When The Anacrusis launched into early access in January 2022, its retrofuturist take on the co-op FPS instantly delivered on funky sci-fi fun. Yet it was also tempered fun: a brutal AI Director could easily tip manageable chaos into a fatiguing onslaught of fishy alien minibosses, and I still remember my will to persevere being sapped by connectivity issues and a general lack of weight to the otherwise enticing pew-pew gunplay.
Happily, following a year of tweaks and additions, The Anacrusis is in a much better place. Even if that place is still turtleneck-deep in extraterrestrial viscera. Ahead of the game’s first anniversary, I poked developers Stray Bombay for a chat on how their early access approach is working out, the impact of long-awaited mod tools, and what’s next for this most stylish of space shooters.
"We had a little bit of a rough launch", admits studio co-founder and CEO Chet Faliszek. "But we've done 28 updates in that year. Those updates are listening to players, not just what they say directly, but looking at statistics and everything else. It's always a hard thing when you release a shooter because there's so much range inside of there – there’s a super hardcore, sweaty, 4v4 combat thing, and there’s stuff like where we live now, where it’s a little bit more forgiving."
The Anacrusis doesn’t have its own sweaty 4v4 combat thing just yet – more on that later – but it’s definitely more forgiving. While the past year has seen plenty of more material additions, including new weapons, a new special alien that launches cloaked ambush attacks, and an early version of a new Episode (the equivalent of Left 4 Dead’s campaigns), it’s easy to feel the impact of a gentler AI Director. Having been taught over several updates to chill out a bit, it now strikes a far better balance of challenge and merrymaking. Special enemies like the bullet sponge Brute and the disabling, tentacled Grabber are still threatening, just not spammed into combat crescendos to the point of exhaustion. Yes, it’s easier, and there’s an optional ‘Intense’ setting if you prefer the older, more malicious Director, but the default system brings The Anacrusis closer to the pleasurable, jovial tone it was clearly aiming for in the first place.
For Faliszek, this "moment to moment feel" of the game has been the biggest benefactor of the past year’s development, and it’s not just continued training of the Director that helped. "That [feel] isn't like one thing, right? That's 50 million things", he says. "That's how the weapon feedback feels. That's the network code, that's going peer-to-peer, which actually helped that versus [dedicated] servers. There's a whole bunch of things that we did that got us to that point."
"We first released this brightly coloured, fun game, but then the experience was really kind of difficult. It was intense. It was really overwhelming, almost, at times, and it didn't pair with the look of what you were playing," he continues. "And now I think we're there. We've got so many grenades, special weapons, weapon variants, the perks system… a lot of different tools for players just to mix it up and jump in and have fun."
Indeed, the survivors’ arsenal have grown considerably since The Anacrusis launched with barely a handful of basic rifle, SMG and shotgun analogues. Now, you can spend Episodes on the hunt for upgrades, from classic sci-fi laser beam emitters to a rapid-firing blaster than traps any surviving targets in a stasis field. It’s a wackier, more creative set of handcannons, and they’re all much more satisfying to use now that the aliens actually react to hits.
This was probably my single least favourite thing about The Anacrusis at launch: waves of monsters that barely reacted to a plasma bolt in the chest. The guns themselves had a decent mechanical-electrical report but it often felt like you were just shouting at the aliens until they fell over. Now, though, they’ll stagger, twist and stumble upon taking damage, assuming they don’t get popped in a single shot. Combat is still nowhere near as meaty as that of, say, Darktide, but overcoming the initial mannequin-like quality of your foes goes a long way in making The Anacrusis a better FPS.
"It was really overwhelming, almost, at times, and it didn't pair with the look of what you were playing"
As for the sources of these improvements, many of them originate in Stray Bombay’s own testing (and the occasional internal game jam). But in true early access fashion, player feedback has often proved critical, and the official Discord channel has established itself as a goldmine of useful tips.
According to Faliszek, this was the plan from the start. “The Discord that we made was the best idea that we had before launch. Before we even announced the game, we started the Discord up," he says. "And we would just play co-op games and mods together, because our game is about both, right? And we learned so much stuff of what works, what doesn't work.”
Sometimes, the intel gleaned from these play sessions would lead to simple quality-of-life measures, like lobby codes to allow for parties to form without needing a flurry of friend requests (The Anacrusis supports cross-platform play across Steam and the Xbox app). Other times, it could shape the game more fundamentally. Faliszek recalls playing the game’s horde mode Holdout, another big post-launch addition, with such a talented team of Discord members that they exposed a flaw in its design: after successfully clearing enough of the endlessly repeating waves, players could earn enough perks to effectively become unkillable. The plan was subsequently changed to give Holdout runs a set climax, with a final boss monster, instead.
Not all feedback is as useful; Stray Bombay’s comms lead Will Smith attests to an apparently common request of "putting an AK-47" in their retrofuturist sci-fi game. But while The Anacrusis isn’t designed by committee, it has undoubtedly been built on a back-and-forth between players and developers. This will continue to be the case in 2023, Faliszek and Smith tell me, especially with much work left to do before leaving early access.
Speaking of which, technical and network stability has noticeably improved since that January launch, though plenty of glitches could use some attention. Alien corpses are prone to thrashing about in tight spaces, guns can get stuck firing over Episode ending cutscenes, and I’ve seen more than one poor Brute get lodged inside level geometry. Then, on a much bigger scale, there are the two unfinished campaigns: Episode 5 has yet to be shown, and Episode 4 has only released in "beta" form.
