BEAM ME UP, ZOMBIE
Zombie co-op shooters seem so simple on paper. You just gotta throw a bunch of enemies at a team of four players, toss in some witty banter, and create some replayable levels, right?
Yet, when Left 4 Dead’s creators at Turtlerock tried to revive the concept with Back 4 Blood, all players got was a clunky mess. Now Stray Bombay is taking up the charge with The Anacrusis. It’s Left 4 Dead in Space with a Star Trek veneer as a space cruise liner is overwhelmed with alien face-huggers.
What’s that? Do you want a little more context? Well, I’m right there with you. The Anacrusis is in no hurry to explain itself at all, which is… definitely a choice. There’s no tutorial sequence, intro cutscene, or anything. In fact, even character barkers that give genuinely useful information tend to come up long after I’d had to figure things out for myself.
Maps rarely, if ever, feature clear signposting as to where you should go. If you’re totally new to this sort of game, The Anacruisis is far from the best introduction.
However, if like me, you spent countless hours in Left 4 Dead and similar games like it, then you’re okay. Well, except for the parts where the game glitches on an objective – or your AI teammate decides to try and heal you when a horde is munching down on you. Or if you want more than three guns to use that aren’t just power-up limited use equipment.
Is The Anacruisis a Ship to Wreck?
To be clear, I did enjoy part of my time with The Anacruisis, it’s more a matter of never being able to consistently enjoy my time with it. Some of the previously mentioned flaws are purely a matter of being released in an unfinished state.
To Stray Bombay’s credit, performance on my Xbox One copy improved drastically with the early access launch patch, though it’s still very visually compromised to even run on the system.
The kicker is, once you get past the many hiccups, there is a good game here. It can feel like classic Left 4 Dead but with some great sci-fi twists.
For instance, the grenades are amazing. You can drop goo or create time distortions to slow enemies, create singularity vortexes that spins regular infected around like a psychedelic maypole before exploding, and generate temporary shields that most infected can’t cross. Sure, there are also impact and fire grenades, but those more often lead to damaging yourself or your teammates than it does your enemy.
Not to be outdone, The Anacruisis also throws in some light rogue-lite elements. You can use a matter compiler to enhance yourself or your weapons, such as adding target-seeking shots to your SMB, the ability to overheal yourself temporarily, or carrying more kickass grenades.
I’d honestly prefer that the more unique aspects of the guns be unlocked by default – there’s only three and they’re fairly standard guns – but otherwise, the Compiler’s choices are awesome!
STAY ON TARGET
Another impressive surprise is how good the control binds are on console. Stray Bombay has one of the tightest keybinding layouts ever, even featuring dedicated ping options and push-to-talk without a weird button combination.
However, if you’re playing with a controller, the very first thing you need to do is go into settings. Hop over to controller settings and when you see the Deadzone setting, minimize it to only a few ticks above zero. For some reason, The Anacruisis has a dead zone aiming system like a Wii shooter. The rest of the controls are great, so this is a super weird decision but you can easily fix it.
There are other sci-fi flourishes that really help The Anacruisis stand out as well. Resurrecting allies is a risky move that attracts enemies because it involves beaming them back in like out of Star Trek.
The power-up weapons are all high-tech gadgets like an electro-thrower, laser cutter, and auto-sentry. Even the best navigational elements like anti-grav lifts lean into the aesthetic. These elements beg to be explored further in future episodes, vastly enlivening the experience.
“TUNE IN NEXT WEEK ON THE ANACRUISIS…”
Most notably though is how much of a shift in the quality you’ll feel right now between the campaign episodes. Currently, only three out of the base five are available. Let me save you a lot of frustration – skip Episode One until you’re familiar with the game. I know that sounds wildly counterintuitive, but it’s the truth.
Episode Two is not only better focused thematically, but characters have more spoken lines. The level design ensures we stayed on course, and there are not any blatant eleven-story tall malls to climb with enemies constantly throwing us to the bottom. Hell, the visuals improve, with distinctly more inventive layouts than simply making every wall curved with the odd 70’s decor and a hologram here or there.
For those wondering – Episode Three is a mixed bag, but still not as infuriating as Episode One. Not great, not terrible, just kinda… there. And it confusingly opens the same way as Episode One. It’s to the point I can’t help but feel like Episode One was a last-minute addition. Yet even Episode One’s lowest points can’t hold a candle to the single worst aspect of the game: The Flasher.
Now, most of the enemies in The Anacruisis are good. You’ve got the standard ones from Left 4 Dead – Gooper (Spitter), Brute (Brute), and Grabber (Smoker). The new Spawner is great, as it fights indirectly by creating stationery, weaponized flora that shoots at you while it flees for cover. What’s not great is the other new addition – The Flasher.
PLEASE, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY
The Flasher not only will tank your framerate into the single digits on lower-end hardware, but it’s genuinely painful to look at. Imagine having to stare at the sun while trying to hit a faint outline of a target at its heart.
My friends and I had to look away from the screen at times and let the AI eliminate the Flasher. I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to face off against the Flasher with a photo-sensitivity condition. You might legitimately want to steer clear if you have epilepsy.
Why the developers at Bombay didn’t just make an enemy that blinds you in darkness is beyond me. Every other flaw in the game I can understand. It’s a small team trying to improve upon one of the most celebrated games in years while working on a tight budget. Yet this astoundingly unpleasant enemy isn’t simply present, but a regular enemy type. They go so far as to feature it twice in the announcement trailer.
How did it never come up in testing that this was a bad idea? I rarely say something like this but: The Flasher seriously should be deleted. No nerf is going to improve this enemy type. No one I played with enjoyed fighting it. It provides a consistently less pleasant experience. I’ve had to write three paragraphs out of this entire review just to encompass how bad it is. I sincerely hope that when I’m looking at The Anacruisis’ 1.0 release, The Flasher is just a distant memory.
The Anacrusis is a game I want to love. It has a lot of great ideas, a fantastic setting, and boatloads of potential. That said, it’s a really hard game to recommend out of the gate – if you’re buying it full price. Paying $30 is just a bit too steep for something this rough.
However, The Anacruisis is also out now on Xbox Game Pass for all Microsoft platforms, with crossplay no less. While it means using the Xbox app on PC instead of steam, the prospect overall is simply a better bargain.
So, yeah, if you’ve got Game Pass, give it a whirl. The Anacrusis is never a bad game (provided The Flasher isn’t present); it just needs some TLC. If you and three friends want to relive the glory days of Left 4 Dead, there are far worse options than this. Do yourself a favor though, and come in with low expectations until more updates roll out.