Review: Anarchy Reigns (Xbox 360)

Let’s all take just a second to look back to what feels like an eternity ago: the year 2006. It was in this year that Capcom announced the closure of Clover Studio, a developer of such incredibly unique gaming experiences. It was a move that painted a rather bleak picture for the future of innovation and risk-taking from major Japanese publishers, and fans of Clover and the awesome games they created had little choice but to wait it out and see, eager to learn what, if anything, would happen to this legendary staff.

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried too much. Platinum Games was the ultimate result, and their partnership with SEGA was a surprising and exciting move for both companies. Things are a bit different today, with Anarchy Reigns representing, at least for now, the final game in Platinum’s publishing agreement with SEGA. The question is, is this online-driven beat-em-up any good?

And it’s a question that I find tough to answer. Anarchy Reigns is an ambitious but flawed game; one just good enough for me to wish that it were better. It comes with the same sense of style and energy that Platinum Games has made their own, and I’m still convinced that there’s something to this concept they’ve come up with. The idea of a fighter where you can run through its environments, seeing other real players duking it out and then getting to jump right into the fray, is one rife with possibilities. There’s also a single player mode with two separate Campaigns to check out, each with their own story and missions. And of course, we see the return of Jack and others from MadWorld. Playing Anarchy Reigns, I was aware of its potential just as much as I was aware of its many, many flaws.

Single Player

Anarchy Reigns sees the return of Jack, along with a fairly unrecognizable Leo, both MadWorld alumni who get their own single player Campaigns here. You’ll wander through one of four free roaming Areas, all having fallen more or less into ruin. Enemies will regularly spawn all around you, and by beating them up you’ll net the points which serve as gateways into the missions themselves. There are two different types of missions: some which advance the story and can only be beaten once, while the others can be played multiple times for points. Though you can gain the same points by chilling out in the Areas and beating up countless enemies, doing this is a slow process, and points are given out in far greater number by beating the missions themselves. How well you perform in each mission will determine how many points you get, however, and getting a Bronze Medal on a mission may very well mean that you’ll have to play it again (or do some grinding) to gain the points needed to unlock the mission that progresses the story.

This core design makes the Campaign feel rather dated; it actually drudged up memories of the N64 for me, a time when so many games seemed like nothing more than thinly-disguised lists of similar objectives (collect 10 of these things, fight 4 of these guys,) to be completed. Anarchy Reigns’ Campaign is exactly that, and it makes no effort to hide what it is. That said, the fundamentals are at least fun. The combat doesn’t even come close to touching the likes of Bayonetta or DmC but it still manages to offer up some brutal good times. Each character has strong attacks as well as weaker ones that can be used more quickly, and all possess their own weapon (like Jack’s chainsaw) that you can bring out with the Left Trigger once a meter fills. You can also, once charged up, enter a trance-like super mode by clicking the 2 analog sticks, allowing you to move far more quickly and combo your foes to death.

There’s a definite learning curve in place here, and I suppose that’s another purpose the single player serves, though you’ll still need serious patience and dedication to become strong in the online multiplayer. The hip hop soundtrack meanwhile adds energy to an already chaotic atmosphere, with some truly epic songs in its arsenal. The art direction, while not technically impressive, reminded me a lot of the Mortal Kombat series, something which made exploring each new Area a pretty fun thing for me. There isn’t much to see in the hub worlds but they have atmosphere, including some cool but far more subtle music playing in the background.

Unfortunately, both characters progress through the same Areas and in the same order. They thankfully have different missions, but as the second character you no longer have the same feeling of discovery that you got the first time through, making the 2nd campaign you tackle inevitably the one that’s less fun. The stories themselves, meanwhile, alternate between fully produced cutscenes and voiced images of the characters’ heads talking back and forth against a static background. Jack’s story has a nice mixture of both, while Leo’s cutscenes can be so ridiculously short that it feels as if Platinum Games ran out of money halfway through development. The story told is an odd mixture of serious drama and wisecracking “badassery”, one that clashes as violently with itself as the characters on screen. Issues with the tone aside, I found Jack’s story to be mildly compelling, something I just can’t say for Leo’s. The voice acting is fairly hit-or-miss, though admittedly the actors were working with a script that’s a step down…make that two steps down, from MadWorld’s. Steve Blum returns to provide Jack’s awesome voice, while the Black Baron was re-cast and really, the less said about that, the better.

