The Anacrusis is correct to believe that co-op shooters are in dire need of a new flavor. Nearly every game that’s followed in Left 4 Dead’s footsteps puts four players in a forlorn zombie apocalypse and asks them to blast out an escape route before they succumb to the horde. The bleakness can get overbearing; does teamwork really have to be so dark? The Anacrusis counters that notion with bright pastels and a pulpy Jetsons-inspired verve, which delightfully strays from the broken cities in Back 4 Blood or the depths of Hell in GTFO or Call of Duty’s Zombies modes. Unfortunately, The Anacrusis is unable to generate the crucial white-knuckle tension that makes a co-op experience memorable. In fact, after playing the three episodes available in The Anacrusis' early access version, I'm left thinking that the only novel idea it brings to the genre is a fresh coat of paint.
You and your friends embark on a slick, tangerine-hued starship adrift in psychedelic outer space. Guns and ammunition are splayed across the safe room — all sheathed in a porcelain, '60s sci-fi aesthetic — and together, you’ll attempt to fend off a massive incursion of possessed, Cthulhu-headed crewmembers stalking the halls between you and the next checkpoint. It’s not hard to understand exactly where The Anacrusis draws its chief inspiration from: Chet Faliszek, co-founder of developer Stray Bombay, logged time on both Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 while he was at Valve, and despite the vast disparities in tone and setting, The Anacrusis still has you cutting down thousands of chittering zombie facsimiles before sealing off the swarm behind a magically impenetrable door.
The goal, I think, is to have you survive by the skin of your teeth; to wipe the sweat from your brow after your party pulls off another unlikely breakout. Instead, I felt a sense of tedious malaise settle in before I even finished the first level. For whatever reason, Stray Bombay turns all of its cards face-up from the very start, saving no surprises for later. The aliens I was fending off in the opening minutes had the same shape and strategy as those in its late-game arctic stages. Meanwhile, there are only three basic weapons, and each of them feel nearly identical and lack the same kinetic, fleshy feedback you find in say, Back 4 Blood. I'm pretty sure the only difference between the Plasma Rifle and the SMG is a slightly slower firing cadance on the former. By the second episode, I entirely stopped caring about what gun I had equipped because they all felt equally effective at dealing with any threat, large or small.
The mob shows up, absorbs a ton of bullets, and dissipates. Mixed in are a few named special infected-style villains to augment the constant churn: the Gooper can encase you in a paralyzing green mucus, the Flasher fills the screen with a cornea-destroying flashbang effect, and the Brute hits hard and takes a lot of bullets. They demand a rudimentary dose of coordination from your friends, but my party rarely felt threatened. For the most part, everyone held down the trigger button until victory was achieved. In fact, despite The Anacrusis’ adaptable difficulty settings that scale dynamically with the party's performance, it only served me two encounters where I truly feared a wipe, and unsurprisingly, those were also the only instances where it truly grabbed my nervous system.
To be clear, some of the greatest co-op games of all time revel in sublime brainlessness (the early Serious Sams come to mind). Faliszek has said in interviews that he wants The Anacrusis to be a game that we can hang out inside of – treating it like passive entertainment, akin to talking through a movie. But I think that philosophy has dampened The Anacrusis' drama. There is never a harsh punishment for death; if a party member goes down they can be quickly revived, and barring that, they can always be summoned back from the void, at full health, after a short cooldown. That robs it of some of the tension that made Left 4 Dead so successful – the way it forced its parties into a constant state of desperation created magical moments where you’re piling into the rescue helicopter, knowing you couldn't have held out for a second longer. In its current form The Anacrusis can't quite muster that key element, and that leaves it feeling strangely lifeless.
I blame a lot of the bereftness on The Anacrusis' environment design, which is frustratingly drab across the board. This is such an incredible backdrop: the Summer of Love in the dark recesses of the galaxy? A soundtrack etched with Isaac Hayes-ish guitar scratches? It's a great idea, and yet this spaceship is chronically barren. In the first hour of gameplay I found myself in a massive serpentine shopping mall, and I was thrilled to get a glimpse of how the residents of this trippy dystopia lived… but as I navigated through the corridors and perused the shops, I found no flavor text or artistic flourishes to ground me in this world. The atmosphere is paper thin. Hell, it wasn't even clear what was being bought and sold in all of those identical, boilerplate boutiques.
