By Chris Matulich, January 18, 2013
Back in the day, when the Devil May Cry series was constantly rotating through my PS2, I would always contemplate how the genre would lend itself to a multiplayer/cooperative scope. Yet, as my hormone raging brain moved on to "bigger and better" things, the thought slipped my mind, until I finished the first Darksiders. The final scene shows the remaining three Horseman streaming across the sky. A once forgotten idea came rushing back into my head, and my excitement hit new levels, as a multiplayer/co-op sequel to Darksiders seemed to be inevitably on the way. While this didn't come to fruition, a similar thought seemed to flash across the quirky minds at Platinum Games. Though a cooperative campaign is sorely missed, Anarchy Reigns brings the 3rd person, action-adventure genre to the multiplayer realm and blends some traditional fighting game aspects into the mix - a whole two and a half months before God of War sets its own multiplayer stage, and at half the price. You see, Anarchy Reigns is effectively a budget title with an MSRP of $30, but it's leagues above anything else in the budget category, with the obvious exception of Access Games' masterpiece Deadly Premonition, that is.
In a post-apocalyptic world where governments and nations have been replaced with global corporate powers, weapons of mass destruction have been used all willy-nilly, eviscerating the earth and decimating the human population. Due to the use of biological agents, mutated humans roam the wastelands, as do more beastly abominations looking to terrorize the unaltered population. Enter Jack Cayman, one of Reigns' two protagonists, and returning from Platinum Games' first release that catapulted the quirky studio into the industry, MadWorld. Being a Chaser (read: Bounty Hunter), Jack has been tasked with recovering an elite, bio-technologically enhanced operative known as Max. Yet Jack is not the only one pursuing Max, as Max's old outfit, the Bureau's Strike One is also after him. Strike One, consisting of two Russians and a typical protagonist pretty boy named Leo, are ingrained with the same, superhuman bio-technology that Max also utilizes. A terrific set-up, yet lacking in execution.
Campaign is far from the main focus of Anarchy Reigns, and it's rather evident that many corners were cut along the way. Even with the dual character arc, where the Black Side sees the player taking the roll as Jack and the White Side as Leo, character and plot development is quite shallow. Not much backstory is given that details how exactly the Earth came to be in its destructed state, why Max lost his mind and went rogue and is being pursued by his former teammates, or even how Jack made it to Milvallen and had a daughter. Narrative is spotty at best, and is only saved because of the fantastic voice work, anchored by Steven Blum, an occasional surprisingly impressive cinematic fight scene, and the classic Platinum Games' quirkiness and over the top character interactions that helps to provide some comedic relief to the otherwise mundane experience. While the campaign may only take 6-8 hours to complete and is rather bare bones, it does serve a purpose - unlocking characters to be utilized in the game's selling point: the multiplayer.
Though diving into multiplayer is perfectly acceptable, it's definitely beneficial to play through the campaign, not only because it will open up a good sixteen characters to select from, but it will help with learning the quirks, as well as the hiccups, of Anarchy Reigns' gameplay. While no major breakthroughs are made to the standard action-adventure formula, where combos of X's and Y's (squares and triangles) are strung together to stagger enemies with light and heavy strikes, with the occasional grab thrown in for some flavor and some dodging, blocking, and countering to add some defense. Each character also makes use of a Killer Weapon, such as Jack's built-in chainsaw hand from MadWorld, which can be unleashed by holding the left trigger while attacking and utilizes the character's energy bar. Energy is easily and quickly built up through normal combos, with light Killer Weapon attacks burning through one of the bar's four sections and heavy attacks using two. Killer Weapons can be interspersed into any combo, allowing for quick, hard hitting attacks that offer a bit of variety depending on when the KW is used, as well as the chosen character.
Combat feels tight and well-polished, albeit repetitive. Combos are fast and vicious, with Killer Weapon attacks splitting enemies in half if performed at the end of a combo, which allows for quick transitions between enemies. Extending combinations will make up a bulk of the gameplay, though due to the repetition, lacking enemy variations, and the lackluster boss fights (by Platinum Games' standards at any rate), boredom has a tendency to set in. Rampage mode, the token super mode initiated with dual clicks of the control sticks, also does little to break the monotony, though is extremely necessary both in single and multiplayer. After finishing the story, a decent amount of characters are readily available for some variety. Yet the variety is very short-lived. Even after clearing the campaign and moving on to the relatively large selection of fighters in the multiplayer, each character struggles in differing enough to warrant their inclusion in the roster. While it's true that Killer Weapons provide a nice change of pace between each combatant, it's the technique that gets old and repetitive, as the most useful combos for every character consist of essentially the same sequence of button inputs.
Multiplayer can be quite a frustrating, yet also an exhilarating experience at the same time. Thinking back to my Devil May Cry and Darksiders scenario, it's pretty clear why the genre never got the cooperative or multiplayer treatment earlier in its history - the camera and targeting can make or break the entertainment factor faster than Ray Lewis could "lose" that white suit after he stabbed two men back in 2001 (yeah, I didn't forget that one). With the close up, over-the-shoulder camera, it's hard to see enemies coming from behind, and when using the targeting system, it's a crapshoot when it decides to switch or choose the correct targets, especially when a mass of people are tussling about. Though when the camera and targeting system don't act like finicky bitches, then multiplayer can be a ton of fun, even if the modes are rather unoriginal, with Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Survival, and Tag Team (2v2) all making appearances. Nothing quite breaks the mold, yet when the game hits its mark, it feels like a blissful traditional fighter set in a 3D environment, filled with an eclectic array of combatants ready to provide a robust challenge. Too bad this doesn't happen very often, and while there's definitely fun to be had, the fantastic idea of adding significant multiplayer to the genre falls short of being truly special.
One major problem I had with the game, and one I have with the recent trend in traditional fighting games, is the music. Why must the game be littered with b-rate hip hop tracks? Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of anything that sounds good, but the theme songs used in some recent big releases (including most of Anarchy Reigns' soundtrack) are just downright awful. The beats are unappealing and just feel out of place, making the game's budget price more apparent, yet it's the only real aspect of the game that justifies its budget status. That being said, the voice acting is pretty solid, though when you've got the one Mr. Steven Blum, as well as extensive voice work veteran Yuri Lowenthal, it's hard to go wrong. Even the visuals, which suffer slightly only due to some rough edges in terms of hair, some uninspired environments, and the large number of enemy re-colors, aren't terrible, and are far from some of the ugliness that other budget titles have produced.
Anarchy Reigns can prove to be very polarizing. On one hand, repetition, camera problems, a short campaign, terrible music, and just the general average feel may be off-putting. On the other, however, the pure fun and joy that multiplayer has to offer, the times that the campaign shines with Platinum Games' flare, the awesome voice work led by Steven Blum, and the overall non-budget quality, all for half the price of normal releases, makes it hard not to recommend Anarchy Reigns. Whether you're into fighting games or have had the same curiosity I've had concerning the action adventure genre and multiplayer, it's hard to pass up at $30. Even if you're not, and you've got a strong will to deal with frustration, the price is right, and you'll likely get more time out of Anarchy Reigns than many other titles at double the price.
This review is based on a retail copy of Anarchy Reigns for the Xbox 360.