The Anacrusis Early-Access Impressions (PC and XSS)

So much potential…
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There have been multiple attempts to refine and expand upon the cooperative horde-shooter formula – all of which are still eclipsed by 2009’s easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master, and infinitely-replayable Left 4 Dead 2. The Anacrusis – developed and published by Stray Bombay – shows plenty of potential with a focus on minute-to-minute gameplay and the promise of mod support, rather than persistent progression. However, this early-access release also highlights the need for balancing, polish, and console optimization before going gold.

With former Left 4 Dead and Portal 2 writer Chet Faliszek co-founder of the developer, I went in expecting entertaining protagonist interactions and a fair bit of organic world-building through dialogue and environmental storytelling. However, in its current state – and also as a consequence of the online-only nature – The Anacrusis has no coherent sense progression despite being broken into five sequential episodes (3 of which are currently available). To be fair, the Left 4 Dead games only had loosely-connected campaigns to ensure they still felt satisfying as standalone experiences but you were always able to simply host a game, picking up where you left off.

In contrast, without a visit to The Anacrusis’ official website, all I could have told you is “survive after aliens invade retro-futuristic space cruiser”. Picking an episode is merely a suggestion and the game will rather team you up on a different episode, sometimes dumping you into the middle of the action, than let you start solo with bots and wait on other players. Loading screens and safe room banter reveal a little more about the protagonists’ backstories and their current situation, but it feels like they’re pulled at random. There’s also little sense of continuity as you move between the available episodes, and the presence of mid-mission dialogue – some of which does refer to prior episodes – is erratically doled out.  

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The Anacrusis does a decent job of changing up the environments in each episode. There are plenty of shiny retro-future corridors but also stylish shopping malls, passenger entertainment areas, sprawling engine rooms, massive atriums, and a few stunning locations with some actual greenery.

This inconsistency also has gameplay ramifications. You’ll always hear callouts for special aliens and general directions (think “this way”, “stairs over here”, “let’s make for [insert location]”) but the narrative and objective quips are inconsistent. I experienced several runs in which I heard almost nothing during a 15-20 minute map, only to have an incredibly chatty crew on the next map, then silence again for the third. This lack of feedback – coupled with minimal HUD markers – can have a detrimental impact on first impressions. When I was tackling an episode for the first time, paired with equally inexperienced teammates, we often ended up running around an area in circles – swamped by endlessly spawning hordes and special aliens – with little idea how to progress.

Going back to the narrative, I appreciate these games are designed for “endless” replayability, with a far greater focus on unpredictable gameplay thanks to an AI-director. However, The Anacrusis desperately needs a decent introductory cutscene, the ability to ensure you start at the beginning of an episode when matchmaking, and better dialogue triggers. Everyone enjoys some narrative context – even if only for the first playthrough – and, given the novel and stylish setting, it’s a shame we know so little about the universe or the protagonists’ overarching purpose.

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With missing dialogue cues and no objective text, it took far too long to realise we had to hit another switch before we could interact with all those highlighted objects.

I opened this impression piece by stating The Anacrusis had potential and the core gameplay feels very close to the pure Left 4 Dead formula – ditching the repetitive persistent progression systems found in so many modern games to focus on the run-to-run experience.

The core formula remains unchanged: run-and-gun from safe room A to safe room B, completing one or two objectives in the process, while the AI-director ensure no two runs feel identical. At its most basic, this means changing up the enemy and item placement, but it can also increase or decrease the challenge based on how your team is doing. Running around at max health with reserve healing items? Expect a bare minimum of pickups and a flurry of special alien spawns. The entire team limping forward at low health? You can expect a breather and several health pickups to get you back on your feet. This formula worked brilliantly way back in 2008’s original Left 4 Dead, was refined in the sequel, and still serves as the foundation of every game in the genre.

When it comes to gunplay, The Anacrusis offers a distinctly sci-fi selection of firearms and gadgets – most of them of the pew-pew laser variety – and they feel well-balanced. The Pistol is your fallback weapon that can still pull off the odd headshot or cover your saviour when you’re down but not out. The Blaster is an energy shotgun that clears a wide arc just in front of you. The SMB is a “submachine blaster” that excels at cutting down approaching hordes of basic infected humans. The Plasma Rifle serves a similar purpose but trades clip size for longer range and precision.

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Turrets are always good to hold onto for hold-out moments but you can never go wrong keeping an Arc Rifle in reserve.

