Wot I Think: Anna

By Adam Smith on July 23rd, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

Anna, with its single location, reactive horror elements and folklore-based story, seemed like it could be the game to scratch a lot of my itches. After playing through twice, to see how different the scares and the conclusions might be, I’m ready to share wot I think. Am I itch-free or have I got sixteen layers of my own skin sloughed up under my fingernails?

It’s the hives, I’m afraid. I’ve got ants in my pants and welts on my arms from all the scratching I’ve been doing. Alongside Frictional’s output, I was actually reminded of horror adventure Scratches while playing, mostly due to my simple mind drawing comparisons because puzzles were taking place in a haunted building. Unfortunately, Anna suffers from the worst aspects of that sort of inventory-based adventure gaming without offering enough to make its obtuse behaviour entirey tolerable.

With a claim of three hours playtime but with three different routes through the game expanding those three hours to nine, Anna could be a delightfully dread-filled experience, but instead it’s a short series of puzzles, some seemingly random bumps in the dark, and a lingering sense of disappointment.

The biggest problem is that the game doesn’t have puzzles inventive or logical enough to reward thought and involvement with the story, while also failing to create an environment that offers interesting possibilities for interaction and exploration. It begins so well, on a day so bright and shiny that it’s positively next generation, outside the sawmill that is home to mystery and horror. The doors and windows are blocked, so it’s clear that finding a way in will be the first difficulty.

Planks cannot be peeled back from windows, rocks cannot be hurled against the rotting door. That’s all par for the course in an adventure game, of course, only a specific and unlikely object used in the right place at the right time will open that door, that much is obvious, but by creating a world in which physics exists for some objects but not others, Anna makes its borders and arbitrary rules all the more noticeable.

So much of the plot (no spoilers here) involves ritual that it almost excuses, at least in narrative terms, the use of specific things in specific places, with roles defined by mysticism, but at an early stage I found myself with two knives. One knife could cut some objects, the other couldn’t. It’s not a massive issue but combined with the vague objectives and hints that the game serves up, that sort of treatment leads to irritating backtracking.

That’s backtracking in a game set in a single building. The sawmill is wonderfully recreated with loading screens displaying photographs of the actual place from which the model was copied, but I know it better than I know my own apartment, having wandered from room to room, scouring the darkness for anything of use. Anna quickly becomes a pixel hunt, except instead of manhandling a cursor around the screen, I found myself manhandling a man around a VERY DARK ROOM, looking for the one object that I could interact with.

When I first entered the mill, having spent a good forty minutes collecting pine cones and furiously staring at the brook outside, I was hoping the chills and the sense of place would improve. Nothing frightening happens outside but that’s as it should be; it’s the tease, the world is the bright antechamber whose every doorway leads to claustrophobia, dread and entombment.

The first room, with its collapsed machinery and splintered furniture, looks both eery and real. Just what I wanted. I started poking around in the corners, only to find that it’s mostly filler. There’s little to see, little to read, just hotspots to find: a single drawer that can be opened, a couple of items to pick up.

I cheated once, looking up a video walkthrough, because I’d started to solve a puzzle in a sequence that I can only assume was unintended. Because I did one thing before another thing, I was forced to carry around an item that made a constant, repetitive sound. I couldn’t drop it, I didn’t know where to use it and I had no intention of listening to the (literally) bloody thing while poking my face into every patch of darkness, scraping around on my hands and knees looking for a leaf or the one piece of debris among twenty that could actually be moved. I watched a video walkthrough, I found what I needed. It was a dark object in a pitch black room that I had explored at least twenty times already, somehow missing it because it isn’t in a place where I’d expect to find such a thing. It’s just on the floor, near to several non-interactive but similar objects.

Now, none of this would matter quite as much as it does if all the creakiness was backed up by a few dollops of creepiness. Unfortunate then that the lack of an actual threat soon meant that no matter how many plant pots were Poltergeisted at my face, I found them an annoyance rather than the chilling pottery assault I’d hoped for. Objects fly, cryptic drawings appear on the walls, there’s an occasional jump scare. It’s effective at first but soon becomes little more than another block to progress. The story rarely offers decent motivation, so thick with mystery that I wasn’t sure why putting that leaf on that particular painted eye was causing a change or allowing progress.

