real-life former superheroes.
Somewhere in the middle of all that comedy, the game does manage to tell a decent story. What starts out as a seemingly simple task of finding Sly a job turns into a quest of galactic proportions, and the story's well-written with twist that keep it from turning your stereotypical average-guy-saves-the-world RPG plot. Anachronox does start off slowly, and it doesn't help that you can't skip the repeated transitional cut-scenes that appear every time you move from section to section. The pace does pick up after the first few hours, though.
Anachronox looks quite nice, even if it does use a modified version of the many-years-old Quake II engine. But what the game lacks in technical details like polygon counts, it more than makes up for in design and style. Little details like facial expressions during cut-scenes or background animations of your toy robot flicking a cigar (yes, you read that right) give the game an added bit of personality. The cameras twist and turn across the many different sections of Anachronox and other diverse environments, and cut-scenes have a more cinematic feel than is found in many similar games.
Much of the game revolves around the console-like combat, where a real-time "recovery" clock ticks off until one of your players is able to act again. Select from the available character's options to pause the game briefly, and repeat until you've won the battle. Characters have both ranged and melee weapons, and you can move across the battle grid accordingly. Later in the game, you'll pick up spell-like MysTech devices and additional character-specific battle skills. Combat is never particularly strategic, and it's fairly easy on the game's normal difficulty setting, but enough new options and animations are added throughout the game to keep things interesting. The only real downside is that, like the cut-scenes, combat animations can't be skipped, so you may be forced to watch a few of the more common effects over and over again.
Most of Anachronox's quests are either messenger-type errands or optional scavenger hunts that have you finding the best weapons or MysTech slags in one way or another -- don't expect any plot-altering sub-plots like you might find in a more typical PC role-playing game. Some of the optional quests can only be solved at rather particular points in the game, so replaying is almost essential if you want to solve all of them. Depending on your own preferences, you may love the challenge or hate the tedium. The included arcade mini-games may also give you either of the same feelings, although the few required games tend to be relatively simple.
Even though Anachronox took a few years to develop, one still gets the sense that it was rushed to production. The game crashed to the desktop or froze occasionally, one or two side quests were unsolvable without resorting to cheating, and clipping problems on one particular planet had my party walking through walls and off the map a few times. Fortunately, no save games were ever corrupted, and the game installed and uninstalled without damaging my hard drive, so the bugs were not nearly as bad as they could have been.
Overall, Anachronox does a good job of bringing console-like role-playing directly to the PC, without all the pesky problems that are typically associated with a console-to-PC port. It's a shame that Eidos felt that it had to hide this game. With relatively simple combat and a strong focus on story and humor, it's even something that more traditional adventure gamers may want to check out.
-- Jason Strautman