The heavy weapon slot is reserved for equipment potentially spawned in each map. There’s the Laser Rifle (an incendiary death beam); the Arc Rifle (think chain lightning), and a deployable turret – all best held on to for hold-out moments and finale events. Ammunition reserves are limited, given the length of each map and the number of enemies, forcing you to keep an eye out for charging stations (i.e. ammunition caches) or switch up weapons as you find them. Gadgets are also sci-fi in nature but don’t stray too far from genre conventions. Every player has a recharging “pulse” ability that can shove away basic enemies (almost constantly if your team is coordinated enough); recovery items restore health or provide temporary health; and there are multiple grenade types (explosive, incendiary, goo, stasis, and shield).

Character progression follows a roguelike, single-run, structure and The Anacrusis only offers up unlockable cosmetics and emotes. “Matter Compilers” – randomly spawned and often hidden away – allow each player to pick one of three random perks. These enhance player, weapon, and gadget abilities: think faster revive or healing speeds; increased fire-rate or new bullet behaviour; and improved range or efficacy for pulse ability or grenades. A coordinated team can create a powerful mix of individual and team-based perks that increase their survivability and damage output.

Any impressions or review piece is subjective, but I’d argue far too many PvE games have shifted the focus to persistent progression buffs, which ultimately leads to uneven sessions – especially when you rely on randoms to fill out your team. Without a dedicated team, you often find yourself overpowered or spend your time as an ineffective third wheel. The Anacrusis takes the classic approach of ensuring every match starts on even footing, with progress dependant on individual skill and team strategy, rather than skewed towards whoever has had the most time to grind (or paid) for character buffs and better gear.

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The perk roll is random, but you can accumulate a powerful assortment of buffs if you stick to one element (a weapon, grenades, healing items, or the pulse ability).

As an early-access title, the experience is far from perfect and there’s room for improvement. There’s the aforementioned problem with vague HUD markers and skipped dialogue leaving players confused about objectives. There’s the inability to simply start an episode with bots and wait on friends or randoms to join. Talking of said bots, they’re competent enough when there’s only one or two in the team but I can see why there’s no dedicated solo mode (yet?). They always prioritise revives and healing (even if it kills them) but their pathfinding is awful in vertical rooms, which can see them lagging or charging forward (and falling off ledges), instead of sticking down with actual players.

However, my biggest issue with The Anacrusis is the reliance on immobilising aliens as run-killers. It has a fairly conventional roster of “special” aliens that’ll be instantly familiar to fans of the genre, but two variants are particularly infuriating. The “Grabber” serves the same pinning role as a L4D’s “Hunter” but it can immobilise two players simultaneously with its tentacles (which grab at insane ranges). The “Goober” – a modified version of L4D2’s “Spitter” – spews goo that both slows players and immobilises them with a direct hit. In chaotic battles, a single Goober can ensnare an entire team, leaving them with no way to escape guaranteeing a trip back to the last safe room (being bludgeoned by aliens doesn’t count).

Given the small indie developer, I didn’t expect the presentation to be one of the strongest elements. Improvements are needed – animations are stiff, there are weird ragdoll moments, and the limited hit feedback robs the combat of impact – but the visual style and soundtrack are exceptional. I never realised I needed a brighter, more family-friendly Left 4 Dead experience, without the incessantly grim atmosphere, dark visuals, and bloody violence. There’s something strangely serene about the environments and the ambient music when exploring, coupled with some great high-tempo tracks for hold moments when you’re being swarmed.

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The frustrating end of so many good runs.

It’s not all for show either as colour is used to convey information to players. The eyes (eye?) of the basic infected humans glow red when they spot you and turn hostile, while the special aliens have both a distinctive silhouette and colour. The Flashers that lead swarms of infected generate a blinding, incandescent glow; Brutes glow menacingly red; Grabbers are electric blue; Goopers a sickly green; and Spawners bright yellow. It makes it much easier to spot threats in the heat of battle and pick your targets.

Unfortunately, at least for Xbox Series S players, The Anacrusis still needs optimisation on console. It targets 60fps on the budget console but fluctuates wildly. My 5-year-old gaming notebook – with a mid-tier i5 processor, GTX 1050 Ti, 16GB ram, and a SATA-connected SSD – required only a few tweaks to the visual settings to maintain a more stable 1080/60 while looking just as good.

So despite the incoherent narrative layer, some balancing issues, and technical issues in this early-access release, I think The Anacrusis has real potential. The core gameplay loop feels very, very close to the “pick up and play” experience that still makes Left 4 Dead timeless. With the feedback and data they gather from this early-access period, I’m hoping Stray Bombay are given the time and budget they need to polish this to perfection.

A preview code for The Anacrusis was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

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