Events seem random, like the wobbling animatronics of a malfunctioning ghost train, rather than reactive. Maybe looking at a certain thing for too long will cause it to move but I never felt like the game was tracking my movements and habits, I just felt like it was rustling through its bag of tricks and lobbing whatever came to hand at me. That’s not to say it didn’t alarm me at times. Particularly toward the story’s end, there are some right horrible things happening in the sawmill but the best of them are the ones that the player is forced to do in order to progress rather than the ones that emerge unexpectedly.

The story and the puzzles are flawed in the same way. Rarely did I feel like my actions had purpose that I understood, I was doing things because there was nothing else to do, all exploration quickly exhausted, not because my actions had meaning. On the second playthrough, when I knew which objects were needed and where they were located, the game took much less than three hours to complete and the alternate storylines seem more like alternate endings, decided late, by certain choices, rather than by any sort of subtle observation.

I’ve seen reports of framerate issues but didn’t have any problems myself. It is an extraordinarily attractive game at times, although given how little there is to see, it’d be more surprising if a lot of effort hadn’t been lavished on appearances. The interface, however, is a pain in the backside. Little things like the menu being hidden (anywhere but ‘esc’ is hidden) and having the inventory be more convoluted than seems necessary are frustrating, and, as an inverter, I feel obliged to point out that I wasn’t allowed to fix the unintuitive approach to the y-axis. That’s being patched though, as are some of the more vague objectives. That’s good and despite all the frustrations, I find myself keen to see what Dreampainters create next.

For all its failings, Anna is an interesting game. The idea of a first-person adventure, horrifying or not, that allows for exploration of a single environment, with this sort of Frictional style physical interaction, is one I’ve been keen to see for some time. Amnesia took away the weaponry but left the monsters and, brilliant as it was, some of the finest moments were in the quiet and the dark, digging through a room in search of something rather than scrambling down a corridor to escape from something. My issues with Anna aren’t in the conception but rather in the lack of interactivity. If the game world is to be so small, it needs to be more interesting to explore, there must be more to see and do, and the story must be a hook rather than a series of cryptic signposts.

Anna is available now.

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44 Comments »

  1. arrjayjee says:

    Anna, Amy, Amnesia. What’s the deal with naming these horror games after girl’s names?

  2. Carachan1 says:

    “Short series of puzzles, some seemingly random bumps in the dark, and a lingering sense of disappointment.”

    Ahem.

    AND IN THE GAME?

  3. Calneon says:

    Shame. I guess I’ll be waiting on A Machine For Pigs.

  4. UncleLou says:

    “Alongside Frictional’s output, I was actually reminded of horror adventure Scratches while playing”

    Ahhh. Scratches wasn’t a particularly great game, but the first time you hear them (the scratches), and have to do the per se extremely mundane task of – hm, I won’t spoil it – was one of the scariest things I’ve had to do in any game, ever. The game communicated directly with a pimal fear I didn’t know I had up to that point.

    Shame about Anna, I was hoping for more enthusiastic opinions.

    • Kefren says:

      I loved the slow-burn horror of Scratches. It made it easy to believe I really had just arrived at the house in my little car, unsure of what I would find.

      Excellent game, along with Dark Fall, Amber etc

  5. woodsey says:

    What a shame. The trailer looked quite creepy. It does amaze me sometimes that developers miss things like the knife issue you point out.

    Also: an inverted mouse means you look down when you push the mouse forward, right?

    • Jekhar says:

      Exactly. And it’s a major annoyance when games don’t implement the option to do so. Even more so than (mostly flash-)games using the z,x,c keys. Because not everyone uses a qwerty keyboard layout. At least that one can be easily fixed by the user.

      • LionsPhil says:

        A preference for inverted Y-axis is trivially solved by the user: hold your mouse the wrong way around. If one wrong-headed axis is good, two must be better, right?

        • Jekhar says:

          Sounds good, but then i wouldn’t be satisfied until i hacked the mousewheel too. Why go with two when you could have three wonky axes?

      • Arglebargle says:

        It’s not easy to go against 20+ years of honed reflex. Especially when you are still playing your games that do allow the incredibly basic feature of inverting the mouse. If I run across this in reviews, it generally means ‘no-buy’, as speaks to a lack of focus on UI. And it can happen in even really big (and sometimes even good) games. Talking about you Witcher 2 and Dreamfall.

