Another day, another stab at reviving the cooperative first-person shooter formula still championed by 2009’s Left 4 Dead 2. I’ve made it no secret that I feel no love for Back 4 Blood, a recent release that was advertised as being “from the creators of Left 4 Dead” despite all of six employees still at Turtle Rock Studios having actually worked on it.
The Anacrusis, which launched in early access Jan. 13, is far less blatantly imitative – and it’s better for it. Instead of zombies, gamers are tasked with mowing down hordes of aliens onboard a massive space station set in an alternate 1970s.
In some ways, it feels less like horror and more like historical fiction. That tonal distinction became aggressively apparent during gameplay when I found my view obstructed by a field of colorful flowers rather than a cliché cornfield.
But make no mistake, the Anacrusis borrows a lot from the Left 4 Dead series. Hordes of aliens perpetually rush the players punctuated by a diverse set of mutated aliens far more dangerous and bizarre than their common brethren. The four heroes share quips and announce the status of the everchanging battlefield.
It’s also the first game developed by Seattle-based Stray Bombay Co., a small studio fronted by Riot Games veteran Kimberly Voll and Chet Faliszek, the ex-Valve employee responsible for all of the writing that went into the Left 4 Dead series.
I appreciate that while the studio hasn’t gone out of its way to hide Faliszek’s involvement with the Anacrusis, Stray Bombay hasn’t placed that fact front-and-center in its advertising. If Back 4 Blood’s mixed reception has proved anything, it’s that games are best off standing out on their own merits rather than piggybacking on the success of something else.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of the Anacrusis is surprisingly solid for an indie effort. The level design is appropriately varied, guns fire off in a satisfying way and, while it’s a fairly difficult game all of the times I was punished, it felt fair.
There were no insane difficulty spikes, just moments of terror when all four players would be forced to pull together to survive the onslaught. But make no mistake, the Anacrusis is a little rough around the edges at points.
Certain actions are performed with poor animations that look to be placeholders, the characters’ faces don’t emote at all, the voice acting is somewhat mediocre, and some areas look to be minimally designed.
Worst of all, the game’s framerate dropped off significantly at random points during my sessions – I played on an Xbox Series X, so it’s a clear case of poor optimization, not an underpowered system.
But in other ways, the game almost feels like a AAA effort. Cross-play was implemented on Day 1, and the visual style is unique and appealing. The gameplay balance is top-notch, which I count as its biggest victory. And, of course, it’s a ton of fun to play with friends.
It’s a bit cheeky for the Anacrusis to be suddenly sold as a “game preview” or “early access title” after being marketed as a full release. But I also think that it was more prudent to launch the game in “season zero” than to push the game’s release date back by a few months given its mostly polished state.
Stray Bombay has laid out a roadmap for the game’s next year of development, promising quality-of-life updates every couple of weeks – please fix the framerate! – and assuring gamers the last two campaigns will be available in “the second half of 2022” alongside new weapons and enemies.
Count me in. I don’t see the Anacrusis replacing Left 4 Dead outright, but it could certainly join the ranks of similar, moderately successful games like World War Z and Warhammer: Vermintide.
It’s a solid game with a great deal of potential moving forward, especially with the developers already opening the doors to full fan-made mod support. The Anacrusis is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC via Steam and Epic Games Store for $30. It’s also included in Xbox Game Pass.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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