The studio co-founded by former Valve writer Chet Faliszek and former Riot designer Kimberly Voll have released The Anacrusis into early access today, a Left 4 Dead-like set in 70s space. Much like its undead predecessor, this is a game where four players team up and pew pew through waves of alien nasties. But it’s not as despairing as its zombified brethren. This is upbeat and colourful and at times, really quite silly.
Yes, it's still pretty similar to Left 4 Dead, but is home to a few things that help separate it from its zombified brethren. To test this stuff out, we had a full team of four in our hands-on preview session at the very end of last year – myself, Imogen (RPS in peace), Katharine, and Chet himself, who steered us through encounters with supreme patience. All in all, we sampled a ‘full run’, so a total of four levels, each with lots of, “Oh god, oh no,” moments. And it’s safe to say we had a lot of fun with it.
Ed: As someone who’s played a solid amount of Left 4 Dead and Back 4 Blood, I was left fairly impressed by The Anacrusis. Not like wildly blown away or anything, but I certainly had a lot of fun with it. Early on it appears remarkably similar to Left 4 Dead, only with a 70s aesthetic and sci-fi theme. But start digging a little deeper and it definitely reveals its differences.
Namely, The Anacrusis structures things more like a rogue-like. Instead of selecting a difficulty and choosing a mission like you would in Left 4 Dead, for example, you embark on randomised 'runs' composed of five levels. Our main goal was retrieving a data drive that would reveal the location of all the other known ships in this part of the universe so we could go and look for other survivors, but the contents of said 'run' was left in the hands of The Director, an invisible force who judges your team’s performance and tinkers with the game’s difficulty on the fly. There’s this sense of plunging into the unknown here, which makes things all the more frantic.
Katharine: Yes, when we all bit the dust on the penultimate level and had to restart it from the beginning, the gangs of aliens we encountered the second time round were completely from the first. The Director must have been feeling more generous on our second attempt, as it only threw one giant mega Brute at us while running through one of its space gardens instead of double mega Brutes, one of its natty Grabbers (who can fling their long arms at you from across the map and tear you away from your teammates) and a blinding Flasher.
Ed: I reckon The Director did a grand job of judging our skill level, actually. Early on they kept things fairly manageable, but as we ticked off encounters, it ramped up the number of baddies just enough to keep us fighting for survival. Perhaps The Director could reassess how darn bright the Flasher’s burst of light is, though. I think we all regret not donning sunglasses for the entire preview.
Imogen: They were a bit much. I feel like I’d need to turn my monitor’s brightness settings down a little if they stay that way. Having said that, I thought they were a good idea for an enemy type - with the entire level glowing, it definitely upped the challenge. It must be tough coming up with unique ideas for monsters with so many Left 4 Dead-likes around now but I enjoyed the variety that were thrown at us. I also enjoyed the number of weapons we had to kill them with, too, especially the Lightning Coil. This special weapon shoots out a burst of electricity that zaps aliens and does a heap of damage to special monsters.
Ed: As a liker of a weighty gun, I must say that they all felt suitably hefty and produced some nice snappy noises. I also quite liked the variety of grenades on offer, my favourite being this Stasis grenade that slowed any enemies caught in its sparkly dome. Turned out it was the perfect antidote to the beefy brutes, who had a habit of charging us down in the most inconvenient of places.
Imogen: Ah, you mean like the one that followed me into the safe room at the end after you lot had all died, leaving me to desperately hop around in circles while trying to kill it? Man, I wish I had a grenade with me then. I’ve never known fear like being trapped in a tiny room with a giant beast while the game developer who made it watches me flounder around.
Katharine: You were a valiant hero, Imogen, and just a hair’s breadth away from a mighty victory. We salute your incredible efforts. I did also like how the objective wasn’t just to kill everything in sight, though (unless they snuck into the airlock with you, of course). Rather, as long you made it to the end, that was enough. There wasn’t much to be gained from sticking around pew pewing every last alien, and I appreciate being able to just call time on a level rather than face down endless waves until the game says, "Yes, you can move on now."
Ed: Ah, you mean like that fateful garden? That time you dove boldly into this colourful expanse of flowers before Chet had time to explain that it was an alien tourist attraction – properly cracked me up, that. The trick was to hoof it through the petals in one mad dash, locate the safe room, and pile into it in one piece. Like Katharine says, it was a relief knowing that we weren’t tasked with a samey objective. Things were mixed up pretty nicely for us, I think.
Imogen: I enjoyed the last level we played a lot, fending off waves of beasties while we waited for our objective to activate. It’s nice to have those moments of high-stress in-between moseying through the space station, collecting supplies and shooting the odd horde of aliens here and there.
Katharine: I was intrigued to learn The Director was in charge of doling out those supplies we found as well, rather than them being fixed there by the developers. That also helped to keep all of us on our toes, as we never got too comfortable with buckets of health packs, ammo or special weapons. Chet told us that the game will do its best to push you off the beaten track to find new weapons, ammo, grenades and health packs, if only to help prolong the number of bad things that can happen to you while you're in-game. If you're struggling, though, then more items will be placed on the main path.
The same goes for the special Perk-atron station, too. Officially known as Matter Compilers, these appear randomly in each level and each player has a random trio of abilities to choose from each time. As long as you don’t die, you can stack them in interesting ways between levels. I was particularly fond of the Health Extender (which pushed your HP bar past the standard 100 points) and the Healing Goo combo, which meant you could heal both you and your friends when you threw down a goo grenade. I also picked up Defensive Goo, which stops you from taking damage while standing in enemy goo (there’s a lot of goo in this game) and Penetrating Plasma, which lets your plasma rifle fire through multiple enemies. There’s a real fun mix to choose from, and I’ll be keen to see what other concoctions it throws at players as early access progresses.
Ed: It took me a bit too long to realise that selecting your Perks carefully was key. Once I’d clocked it towards the end of the preview, I buffed my Pulse (a blast that’s effectively the equivalent of the melee bash from Left 4 Dead) to be stronger, recharge faster, and give me a temporary shield that protected me from a single hit each time. It may not sound like much, but boy, did it save me from being overwhelmed a lot. The pulse can be used to repel incoming special attacks, too, although none of us ever grew proficient enough at it to call it a success. I also stalked Chet, who’d chosen perks that turned the gunk from any Goo grenades he chucked into overhealing oases. And like a leech, I lapped up those extra heals.
Imogen: See, now my favourite perk was the fire resistance. A particularly good one if you have teammates with an affinity for creating fire (which Chet self-proclaimed he was immediately after I took the perk). On that note, I thought it was good how much team-play the perks allowed for. While each character is fundamentally the same, I feel like you could build yourself into more of a tank or healer depending on what your team needed as you went along. Ultimately, that’s what I love about games like this. They’re a fab romp with a good team, and our session left me thinking about who I’d want to jump back in with in the future (which obviously includes both of you - as long as Katharine doesn’t set of an alien horde again).
Katharine: The horror of that ravenous horde mulching through that flower field is one I will never forget...
Ed: For a second, I thought you’d betray us there Imogen, but no, that’s great *lowers laser pistol*. And I'm of the same mindset, honestly. After a bit of polishing up as it goes through early access, I can see the game being an easy way to spend a couple of hours shooting aliens with some mates. All the more so, because The Director should ensure you’ll get a different experience each time.
Katharine: May The Director's odds be forever in our favour...