I have never been a fan of Japanese Role Playing Games. Its not that I despise them, but something about the character aesthetics, and stories always turns me off. The only JRPGs I’ve played from start to finish are Final Fantasy VI, VII and Chrono Trigger. That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge their presence however. I can see why people love them. I’ve always been a sucker for Western RPGs though. When I came to know that there was this RPG called Anachrnox that has the best of both worlds, I was intrigued and cautious at the same time. I wanted to try it out badly, but I knew that if I went in with my prejudice towards JRPGs, it’d not be enjoyable. Yet here I am, talking about Anachronox like its one of my favorite games ever. How did that happen? Well, let me fill you in.
Poison From the Past
Tom Hall was one of the founding members of the legendary id software, the mastermind behind the Commander Keen series and has had a prominent hand in titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Rise of the Triad. After leaving id Software supposedly due to the studio’s intention to keep working on violent shooters, and working in 3D realms for a time, Tom Hall, with the help of id veteran John Romero founded Ion Storm. Ion Storm is known these days for predominantly creating two games; Deus Ex, which is widely known as one of the best games of all time and Daikatana, a game fps lovers much rather forget ever existed. I don’t think many people know that Ion Storm also developed Anachronox, or that such game even exists. I have not seen or heard anyone within my circle mention the game for a long, long time.
Anachronox was the brainchild of Tom Hall. Romero and Hall had the freedom to develop any title they wanted. While Romero opted for the time travelling fps Daikatana, Hall wanted something much more intricate and nuanced. Fueled by his love for JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, Hall’s aim was to create a “Western-translated” JRPG . It is said that the name Anachronox came into his head while he was in the bathroom. He defined the meaning of the word to ‘poison from the past’, something that connected the main characters in the game together. The planet-trotting multi-character RPG had a long and exhausting development over 4 years. The concept of Anachronox was bigger than the gameplay and technology available at the time. I’ve read somewhere that prior to development, Hall had created a universe map just for the game’s world. To say that Anachronox was an ambitious game would be an understatement. But there came a point during development that the team realized that in order for the game to be finished in time, they had to cut half the story, with the hope that one day it could be made into an MMO or something akin to an MMO.
Anachronox finally hit the shelves on June 2001 to rave reviews. Sadly this did not reflect in the sales figures and Ion Storm closed its doors the following month. In 2002, Anachronox’s cinematic director Jake Hughes spliced together gameplay footage and cutscenes to create a feature-length, award-winning machinima film.
Something and Everything
Anachronox is a third-person party-based RPG-adventure that focuses its gameplay on exploration, character and environmental interaction and, of course, battling enemies. The battle system of Anachronox is identical to Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, as it allows each character on screen to take a turn one by one. The difference is that the combat in Anachronox takes place in the real-time map, unlike FF VI/VII. It’s also worth noting that enemies do not respawn and some can be avoided altogether. I love this aspect of the game, for I detested the constant random enemy encounters in Final Fantasy VI.
In my humble opinion, Anachronox is the most original work Ion Storm has ever done. Its a comedy, a tragedy, an action movie, a comic book, a superhero fiction, a space opera and a cyberpunk thriller all at once. Its something and everything. The game begins on an alien planet called Anachronox. Anachronox believed to have been created by an ancient alien race as a quarantine zone, is made up of shifting plates that constantly alter the layout and dimensions of the planet. The game starts with Sylvester ‘Sly’ Boots, a washed out private dick who gets beaten to a pulp and is thrown out of a glass window (so much for the 90s macho man trope). You spend the first few minutes getting punched in the face and mocked by various denizens of the planet. Boots soon crosses paths with Grumpos, an aptly named grumpy old scholar, who is obsessed with MysTech. MysTech basically stands for magic in the world of Anachronox. After a powerful piece of MysTech falls into the hands of a gangster, Boots and Grumpos sets on an inter-planetary journey to unlock the secrets of Anachronox and as per what every game demands, save the world.
From the get-go, the game makes it clear that Anachronox is not a particularly friendly planet. Despite the looming dread and alien atmosphere, the game world of Anachronox never falls into the dystopian and depressive territory, unlike Deus Ex. This is where the game’s trademark humor comes into play. Everything in the game world, from NPC banter to conversations, to cutscenes are coated with a fresh paint of humor. The game throws you in dire situations without a glimpse of hope and outright mocks them. Yet, it never becomes jarring or forced.
No RPG is complete without an extensive companion roaster and Anachronox is no exception. The game boasts eight playable characters who form a ‘jagged alliance’ to accomplish a common goal. The alcoholic superhero Paco, the wisecracking robot Pal-18, the planet Democratus (yes one of your companions is an actual planet, and it can be landed upon and explored) are several of the unique, colorful cast of main characters. All come with their unique set of skills and abilities too. They start out hating each other, but throughout the course of their perilous journey, come together and form a unified band of misfits, criminals and all sorts of silly types. I should also mention that Anachronox has some of the most hilarious NPC names ever. It’s also worth noting that every NPC has something interesting to say.
The Devil is in the Detail
In terms of immersion, Anachronox can be compared to Gothic, another excellent RPG I talked about in episode 22. The world of Anachronox feels almost alive, with its shifting plates, great ambience with the sound of machines, computers, NPCs and Vehicles moving around all the time. It’s commendable how every element of gameplay is woven tightly into the narrative. For example, the UI is literally Boots’ long-dead secretary Fatima whom he had immortally digistructed into a ‘thingy’. The save points are some bird-like things called Time Minders who perceive the past, present and future all at once. It is explained that you’re able to restore save states because the birds remember you as such. Crazy stuff, right? Even the combat tutorial is presented in such a way as no not break the immersion, or the fourth wall. Its like what people say, the devil’s in the detail.
Anachronox is a highly cinematic experience, thanks to the use of brilliant camera angles and cinematic transitions. Cutscenes and a lot of the level transitions use cinematic cuts and various camera shots, zooming in or out at just the perfect time or focusing on precisely the right angles to heighten the experience. Even today, when the game reeks of that awkward point in time when 3D graphics was still in its infancy, the cinematic flair of Anachronox remains impressive. It’s just great stuff man.
17 Years Down the Line
I like to think that Anachronox influenced the level design and design philosophy of games like Knights of the Old Republic and to an extent, Mass Effect. Its a shame that much of the game has been left in the cutting room floor, as the ending leaves much to be desired. Although Tom Hall tries his best to revive the game, getting the license back from Squenix is a Herculean task. The game underperformed at launch, sure. But it has a huge cult following in hush-hush corners of the internet. Its one of those titles that has the potential to be fully funded in Kickstarter in under a day, if it somehow ended up there that is. Even a modern remake would do. Nightdive studios, if you guys do justice with the System Shock remake, please consider Anachronox for your next outing.
Anachronox is a one of a kind game. I doubt there is, or will be another game that succeeds in blending and shifting between different genres as Anachronox has. Tom Hall‘s masterpiece shifts its tone, tropes and genres between missions like its nobody’s business. I wish more games tried to be this experimental nowadays. Anachronox is guilty of being made 20 years early. But I’m glad that it did. It’s a seminal title, one that’ll be remembered in the hearts of oldshool RPG lovers for decades to come.
And that’s it for today folks. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I loved rambling about Anachronox. This game deserves all the attention it didn’t get back then, at least from the masses. I’ll be back next week with something extra special. Til then, enjoy the weekend and happy gaming.