The Anacrusis is light on traditional storytelling, (each episode kicks off with a short cutscene and that's about it), and that’s a fine approach to take, but it also doesn't make the effort to allow us to stumble into lore that transforms this technicolor shooting gallery into an identifiable, contextual universe. I quickly grew exhausted from cracking open doors to find yet another grenade cache, rather than a bloom of environmental storytelling that conveyed the barest sense of what went wrong here. The recap screen at the end of the first episode informed my party that we killed over 4,000 aliens, but I still had no idea who they were, who we were, or why we were here in the first place.
While its early access launch is decidedly light on content, with just three levels that can be played through in an evening, Stray Bombay has emphasized The Anacrusis' replayability as a strength. To that end it borrows the "director" concept from the Left 4 Dead games – an unseen A.I. orchestrator working behind the scenes to alter the sort of items the party finds in their campaigns, as well as the size and makeup of the enemy encounters based on your skill levels, in order to keep you on your toes. It is true that the exact setup of the encounters deviates between each playthrough, but I found that the gunplay was repetitive enough that a slightly different composition of aliens didn't change the overwhelming dryness of the action.
There is also a slight roguelite progression apparatus in each episode in that you can find upgrade stations littered around the ship that offer mild bonuses to your ammunition supply, damage output, and revive speed. Yet these straightforward stat boosts simply aren’t enough to open up new playstyles, meaningfully distinguish your character much from the rest of the party in how you play, or even change your approach from your previous run. I found myself wishing Stray Bombay embraced a class-based arrangement, where everyone I was dungeoneering with had a distinct kit and role to play. That alone would cut down on The Anacrusis' drudgery; at least I'd be able to experience the battle from multiple perspectives.
I should mention that there is a toggle on the main menu that ostensibly equips character and weapon skins, (I'm guessing they're acquired in the levels or through some sort of in-game currency,) but I was never rewarded with any cosmetics or cash. I imagine that vacancy has something to do with the "SEASON" tab on the top bar, which directs to a blank page containing the words, "Coming Soon." The Anacrusis' aspirations are high, but quite frankly, its biggest problem is that after completing my first run I didn’t feel an urge to return to any of its challenges.
I did anyway, for the sake of this review, but repeated playthroughs didn’t do much to redeem it. There are blatant polish issues all over this starship, to the point where certain segments of the maps look like they were plucked out of a game running on Unreal Engine 2, circa 2005. Gratingly, your party’s characters repeat the same small handful of voice lines over and over again to the point that it verges on high comedy. (They are constantly screaming the word "Goo." You'll be hearing it in your dreams.) Playing on PC with Windows 10 and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super I encountered a chronic, fidgety stutter that infects the frame rate and the animation fidelity, and when you shoot an alien in the head from behind they propel towards the ceiling — either a bug or a hilarious joke, I couldn't tell. The signposting within levels is laughably maddening; there are no cursory waypoints to be found, and I'd frequently have to rely on the semi-audible voice lines announced by the party to know what to do with, say, the nuclear canister I just picked up. This was even worse when I tried playing with a party of bots (which Stray Bombay recommends only as a last resort) who frequently got hung up on geometry. And at one point I encountered a bizarre bug that rendered my entire interface unreadable, with a foreboding red "X" crossed out on my character's portrait. (For a second I thought it was a fourth-wall-breaking taunt, rather than just another bit of early access jank.)
A lot of these oversights and bugs are to be expected in any game still in active development, and there is certainly a world where The Anacrusis irons out the kinks within a reasonable amount of time. But what will we be left with afterwards? A more functional, but still uninspiring co-op shooter? That is my fear. If The Anacrusis is going to be successful as it works towards a 1.0 release date, it simply must find a more compelling spark.