As you can imagine from a beta within an early access game, it’s rough, with absent voice acting, occasional placeholder visuals, and incomplete lighting that can leave its darkened starship engineering sector without useful navigation cues. Considering the first three Episodes launched as feature-complete, why switch to this approach?
"One of the things we, early on, had asked about was 'When does the player base want to see the game to start giving us feedback?'" Faliszek explains. “Because we're in early access, and we could do early access where we’re just like, hey, we just need some money. And we're going to release early so that we can get it, and then we're just gonna march on with our plan, and here's our tight roadmap, and that's what we're sticking with, and that's what you're getting. Or you can do it where you're like, hey, we have this opportunity before we go 1.0 to actually engage the community and do real feedback."
Faliszek’s instincts were apparently to release new Episodes in an even more embryonic state, with featureless greybox levels similar to those in the recently leaked Left 4 Dead protoype. But this approach was, again, redirected by feedback. The answer to whether players, even early access adopters, would want to test new Episodes in this state? "They don’t", says Smith. "We did a poll. They absolutely do not."
Even so, Smith adds, getting Episode 4 out early is helping them refine it with more details to work with and ideas to bounce off. "It was important to get it out early enough that we could make substantial changes to the flow and the, like the placement of holdouts and stuff like that. Because the point of this is to get the feedback."
"One of the things we learned early on is that holdouts earlier in the levels are better than holdouts later in the levels. So when you fail a holdout, you don't have to do the whole level again, you just you just go right back into where you were at. We want that kind of feedback, to be able to shape these levels while they're still in progress. And if we go and do all the final art passes, and the lighting and all that stuff, it makes it harder to make those big changes."
Here's another big change: mods. The Anacrusis got its full mod tools in June 2022, and they’ve since been wielded to craft comedy hats and full-length Episodes alike. Three custom campaigns have even been baked into the game itself; Faliszek describes the most recent addition, Array Containment, as his favourite mod in The Anacrusis’ Steam Workshop.
Purely cosmetic mods, along the lines of hats, gun charms, and character model replacements, further play into Stray Bombay’s view that The Anacrusis should be a right old lark first and something that makes any kind of sense second. Taking advantage of the purposeful lack of style/aesthetic guidelines, some of the most popular mods right now include transforming your character into a stock Half-Life scientist and one that allows two survivors to carry a piggybacking model of Lance, survivor and butt of most survivor-based fan jokes, around on their shoulders. One of those survivors, wonderfully, can be Lance himself.
These are jokes, but they’re often good ones, and honestly it’s refreshing to see a developer encourage such tomfoolery. You can share the joke, too. Unlike – to use Faliszek’s example – making Louis a Dalek with Left 4 Dead’s mods, any cosmetic mods in The Anacrusis will be visible to all players in a lobby, regardless of whether anyone else has the same ones installed. “That was a really big, important difference for how we wanted to treat mods, and making sure that they were integrated so that everyone got to see that and have that fun”, Faliszek says. Though you can opt out of this, if you just want to see vanilla cosmetics.
"While we still have a schedule now, I think we've learned enough to say that's not the important thing. The important thing is listening to the players"
As for the custom campaigns, I’ve found all three to be perfectly serviceable sideshows to the official Episodes. Even though its finale bugged out on me, leaving crowds of suddenly docile aliens standing around with their "Kill human" AI switched off, I especially enjoyed The Cosmos Bridge, which is largely set on an unnervingly barrier-less walkway on the underside of a ship. Smith points out that these missions can be developed and updated independently of Stray Bombay’s own schedule, so they could play a big role in keeping The Anacrusis feeling fresh between official Episode releases.
The fifth and final of those is expected sometime in 2023, "probably" around the same time Episode 4 reaches completion, though The Anacrusis will stay in early access for a while in any case. Again, this is a significantly, almost comprehensively superior game to the one that launched a year ago, but there’s still a lot to be done. Short-term plans include a more in-depth pass over combat, with a view of improving the gunplay even further, as well as more new enemies and refinements for existing ones. Eggs, the snoozing, fleshy spikeballs that bounce into a violent, potentially team-wiping attack when awakened, are due another look: Faliszek acknowledges that when fending them off, "there's a part of the fun that doesn't feel as fun as it should."
Further ahead, there’s the more ambitious matter of a L4D-style Versus mode, where player-controlled aliens seek to snuff out an opposing team of survivors. It’s early days for this as well, and Faliszek remains keen to avoid pushing ahead on it without that ever-present input from existing players.
"Originally, we had this really set plan, like 'This is where we're gonna go into early access, we're gonna be here and here'", he says. "And then really, the community was like, 'Hey, can you fix this stuff first, before we see the rest?' Listening to them dictates when we go out of 1.0. And while we still have a schedule now, I think we've learned enough to say that's not the important thing. The important thing is listening to the players, making sure that the things that we are putting out are right, and they’ll let us know."
"I don't really want to go 1.0 until Versus is done, and Versus needs some extra specials so that you have more fun things to combat. That's why we're talking about introducing them earlier, so we can get feedback on them and get them ready. So it's really when all of that comes together."
While The Anacrusis will remain in early access for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t have the whiff of something that will remain there forever. The progress of the past year is both measurable (mods, cosmetics, new weapons) and tangible (better shooting, livelier animations), which puts it in good stead for 2023. A rough launch? Maybe a tad. But as Faliszek also says, "This is the game we had wanted to release originally."
"We are at that spot, in a really good spot, and even better than then than that. So, yeah."