Retro-futurism is one of my favourite things. Seeing what people thought the future would look like in now decades old science fiction is so revealing of the time in which is was created, conjuring visions of gleaming optimism or grimy despair for our future. Out in PC Early Access and Xbox Game Preview (and Game Pass!) today, The Anacrusis lands somewhere between; an idyllic swinging sixties style of futurism that’s showing signs of wear and ultimately falls apart as an alien menace suddenly emerges. What I’m trying to say is that The Anacrusis is Left 4 Dead by way of Space Channel 5.
The game is set upon a huge starship on the edge of explored space that has suddenly found itself swamped by an extra-terrestrial threat. These are the face-hugging kind for the most part, completely incapacitating the ship’s population and turning them into mindless hosts, but a handful of survivors remain – Nessa, Guion, Liu and Lance. They’re a diverse bunch, which is always nice to see, and you quickly pick up from their incidental dialogue that they’re not that well equipped to take on an alien invasion by themselves. They’re going to try, though!
The Anacrusis follows a lot of the standard co-op shooter traits ingrained in the subgenre’s well-worn formula. Each episode is broken down into stages that are bookended by safe rooms – in this case well-stocked airlocks. The whole ship has been overrun by aliens that act like a zombie infestation and you’ll have to battle your way through the pretty mindless throngs that are just milling around until you disturb them.
That would be far too simple though, and a devious AI director works in the background to spice things up from time to time. This means throwing hordes of enemies at you as well as more than a few special aliens that go far beyond the “thing on a human body” design.
There’s a few Left 4 Dead tropes with the big lad Brute, the long-distance Grabber, and the Gooper that will slow you down and fix you in place, but things get more interesting from there. The Spawner creates ball aliens that roll around and unfurl to shoot at you like some kind of Droideka, while the Flasher isn’t an alien that shows an inappropriate amount of skin, but rather one that fills its surrounding area with blindingly bright light that makes it difficult to make out what’s going on. Perhaps my favourite enemy in the game is the Egg (or “Babies” as we started calling them for some reason). Acting like the Witch from L4D, they don’t react until triggered, but when they do? Hoo-boy! You better be ready for a flood of impossible-to-deal-with spiked balls that roll toward you and fill your entire view of the world until you die. They’re so overpowered they can absolutely wreck a run. They’re the best. Good eggs.
Dealing with all these enemies means using an arsenal of weapons that might be appropriately sci fi, but feel a bit bland to use. They all come from a brand of ‘pew-pew’ laser guns that just isn’t particularly interesting, even if they will send the regular enemies flying or take them out in a couple of quick shots.
The Anacrusis almost makes up for this by having an array of fun grenades to throw into the hordes. The Stasis grenade slows anything that moves through its bubble, which is a godsend when dealing with Brutes, while the Vortex grenade sucks everything in toward a mini black hole and then spits them out again. There’s also special pick up weapons that can arc electricity through closely-packed throngs, place a defensive turret, and more.
The highs and lows of the weapons are echoed through some of the level design. As cool as the kitschy 60s sci-fi vibe is, the opening stages of the first episode just feel like running down a series of similar feeling vibrantly coloured hallways. It takes a bit too long before you get to step out into something that really feels completely different – a huge artificial garden under a fake sky. After that point, it continues to riff on similar themes, though there’s more and more signs of how damaged the ship is becoming through the invasion.
There are some fun set pieces thrown in that do help spice things up, like holding off waves of enemies in a blaring disco, the first episode’s climactic battle on the bridge of the starship, and some fun times with sluices – this game’s a shoe-in for the Best Sluices GOTY 2022 award – though some levels come in feeling like they’re a bit on the long side.
Part of that is also down to the AI-driven difficulty. The Anacrusis falls into the same trap that Back 4 Blood did of throwing too many special enemies at you in combination for a sudden difficulty spike. The balance is currently a bit off for enemies like the Gooper, which is able to repeatedly stick a player in place just seconds after they have been freed, especially when a team is struggling to deal with a string of half a dozen specials. It’s also a bit much when the same enemy type spawns in multiples or in quick succession. They don’t really feel so special anymore at that point…
As The Anacrusis heads into PC Early Access and Xbox Game Preview today, it’s clear that there’s some way to go before it can go toe to toe with Back 4 Blood, Vermintide and Left 4 Dead. Of course, the point of Early Access releases like this is for a developer to get players invested, get their community’s feedback and make adjustments while growing the content. There’s potential here, and I hope that Stray Bombay can grow The Anacrusis into a great example of the co-op shooter at its best.