        Looks like a part of a general failure across this game. Pixel hunt! Ugh. Next they’ll be wanting to play ‘guess the word’.

        • arccos says:

          I realize in many cases its a stand on principle, but isn’t there any software that can reverse the y-axis on a keypress? It seems like it would be a pretty simple thing to write since it would be a one-to-one conversion.

          • KingKrapp says:

            The problem is, if you do that you’ve got an inverted mouse in menus and inventory as well. I don’t invert with keyboard and mouse, but I imagine that’d be an issue. Having to toggle it on and off would probably be a pain in the arse.

          • arccos says:

            Good point. I was thinking about it being a pain for the initial menus when loading up the game, but so many games now have menus and pointer systems within the game itself, it really would be aggravating to have to turn it on or off every time you go into an inventory menu or whatever.

  6. Torgen says:

    No “Anna is my bot” youtube link?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7iU0GGVco8

  7. shezcrafti says:

    Thanks for keeping it real, RPS–this is the first negative review of Anna I’ve seen other than my own. I had read some early reviews on this game singing it praises and comparing it to Scratches & Amnesia, which for me is automatic “shut up and take my money” material. But after spending the $10 and beating the game, I felt nothing but disappointment. To me this game is a mish-mash of a lot of good ideas but poorly executed.

  8. inilaat says:

    Well, Anna suffers from issues that plagued the adventure genre all these years. But I still enjoyed it for what it was. The sawmill is astonishing (and it looks so real), and i appreciated the high quality textures and lovely lighting effects that i was not expecting from an indie title.

  9. webwielder says:

    I always want to like adventure games. But then:

    Planks cannot be peeled back from windows, rocks cannot be hurled against the rotting door.

    They simulate a real world but have utterly abstract mechanics. Never fails to frustrate. Frustration leads to anger. Anger leads to playing a game where shooting bullets into things causes death.

    • JackShandy says:

      I always felt like Adventure Games would be better if they had multiple solutions. Maybe if you could get in by smashing the door, and the game took note of that and surprised you with a consequence for it later (Like, say, a monster can get in the broken door).

      • LionsPhil says:

        Some of the old Sierra games did, in a limited capacity. There are solutions that award you fewer points.

        • JackShandy says:

          Oh of course, I remember that. And Indiana Jones let you choose between fighting and puzzle-solving, didn’t it? That was a great idea, I’d love to see some games expand on that.

          A three-hour game seems like the perfect place to do it: Make it really small, with a lot of different possible solutions.

        • eclipse mattaru says:

          On the flipside, Sierra games were guilty of the worst sins in the genre; very especially random outerspace logic-based puzzles and the most infuriating form of pixel hunting, where they didn’t even have context-sensitive cursor so you’d have to clickeytclick your finger off on every screen.

  10. orient says:

    It’s irritating that so many adventure game creators are happy to employ the same kinds of single-solution, pixel-hunty inventory puzzles that have held back the genre for over a decade.

    I’m a huge fan of the genre — I backed Tex Murphy, Pinkerton Road and DFA, but the more I play adventure games (or the older I get), the less patience I have for illogical, inane puzzles.

  11. thebigJ_A says:

    Aw, poo.

  12. Coldblade says:

    I stopped playing shortly after entering the sawmill, because of the way you interface with the game. It makes me want to punch a dev in the face.
    I can’t fathom why they didn’t just blatantly copied the Penumbra/Amnesia games’ way of doing things. Something like left click to pick up/use objects, right click to observe would have made this bearable.

  13. eclipse mattaru says:

    That’s a shame, really. I usually buy pretty much every mildly interesting indie game out there even with whatever shortcomings it could bring attached just for the sake of supporting good ideas, but random adventure logic is a dealbreaker. I don’t have the patience for pixel hunting and developer-mind reading anymore. I did quite a bit of growing up since the mid-90s, as did the entire world in many ways –hell, even FPSs, the historically stupidest genre in the block evolved in lots of interesting ways; so why do adventure games refuse to follow suit? There is so much potential in the genre, if only one developer would bother to push it a little bit. Goddamnit.

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