The Pleasures and Pratfalls of Anachronox

Trying to define Anachronox – my most recent virtual excursion – usually results in an Escher-esque series of dichotomies. Mindlessly frustrating yet ceaselessly entertaining. A dazzlingly elaborate world held hostage by a combat system slower than the framerate on this little doozy from the Sega Saturn days. Engaging characters beset by a system not quite advanced enough to develop meaningful relationships. Anachronox is littered with dissonant parts, leaving me as conflicted about this 2001 release as any title in recent memory.

A disheveled detective, Sly “Boots” Bucelli, is thrown through a window the opening scene of the game. Boots falls towards the camera, gradually panning out to show this shell of a man trudging towards a bar. Seemingly not his first trip here based on the bartender’s warm welcome, Boots takes his place among the plethora of aliens lining the poorly rendered counter. Witty (no, really, it’s witty) banter ensues.

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Some of Anachronox’s delightful cast

Maybe it’s the blocky, endearing facial animations or the wildly creative yet mildly disgusting environments (by modern standards), but I’m captivated. Boots (lets forget this is the worst nickname before Muscle Hamster came around) is entertaining in a Han Solo archetypal role. Cutscenes remain in engine, allowing creative camerawork that masterfully accentuates comedic or action beats as well as any game I’ve played. The world feels fully realized without becoming bogged down in excess lore requiring tedious onscreen reading that’s usually about as fun as watching paint dry. The presentation is sterling, I’m all in. Then gameplay started.

I generally set the speed of battles low in the beginning of any new RPG until I’m familiar with its intricacies. With this mindset, Anachronox’s plodding pace was not too aggravating initially. Unlike other titles however, combat continued at this molasses-like speed throughout the adventure.With a unique animation for every attack, combat becomes so sluggish I could barely stand another minute by the time I arrived at the enormously frustrating (understatement) final battle. The ATB style system incorporating movement seemed fairly straightforward. Turns out I was right, combat was mind-numbingly straightforward. The introduction of powerful Mystech attacks seemed promising, but fail to provide any additional depth beyond superfluous theatricality.

The beleaguering battles deterred my motivation, but I couldn’t stop my trek through the captivating world. I traveled beyond the oftentimes esoteric puzzles that comprise gameplay outside of combat. Beyond the fruitless backtracking in hopes of finding some obscure key item hidden on the darkened floors. Beyond the uninteresting minigames (that’s suprising…) required to hack and pick locks among other menial tasks. Yet Glaring weaknesses only highlighted Anachronox’s strengths: dialogue, story and characters, all of which nestle comfortably into my gaming soft spot.

Outside of Portal or some Double Fine games, Anachronox is the funniest game I’ve ever played. Dialogue that produces gems like “womb sausage” make every conversation worth entering. With a cast sporting a man named Grumpos, an indecisive planet and a washed-up superhero, it’s hard to remember a more ragtag group of adventurers that remained as enjoyable throughout the experience. The story advances with new mysteries and twists, but the emotional core of Boots and Fatima, his deceased secretary turned virtual snarky assistant, emerge as the most intriguing element.

Their relationship seemed tenuous, but the slow roll-out of their past was handled deftly and naturally emerged through the story’s progression. Mildly predictable yet delightfully presented, the final reveal left me satisfied but saddened. Creating a self-contained story that also sets up a possible sequel is never an easy proposition. Although a follow-up will most likely never come, the lofty expectations for Anachronox at the time made a new entry a distinct possibility. This concept warrants a grander discussion at a different time, but it’s hard to define the ending as anything but wildly disappointing.

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The set up for a sequel that remains only a pipe dream

From the Fatima development to the gradual discovery of the universe’s mysteries, the entire story line is predicated on carefully paced reveals. Drip by drip new elements slowly heightened drama, character relationships and my own curiosity. Effective storytelling seemingly disappears in the finale as the game rushes into a pointless series of attempts at shocking twists meant to set up a sequel. Instead, it results in an embarrassingly ineffective final boss that emerges without any previous set-up. Feeling no satisfaction for destroying this meaningless foe, as the credits rolled I felt myself returning to the one emotional concept that resonated with me: Fatima.

Initially Fatima’s transparency seems to define her. She’s merely a virtual secretary constantly jabbing Boots for his destructive habits; her influence seems minimal, a shimmering hologram grasping at the material life she’ll never regain. Yet she remains an omnipresent force. Defining characters in part by their gameplay functionality seems shallow, but games warrant a different type of analysis than other media by virtue of their interactivity. Fatima is a cursor onscreen, she’s a menu system to manage items, she’s a compilation of information whose necessity remains hidden as players gradually forget her overwhelming permeation of every decision.

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The saddened secretary of Boots, Fatima

Her relationship with the player mirrors that of her own connection with Boots. She seems ancillary, a moral foil for Boot’s roguish persona who is usually shrugged off at every opportunity by Boot’s arrogant personality. Even as players learn of her spurned love for Boots that led to her death, Boots remains resilient in his blatant disregard of this woman who effectively runs his sorry life. Like players, Boots realizes Fatima’s enormous influence only after her death. In the most poignant scene in the game, it’s revealed the disheveled, downtrodden Boots risked his own freedom to recover his lost secretary in virtual form. It’s up to interpretation whether this was done out of guilt, love or desperation, but no matter the motivation, this scene helps demonstrate that despite Fatima’s transparency she remains the most human of all the characters.

It’s impossible to play Anachronox without imagining the possibilities for this game on modern consoles. Idle chatter between characters breaking up the monotony of backtracking. A more intuitive, exciting battle system saving atrocious combat. Advanced graphics making an already inventive world that much more enjoyable to explore. Beyond my fantastical dreams for a modern entry, Anachronox quickly became one of the most challenging games to critique. Like Fatima, there’s far more beyond the darkened surface of Anachronox. A deeper examination reveals a world rife with racism, class issues and shades of dictatorial practices. These issues remain societal accents however, fringe concepts subservient to the necessary gameplay. My qualms about the game’s central elements won’t disappear, but I’m happy to know that the legacy of Anachronox will forever be the captivating characters and brilliant story moments that became my life for the past week.

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