Everything about Anachronox seems to speak of epic. Indeed, the development time it went through was epic. The start and, as we all recently learnt, disappearance of ION Storm (at least the part responsible for this game) has been an epic romp as well. This game is easily one of the most recognizable for the FPS community and it is through them I heard most about Anachronox. Anachronox is the city where everything meets; rather like the Sigil of an equally epic game; Planescape: Torment. Conceived when Final Fantasy VII was becoming a cult hit in North America, there is no doubt that Anachronox shares a lot with RPGs from across the pond. Whereas the PC RPG scene has flourished, probably due to extraordinary feats from titles like Fallout and Baldur's Gate, Anachronox seems to play like a world away from the supposed saviors of the RPG genre; at least in the PC arena.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Anachronox is the combat system, which seems to share a bit from the aforementioned FF7. It is a cross between turn-based and real-time action. It utilizes the phased time system, where everyone has a timer on how often they can execute an action. Combat is kept extremely simple and on all but the most difficult settings, does Anachronox actually challenge people. Despite all this, the developers have done away with the mindless 'leveling up' phenomenon. Though care has been put to implement a grand combat scheme; combat really is not the primary focus of the game. The elementor system allows one to customize one's own weapons, through sockets, much like Diablo II. Yet all this is for naught because most of the quests do not involve immensely difficult battles against overwhelming enemies; but rather performing little side quests. Most of your time, especially in the early going, will be spent exploring and interacting with people. These Fedex-type quests get extremely boring. Though they never really disappear later on, (in fact you can always make extra cash by doing them for a series of trader bots), they, in themselves, aren't compelling enough to take on. The only real gameplay fault I found was the slow start. Admittedly, this might be a plot feature to ease the player into the game; a mini-tutorial so to speak but the first segments were an absolute chore to play through.
Anachronox is a blend of various genres, much like another ION title, the critically acclaimed Deus Ex. Yet, compared to Deus Ex, it seems to have far less action and far more story. It too is based on an older engine. This time, it is a heavily modified Quake 2 engine. The developers must have gutted most of this, as everything from 32-bit color to facial expressions is rendered easily on even a mid-end system. In fact, 3D sound acceleration for both the venerable (but technically excellent) A3D and EAX are also available. Anachronox features a plethora of in-game speech and none of it sounds too canned or corny, especially considering the storyline. What charmed me most was actually the ambient music. They are not overwhelming but lend a hand in depicting the entire worlds/planets that you eventually traverse through in the course of the game. The piano interludes on Democratus are very well done; subtle, yet not too intrusive. For a futuristic title like this, I was fully prepared in hearing synthesized techno tracks for hours on end so the variety and range was a welcome surprise.
After many years in development and numerous E3 appearances, people will undoubtedly venture to ask: Is Anachronox a revolutionary game? I'm not sure about the answer to that question. There is no doubt that Anachronox is an excellent game. What has been done with the Quake 2 engine is impressive. The engine weaves everything from the dingy, seedy bars of The Bricks to the sterile space environments of the Sender stations. It easily ranks up there with other heavily modified Quake 2 games like Soldier of Fortune. The dated engine generates some show-stopping visuals including the initial introductory cinematic. The way the game handles lighting, particularly in the Anachronox area itself, is absolutely amazing and made even more so by the fact that we understand the underlying technology comes from something that came out in 1997.
The attention to detail, in both the numerous and humorous dialogue, is testament enough to the developers' passion of creating this quirky but interesting world. Like Deus Ex, there's plenty of written material scattered about, like on SenderNet consoles, to flesh out the entire experience. The characters are memorable as well with Sly's humorous idiosyncrasies taking the lead. Fatima, the personal assistant, is tied in nicely. What more plausible explanation could there be for automatic quest logs than a digitized secretary? PAL-18, the trusty robot sidekick, grew on me and in the end, the characters are colorful enough that some form of emotional attachment is established, very much like the ones I found in the Fallout universe.
Anachronox is extremely interactive. Just about everyone in the game offers you some sort of dialogue; even the very trivial characters that you expect to say nothing. The aforementioned SenderNet consoles help reinforce the idea that you are part of a living, thriving world. One major complaint addressed to Deus Ex was the trivial use of hacking tools or lockpicks. In Anachronox, this has turned into a mini-game in itself. The experience is furthest away from the word trivial. Moreover, this is only but one of many mini-games.
There were problems galore with my running of Anachronox. For starters, I had heard much about the Windows 2000 compatibility problems. I actually had no problems on loading the game up. One good thing about using licensed engines is the trust a gamer can put in the game running. Quake, in general, runs great on my machine and I didn't expect anything less with Anachronox. Though the game is definitely playable, I often
encountered problems in between level loads. With the number of Fedex quests in the game, you will undoubtedly load between different segments of the Anachronox universe. It is during these load screens that often for some inexplicable reason, I am dumped back to the desktop. However, my screen remains on the loading shell and unable to do anything, I'd have to blindly shut my computer down to start it again. Perhaps because of the dated engine, support for current operating systems is scarce. An equally debilitating problem had forced me to play Deus Ex in Windows Me. Needless to say, this problem was not as annoying but definitely not one I want to experience. The new patch somewhat alleviated this and as I write now, I hear there are rumors of another patch coming, produced (voluntarily) by the few that are leftover now in the ION group. As a final note, I was also unable to get Anachronox running with multi-monitor enabled, should anyone be running such a setup.
Being a solely single player venture, Anachronox's longevity rests mostly in the hands of the fans in utilizing its mod system to expand what is being offered. Small steps are being taken with a game like Deus Ex and I recently read that Eidos, the parent of ION Storm, will continue to support the mod community. Without multiplayer these days, it is hard to keep a game going. And without a community, it's simply hard to beckon publishers to sink in the amount of time and money needed to develop something in the scope of Anachronox. The stories behind the creators of this game, at ION Storm, have been connected, by the gaming press, to the story of the dot-com era that has also passed. All new RPG developments seem to be headed towards massive MMORPG endeavors. Games like Anarchy Online are proving that RPGs need not be associated with swords and sorcery. With publishers clamping down on even the most prolific and reputable development houses, the pressure to create profitable products in a timely manner is all-pervading. Yet I continue to believe that there will always be a place for a strong story-based title like Anachronox. While Deus Ex may have found a future, I have not heard much about the future of Anachronox and I would definitely not be surprised if prospects for a sequel appear dim, as it becomes increasingly difficult to fund epic multi-year and multi-million dollar projects.