Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Anna: Extended Edition

Post-Launch Review
Anna: Extended Edition
Developer: Dreampainters
Released: July 2012
Played: story complete with several endings, including "truth", in 3 hours


A man explores an abandoned sawmill to uncover his connection with a woman named Anna. As the man puzzles out the background of the sawmill and the area's history of cult worship for a forest witch or goddess, he discovers that the house is haunted and something wants to prevent him from finding the truth.

At Launch

Anna received mixed reviews, with average scores around 50%. Reception of the horror elements was mixed, with some reviewers loving them and others disliking. Graphics and sound were praised, but most reviews stated that the story was too hard to uncover, the interface was difficult to use, and the puzzles were too hard.

Post Launch

In addition to many bug fixes, an Extended Edition was released. This version adds more gameplay and environments, new puzzles and music, and better graphics, sound, and interface. The Extended Edition is a free download for owners of the original Anna, and is now the default when purchasing the game.
The Extended Edition was received far better than the original, with average review scores jumping up to 75%.

Let's start with the first thing I noticed: the visuals are... decent. Though considering the very tiny environment sizes, not good enough to justify the relatively poor frame rates I saw. Well, when I say decent I'm referring to detail and realism - art direction is strong and really helps build atmosphere, especially when things start changing. Even before that, the mannequins are pretty unsettling.

This game has some very interesting lore and story elements, and it doesn't lay them all out for you. For much of the game I thought I was investigating this weird cult and the goddess they worship - Anna - which is mysteriously the same name as your wife. Except weird things keep coming up, and if you get the "truth" ending, there's more going on than there first appears. The books on the cult are interesting, and their beliefs and worship are much more old-world and strange if you're used to modern Western religion. I particularly like a document written by a Christian priest who believes that the statue in the local church represents Mary, and is completely baffled by the attitudes of some of the locals towards the statue.
Anna incorporates one of my favourite horror game elements: look at something, look away, look back, and something's different. Nothing interesting about that wall - oh, did I hear something behind the door? No, guess not. Back to - holy crap there's faces on the wall! I don't think that mannequin was there a second ago... or did I just not notice it? This is very effective when done well, and Anna does it pretty well. There are some very creepy events that occur; some (seem to be) when your sanity is low, others just as things that happen as part of your progress.

Some of these events, or your interactions, or certain items, will grant you intuitions. These "items" are things you've realized, bits of information you've picked up. At a certain point in the game, your intuitions can be combined (in the right way) to deduce more of the backstory and to tie clues together. This is a neat idea, and an interesting way to add a bit of a detective element into the game.
While I'm talking about intuitions, though... My biggest problem with the game is how little of the gameplay is communicated to the player. You can look up the controls, but if you're not a regular adventure game player, it might not occur to you that you can use inventory items on other inventory items - a function not listed in the controls. And even if you do figure that out, you might not realize that you can also combine intuitions, which is a crucial step for discovering the "truth" ending. Many of the puzzles are quite difficult, and some in obtuse ways - for example, your flashlight is relatively weak and it's very difficult to spot the oil you need to light a second lamp.
Anna has eight possible endings. These endings all occur under different conditions or trigger from different actions, so unless you're playing with a walkthrough and saving before each branch, it's impossible to see every ending in one playthrough. You also can't get some endings at all after you've triggered certain events (like taking the heart). This means you'll have to play through the game multiple times to see all the endings. It also very likely means you'll have to play through multiple times just to see the "real" ending where you actually solve the mystery of what's going on in this house. Given that Anna is an adventure game with entirely puzzle-based gameplay, it gets pretty annoying to replay the game over and over to see different endings, even though it's short, because you've already solved these puzzles and now you're just redoing them until you can get to the new bits. 
The one thing I do like about all the possible endings, though, is that the game accounts for many different reactions throughout play. There are a couple of possible endings for deciding to leave the house at various times. There's a point where you might have to choose what to do with a mask; there are endings for both options. It's nice that the game considers the options and actually tells you what happens, as opposed to just going "nope, you can't do that".

Recommendation: maybe.

I very much enjoyed Anna's story and mystery. Inventory management is a little cumbersome and the game fails to properly communicate some of your options, so it might be a little difficult to get into if you're not used to some of the conventions of adventure games. The music is strong and moody, but sometimes doesn't quite seem appropriate to the situation. It may take you several playthroughs to see all the endings, which can be annoying, but the game isn't that long so it could be worse. Actually, overall I spent a lot of time thinking "___ isn't great but it could be worse" for almost everything except the story.

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