The Anacrusis Wasn’t Quite Ready For Take-Off.
Landing on Game Pass, Xbox Game Preview, and PC via both Steam and the Epic Games Store, The Anacrusis has officially launched into early access. I’m a sucker for a good cooperative shooter and have spent countless hours slaying wave upon wave of enemies with friends across genre heavyweights such as Left 4 Dead, Killing Floor, and most recently, Back 4 Blood. Naturally then, I was eager to jump into Stray Bombay’s take on one of my favorite genres.
Groovy Space Faring Shootouts
One of the things that caught my eye in the run-up to this early access launch was just how unique The Anacrusis’ aesthetic was when compared to other titles in this space. Set on a stranded spaceship, the visuals scream as though the developers thought, “what if we took the Left 4 dead gameplay loop, and set it on a spacecraft that looks as though it was designed by a group of people consuming some of the finest psychedelic substances of the 70’s”. In a genre dominated by pretty generic sci-fi and horror themes, the curvy architecture and gaudy bright color palette, which was synonymous with the ’70s, really helps give The Anacrusis an identity of its own.
It’s a good job that the visuals do a great job at elevating The Anacrusis because, in many other departments, it’s a title that fails to hold its own against the competition. Granted, this is an early access release, and as such, it would be unfair to expect an experience that is polished and complete from the get-go. However, if The Anacrusis wants to stand any chance of making a dent in an overcrowded genre, it has an immense amount of work to do.
It starts with how slight an offering this is. Even by early access standards, this is a package that is extremely light on content. Launching with only three levels, after playing through each level a handful of times, I felt like I had already seen everything on offer. Levels follow a similar format to some of the titles mentioned above, each divided into smaller sub-levels punctuated by a safe room in between where you can switch weapons and regroup with your team. The main issue is that making it to these safe rooms never feels like an achievement, given the lack of interesting set pieces. Some of my favorite moments playing Left 4 Dead, and even Back 4 blood resulted from making it to the next safe haven by the skin of my teeth, having just survived a crazy onslaught. Safe rooms would feel like a respite from the pressure just endured, and about to be endured again. Not once did The Anacrusis provide these sorts of highs, with none of the three levels ever requiring much strategy beyond making sure your team sticks together to avoid getting overwhelmed by the (admittedly impressive) volumes of enemies on screen at once.
Replay value is lessened further in its current form due to the very limited weapon selection on offer. Outside of the special weapons on offer such as the Arc Rifle and Laser rifle and some neat grenades that can be used for crowd control and shielding your team, weapon selection is limited to a submachine gun, a shotgun type weapon referred to as “The Blaster,” and a plasma rifle which effectively functions as an auto-rifle for longer range engagements. Each feels distinct enough, but the limited selection means that by the end of the first level, you will absolutely have settled on a favorite, at which point, the thrill of replaying the levels to try out new loadouts completely vanishes.
Dropping More Frames Than Enemies
As well as repeat playthroughs feeling slightly redundant, the biggest factor driving me away from returning to The Anacrusis is, hands down, the performance. Look, I appreciate a game launching in early access is never going to be a perfectly optimized experience, but if you’re pushing out a product that people can pay money for, it should at the very least be playable. Unfortunately, this initial launch window has suffered from such extreme framerate issues that many of my sessions had to be cut short as I found the framerate fluctuated to such an extreme degree that I genuinely felt nauseous. To be fair to the developers, they have confirmed that they are working on fixes for this, and their communication has been good, so I expect the performance woes currently bogging the game down to be less profound in the coming weeks.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
So, in its current form, The Anacrusis offers little incentive to stick around to play and struggles to even make playing a pleasurable experience due to the performance issues. That isn’t to say, however, that I don’t see the promise here because I absolutely do off the back of the things which the game gets right.
Hands down, my favorite thing about The Anacrusis is how well the AI Director handles enemy pacing within each level. It’s something that Left 4 Dead all but perfected many moons ago with its near-flawless randomized enemy placement, the AI working in the background to expertly craft organic set pieces through the injection of special enemies when you least expected it. Recent genre entries have really struggled to strike the same balance, with games like Alien Isolation and Back 4 Blood flooding you with multiple special enemies at every corner. Not only does this make gameplay an exercise in frustration at times, but it removes the tension, and sheer terror experienced when these enemies are used more sparingly.
The Anacrusis is perhaps the closest I’ve seen an AI Director come yet to replicating the almost perfect balance that Left 4 Dead struck. Rather than flood you with special enemies, which follow the general archetypes generally seen in similar titles, The Anacrusis understands there is value in keeping the player guessing as to when the next towering monstrosity is about to enter the fray. If the developers can work this system into some more interestingly designed levels in the future, then this will no doubt improve the game’s playability and longevity immensely.
Another facet that succeeds is the randomized perk system which players can take advantage of. Dotted around each map are terminals, referred to as “Matter Compilers.” Interacting with these terminals presents players with a choice of three perks that persist until the end of the level, adding a nice roguelike flavor to each run. The perks are pretty diverse and interesting; some are defense orientated, such as the Adrenaline Booster, which amplifies movement speed and decreases damage taken when using a health pack. Others give more charges to special weapons, and then others buff specific weapons, such as the tracking rounds perk for the submachine gun.
I’ve only scratched the surface with the variety on offer, and it is one of those systems that again, like the AI Director, does somewhat help in keeping runs fresh whilst detracting from the mundane level design and lack of set pieces. The main issue with this system now is that there isn’t a hugely compelling reason to put much thought into your selection due to the lack of challenge presented by The Anacrusis. It’s entirely possible to make it through each level on offer using nothing, only a standard weapon with no perks equipped, which makes putting any kind of stock into the perks you pick up along the way feel a bit redundant. With an increase in how challenging level design is, I think players would be forced to engage with this system in a more methodical and engaging manner.
To conclude, The Anacrusis isn’t something I can honestly recommend in its current state, outside of those with a Game Pass subscription, where you can try the title out at no extra cost. I fully appreciate that the game is in early access, however, if you are putting out a product that is available for purchase, I’m a firm believer that the product should be functional, which I can’t say is the case given the level of the performance issues plaguing the experience.
That being said, between the unique niche the visuals help carve out, the excellent AI director, and the well-thought-out variety of perks, I think the core pillars are all in place here to build something great. With a little more thought given to building engaging levels, and a lot of optimization, The Anacrusis could potentially flourish into something special.