My friends and I bought Anarchy Reigns cheap recently for something different to play multiplayer. It’s certainly different. We haven’t really played much of it yet and all I do is complain about how much damage I’m taking when I play it (#maturity). It’s enjoyably baffling, obviously bonkers but pretty frustrating. In an attempt to get to grips with the controls and systems better I played through the campaign. Here’s what I thought.
Anarchy Reigns is a sequel/prequel/interquel to MadWorld on the Wii (I have it waiting to play so I haven’t looked up the connection) so for a lot of the story I couldn’t tell if I was missing information because I hadn’t played MadWorld or because it wasn’t given to me. But it’s a Platinum Games game (<3) so honestly it could be either. The storyline is some balls about two different characters that are trying to catch up to a third character for reasons that are never fully explained and with fantastically unearned high-emotion scenes. The whole tone of the campaign is like a 12yo who’s still young enough to play with action figures but whose older brother has shown him Robocop and Die Hard. And, as with so many Platinum Games, I can’t tell if they realise this or not.
The characters fall into a similar vein. They’re all very big and very colourful. If you read colourful as racist and stereotypical. But there are stereotypes from a bunch of different cultures. The Black pimp (really) character is outrageously racist but so is the Japanese Ninja. The women are all stupidly sexualised and the men are all ridiculously buff. So it’s really hard to judge how deep the satire is meant to be, if there is any. Or if it’s just lazy or if Platinum’s entire catalogue is a deliberate exercise in absurdity. The characters aren’t much worse than anything in Street Fighter, but I don’t think that excuses the game. But then there’s the fact that the antagonist, Max, has a surprising amount of personality and depth. And his facial animation is really odd, but good. Then they do very little with the character and I end up more confused. Platinum seem to have a commitment to transhumanist settings (look at Vanquish and Metal Gear Rising Revengeance) and the character designs are actually pretty stylish and memorable in while maintaining a consistent cyborg style (and a division between rich and poor modifications that works really well). I’d love for them to tell a half-way fucking decent story in one of those settings.
Anyway, the story isn’t interesting. Anarchy Reigns is a sort of a brawler/hack-and-slash game. The combat is what’s come to be known as a God of War game, but there’s really very little exploration or story so it’s not completely in that vein. What sets Anarchy Reigns apart is that it was designed with…lets say “the possibility of multiplyer” in mind. So it’s meant to be a God of War game that you can play competitively. I think this is a noble experiment, regardless of the outcome, and I think it gets a lot of stuff right. It was also released at a budget price so it’s easier to forgive some of the short-comings. One thing about the game that’s absolutely gorgeous, though, are the animations. The moves, the stances, everything is great. The combat has the standard weak/fast, strong/slow 2-button combat. The combos are simple and meaty and gratifying to land. You can hold down the left trigger to switch to a massive alternate weapon that does huge damage but depletes a meter that is quickly refilled by landing (vulnerable) standard attacks. It’s a nice idea and the balance between finding the resources to do the heavy attacks without exposing yourself too much is really good. There’s a nice little delayed timing move that everyone has (that I first saw in El Shaddai). The block is robust and the evasive rolls are alright. There’s a really nice “takes a while to learn” quick-rise button and there’s the obligatory Rage Mode or whatever that builds up as you fight. The lock-on system is a bollocks, though; it’s mapped to left bumper and it’s a toggle but it’s really hard to change target and it’s disorienting as soon as your target isn’t locked on to. The big omissions from the combat system compared to something like a God of War are counters and the ability to cancel weak attacks into evasive rolls. I think both of these choices are made in order to make it viable as a multiplayer game, since it needs to be viable for heads-up between equals. And if everyone could dodge and counter the way you can in God of War, no-one would ever get hit. And I think for the multiplayer, it might work, but in the campaign they really feel missing.
The campaign occupies a weird space between completely tacked on and earnestly included. Some of the production is really cheap (what should be cinematics are reduced to Metal Gear Solid-style talking heads) but there are some spectacular cutscenes as well. The levels are repurposed mutliplayer arenas, but the game is very up-front about the idea that the campaign lets you learn the maps (and it did). But the fact that it only lets you have the stripped down, balanced combat of the multiplayer works against it. It very quickly becomes repetitive as there no progression or variety in the weapons. (Although I think God of Wars progression and variety is excessive). There are also larger damage sponge enemies that show up later on, but they’re a chore to fight because you can’t cancel the weak attacks. So it means that you have to fight incredibly conservatively because just starting a weak chain of attacks on a stationary foe can easily lead to you unavoidably losing half of your health. So instead of being able to respond to enemy attacks and roll away you have to never have done them in the first place. It reduces a lot of the fights to adopting one of two behaviours: either stay way back, dodging until you see an unmistakable opportunity, or have enough meter to either spam the special-attack stumbling moves or go into the invincible Rampage Mode. It means you never really feel skillful. And I miss my counters.
The stages themselves are pretty drab despite having diverse settings and they’re honestly just not that interesting. The “missions” are normally just “beat up dudes” or horribly implemented, token mini-games (like a race!). Story missions normally take the form of boss battles against single fighters, but you win all of these in the same goddamn way from start to finish. There are a couple of bigger boss battles that mix things up a little but nothing memorable. The first time you play it there’s an immense sense of freedom being able to run around this huge stage in a fighting game and jump from the very top to the very bottom. But this quickly fades when you realise how little of the stages are accessible and just how restrictive they are. Invisible walls are everywhere and most things are just ramps or blocks wrapped up with some drab exterior. In the campaign it makes the whole thing boring, but in the mutliplayer…it really depends on what you view the game as. It suffers from an identity crisis of sitting somewhere between a Tekken and a God of War and I think ultimately there’s very little market for that game. But the game I think it has most in common with is Super Smash Brothers. The combat is knowingly chaotic and there’s a complete lack of balance to the roster. The mechanics are also simple and the game is littered with items and completely bonkers environmental hazards that show up during the fights (The game literally flashes up “Cthulu Detected” from time to time). There are also a ton of mental gametypes (like a weird gridiron Football knock-off). It’s almost impossible to win on purpose, particularly since at the end of the match everyone is given awards Perfect Dark-style, but the those awards give you points and the ranking order of the participants gets completely shuffled. So, taken as a SSB-style game, the stages are actually really expansive. The combat is more complex that SSB but the game isn’t anywhere near as fun to play and lacks the polish of Melee. The broadness of the characters also makes more sense in this framework.
Ultimately, I don’t think I can recommend the game. it does a lot of stuff right and it is interesting but it’s also shit in a lot of ways. It has certainly given us something interesting to play together and I did actually enjoy learning the systems and using them when I played it. It’s definitely not Platinum’s best, but if you’re a fan of the studio or you want a very different, if rough, multiplayer experience it may be worth checking out.