A definitive style can make all the difference for a game in a crowded genre. Compare the two recent contenders to the Left 4 Dead co-op shooter throne. Last year’s Back 4 Blood relied on nostalgia for the original game’s zombie-filled streets, but that choice only made it more obvious where the game stumbled. New Early Access release The Anacrusis changes things up with hordes of alien opponents and a groovy vibe that is eons away from the gritty modernity of Valve’s shooter. It’s not without its own set of issues, but developer Stray Bombay seems poised to work out the kinks and come ahead in the long run thanks to a strong foundation in their first release.
One thing that will likely come after The Anacrusis’ Early Access launch is expanded lore. As it stands, each of the game’s three episodes starts out with a video that explains the objective of the levels ahead as well as some basic story beats. Sure, you don’t need too much prompting to blast alien monsters, but it’s remarkable how little setup The Anacrusis has before throwing you into the action. There are some great story-related reveals hidden in the levels thanks to incidental character dialogue, but those conversations are randomized, so anyone who wants to absorb what’s going on may have to go through these levels multiple times with just that in mind.
While repeated playthroughs sound like a daunting task, don't worry. That's what The Anacrusis is designed for. Just like Left 4 Dead, Stray Bombay wants players to discover new aspects of each level as they complete the game with different friends or try to blast through at a record pace. The AI works in the background to ensure that no two playthroughs feature the same enemy or item placement, and that magic trick still works just as well as it did decades ago. While the three episodes initially appear to all be the length of a standard co-op shooter campaign, only the first one really achieves that. The other two have fewer levels than you might expect, although they still end in chaotic over-the-top engagements.
Story means nothing in an FPS if there isn’t solid gunplay to back it up, and The Anacrusis is most of the way there. Each weapon fills a role well and feels satisfying to shoot, although I do wish that the arsenal was slightly bigger. There are less than five basic weapons to choose from and only a pair of more powerful armaments and a deployable turret. The guns can lack a big punch since they’re all laser blasters, but the various grenade types more than makeup for that. From basic incendiary and explosive throwables to a gravity-defying vortex grenade, there’s always an opportunity to make a big move against a horde or blow up an AI companion who’s standing in just the wrong spot at just the right time.
Speaking of NPCs, The Anacrusis has bots that can best be most charitably described as unhelpful. The most they can do is pick off the basic alien-infected humans and heal their human-controlled comrades, and they have a tendency to freeze up and stop moving at least once during a run. This can break up the momentum considerably, as The Anacrusis features many sections where a full party needs to stand in one place to move forward. Several times during my runs, the most sensible thing to do was to trek back to where the bot planted its feet, shoot them in the face, and then respawn them back where they were needed. This is all doable in a more casual multiplayer setting, but it makes single-player runs a real chore.
Whether in single-player or multiplayer, The Anacrusis definitely feels like its Valve-made inspiration, but with a few small tweaks. While the shooting is enjoyable chaotic, the lack of a sprint function and a melee swing is awkward to anyone who regularly enjoys the genre. Instead of shoving away the alien scum, the four survivors have a force field that can push them, and there are some unique perks to power that up. It's an interesting change from the norm, but I still missed the ability to bash a single enemy's brain in with some sort of physical implement.
Most of these issues are fixable in the months ahead, and Stray Bombay seems to have a good plan in place for expanding what’s here into a more fully realized experience. What’s important this week is nailing that ideal four-player co-op scenario, and I think The Anacrusis really does that in spades. Like the best co-op-centric experiences, it’s easy to find lulls in the action to chat up friends, leaving you vulnerable to “special infected” like the giant Brute or a wave of rolling enemies summoned by the Spawner. The game also doesn’t feel particularly difficult thanks to generous respawns and powerful weapons, letting players of all stripes jump in with their more skilled companions. It would be great to see some sort of difficulty options in the future to better scale the action to all types of players, but this launch version will be fun for anyone interested.
Even beyond solid gameplay, The Anacrusis’ best feature is its visual flair. Despite taking place in a space-bound future, this is a world solidly set in the days of disco and far-out spectacle. Outside of a happy few games, it’s rich territory that hasn’t really been explored in the gaming sphere, and Stray Bombay takes advantage of that fact. While the visuals aren’t going to blow away anyone expecting a AAA blockbuster, the minimal character models and colorful environments capture that bygone era. The select moments when the campaign fully commits to the aesthetic are some of the highlights of the whole package, and I hope things get even more trippy as the game jets towards its full release in the months ahead.
TechRaptor previewed The Anacrusis on Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. It launches into Early Access and Game Pass for PC and Xbox platforms on January 13, 2022.