The Anacrusis: Left 4 Dead With a Mid-Century Aesthetic

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<i>The Anacrusis</i>: <i>Left 4 Dead</i> With a Mid-Century Aesthetic

In The Anacrusis, you play as one of four travelers on a “space ship at the edge of the galaxy,” exploring the retro space age vessel in an attempt to clear it of creatures whose star-shaped heads reminded me just a bit of Starro’s thrawls from the most recent Suicide Squad. The game can be played by assembling a party of four friends by exchanging your “party code” and/or by matchmaking with strangers. Of course, you might also get matchmade with bots (or have people drop out of your party and replaced by bots), and their AI needs some sharpening. For instance, if one of your user-controlled party members falls from a ledge high up a pillar, they might be followed intentionally by bots who end up maiming themselves. It’s funny until it gets frustrating, like when it happens repeatedly enough that all your squadmates die. Three times downed and you’re out, but as long as one player-controlled character makes it through the level, the entire party advances (not that you’re likely to make it solo).

You’ll start each level section in a holding area where you can charge your weapons, get two charges for health, and acquire other tools like a “health scanner” which can be used to heal oneself or one’s allies. Whenever you start an “episode,” you can choose between equipping a shotgun, submachine gun, or assault rifle, each with limited ammunition. You’ll also start with a pistol with no ammo limit. As you make their way through the level, you’ll mow down aliens in human clothing, which alludes to them possibly being humans affected by a parasite which leads to their zombie-like behavior. The player characters will remark unprompted about the areas the team moves through, and the voice acting of Nessa, Guion, Liu, and Lance is pretty good.

By way of a device called a “matter compiler,” the player-led squad can also acquire perks for their weapons and their “pulse,” a player-based AoA effect that pushes enemies away and serves in lieu of a melee attack. The game could be served positively with some sort of melee weapon, but as it is, this fits the theme. If squadmates die enough times to reset at a level checkpoint, they lose all but one of the acquired perks.

The advertised adaptive difficulty feels like it might still need some working out, but the game isn’t overwhelmingly challenging enough to warrant controller throwing, though the individual character can be physically overwhelmed by swarms of enemies, and there are no unlimited respawns. All in all, if you’re new to, or long-removed from, this subgenre of first person shooters, it’s good to remember that clearing the enemies is an obstacle to getting through the level, not an end unto itself. Sometimes, running away is the most efficient option.

One personal pet peeve was the feeling of the guns. As one of my party members put it, the Blaster and SMB feel more like tools than weapons, as if they were something adapted to the situation. The assault rifle is the most balanced weapon of the core four and feels the most like a well-executed traditional videogame gun. It isn’t just a matter of recoil—which the other weapons also have—but rather that the release of rounds doesn’t exactly feel kinetic. This isn’t the first game with this problem when it comes to energy weapons, it just feels notable in a game where you only have energy weapons. If that’s the sort of thing that really takes you out of a game, you might just need to stick with the assault rifle, which doesn’t have as much ammo as the SMB, but is stronger and handles better. The shotgun has relatively decent range, but it is still a better close-up weapon. Headshots, like in all zombie games, kill, and make the pistol especially useful for when you walk into a room full of unsuspecting aliens, get a good vantage point, and want to save ammo.

Besides upgrading the characters and their weapons with the matter compiler, players can also find caches with health scanners, temporary health boost syringes, grenades, and special weapons. Grenade types include “stasis,” which makes a field that slows opponents; “shield,” which creates a bubble that players can shoot out but which enemies cannot enter into; “incendiary,” which is what it sounds like and pairs well with “goo,” which slows down opponents; and “impact,” which is a combination fragmentation/flashbang sort of deal, though more lowkey than either is traditionally. There is also “vortex” and, while all the weapons and grenades are relatively well-balanced against one another, this might be the coolest-looking effect, as it produces a whirlwind that pulls in all the enemies, and then dissolves them. The special weapons include an automatic turret that can be placed as players see fit (you’ll probably want it before a crucial exit that will take time to open and will prompt a swarm), a laser rifle (that functions somewhat like the particle beam rifle from Halo), and an arc rifle (which shoots electricity that chains through opponents). All of the special weapons are, of course, expendable.

Because of the weapon feel and my own personal tastes, the game largely made me want to check out Halo: Infinite or Doom, but it is truly good fun on its own terms, and it might serve as a casual substitute for people that want to shoot aliens with friends while awaiting the Halo online co-op. Or, as a rival to Left 4 Dead’s spiritual successor, Back 4 Blood.

I haven’t even mentioned the art style, which, in drawing from the 1960s and ‘70s in its idea of space travel, is distinct in a subtle way. It’s got vibrant colors and even the preview launch and original announcement trailers showed a garden under an artificially-created blue sky, where the landscaping looks like it intentionally invokes artifice. Looking up at the glitching sky and walking past where a panel fell out onto a partially-destroyed building provokes speculation about what things were like before everything went wrong.

The Anacrusis could stand to be more well-lit in places, but the places where darkness feels intentional rather than incidental create a good tension and contrast with the gaudiness it flaunts in other places. The spaceship overall feels a bit like if you combined Discover One from 2001: A Space Odyssey with the Axiom from WALL-E. It’s pretty cool.

The mystery of how things got to be how they are in The Anacrusis—with four lone survivors clearing the spaceship of aliens—will be further explored through the episodes of the campaign (some of which are as of yet locked) as the game moves out of early access later this year. A hotfix dropped on Jan. 20 for the preview build, and there are plans for further updates according to the recently released early access roadmap. I did get kicked from the lobby once, but it reloaded quickly, and I just got a new party code to share. I never got disconnected from a game, but a squadmate did, though he was able to load back in relatively quickly. The game also features an AFK (away-from keyboard) mode that you can toggle during gameplay in case you need to empty the litter box or use the bathroom or what have you, and the CPU will take over for you until you jump back in. That is an excellent feature for a game that requires participation from four characters at a time.

The Anacrusis is developed by Stray Bombay Company, which was formed in 2019 by Chet Faliszek—the writer of Valve’s Left 4 Dead series—and Kimberly Voll—former principal technical designer for Riot Games. As players might guess, The Anacrusis takes broad design ideas from swarm-fighting co-op games like Left 4 Dead, though the aesthetics of the design are a lot brighter and the game feels less tense and more lighthearted. Not that Left 4 Dead is superbly self-serious, just that The Anacrusis is lit differently and more overtly wacky. At least for the currently-available preview, though, The Anacrusis narrative doesn’t get the same sort of introductory cutscene as in Left 4 Dead. Just drop in and learn by doing.

The Anacrusis entered early access—and Game Pass availability—on Jan. 13, 2022.


Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.