At around 3 hours apiece, the Campaigns aren’t very long and they feel too much like grind fests at times. Still, I got my fair share of enjoyment out of them. It’s a good combat system, there are some cool cutscenes, exploring the Areas is fun the first time through, and seeing the huge amount of points you get from doing a mission well is undoubtedly satisfying. It’s this feeling actually that makes up the basis of the game’s next major category….

Multiplayer

Though completion of the Campaign is required to unlock all the characters, the meat of Anarchy Reigns is in its multiplayer, and there’s an awful lot to explore here. Like in the single player, multiplayer mode is all about chaos. Others wander the battlefield as they pummel each other into a bloody pulp, and you’re free to jump into any fights you see. Crazy shit happens all around you as you play; tornadoes will tear through the Areas, bombs will reign down, giant monsters will show up to be eliminated….and that’s just a part of it.

Games can be played in teams or in free-for-alls, with as few as 2 players or as many as 16. You can end up in Battle Royale or Capture the Flag, in Cage Matches or Death Ball, there’s no shortage of modes to experience should you be fortunate enough to get into them. Leveling up works just the way it does in the single player; you’ll receive points at the end of each game, plus bonuses depending on how well you did, and you’ll rank up. This is all solid stuff.

Standouts include the ridiculously fun Death Ball, the intense Cage Matches, and 2-on-2 team battles. It’s here that Anarchy Reigns’ multiplayer shines; it has just enough craziness but not so much that it becomes overwhelming, and it’s far easier to get the hang of things without 15 other people attacking you every second. But that’s just my own personal preference; there’s so much to discover in the multiplayer, so many modes to become good at, so many options at your disposal, that anybody’s bound to find something they like, as long as they’re willing to put up with the major issues that unfortunately are the heart of the Anarchy Reigns multiplayer experience.

Its biggest problem is that getting into matches can be a major chore. There are more people playing this than I thought there would be (granted, my expectations were incredibly low,) but there simply aren’t enough people online to play the multiplayer the way Platinum Games intended. You can select a Match Type but never once was I told anything other than “No Matches Found” when doing this. By picking “Any”, the game essentially throws you into whatever lobby’s open, and this is more or less required if you ever want to actually find open matches. Even doing this, I’ve had to wait for up to 20 minutes from jumping online before I could even get into a match, an issue resulting from getting booted from lobbies by “error” messages with surprising frequency, not to mention the many minutes I’ve wasted waiting for that one last empty spot in a lobby to be taken by someone, anyone, so that the game could finally start. It’s too bad, because when people are around the lobbies fill up surprisingly quickly, and once everyone’s in, you rarely have to wait long for the game to start; I just wish Anarchy Reigns were like that all the time.

On another note, probably due to the small number of players, the ranking system doesn’t do much of anything to group you with people of a comparable skill level. As early as Level 1 I found myself in team battles with people at Level 50 (yes, 50) and I’m not just talking about one or two people, I’m talking about the majority of those playing. To be fair, it’s certainly not impossible for a person with a low level to compete with those who outrank them by up to 49, but this does make it awfully difficult to get the hang of the multiplayer when you routinely find yourself in these scenarios. And this is after waiting for so long to get into matches.

There are issues with the combat as well, as the Block command feels woefully ineffective, and there seems to be no way to escape when trapped inside someone’s long combo as your health dwindles away. The X+A move was designed to throw nearby enemies away from you, but it does nothing against combos that are already in progress, and dying in an inescapable storm of punches and kicks is basically the norm in Anarchy Reigns. These are issues in the single player mode as well, but they’re far more prevalent in multiplayer as you face off against real humans, and the respawn time can be up to a whopping 9 seconds long depending on the match type, which means that dying completely kills the pacing, something that only adds to the frustration.

It’s in this sense that, just like the single player, the online is a mix of major ups and downs. It can be very satisfying to get into a groove and play very well against your foes. It’s fun to see yourself rewarded with additional points at the end of a match for doing well, and even more fun to see those points level you up a rank. The online modes you can play are numerous and varied and they do offer a nice challenge. But the central problem here is the community, or the lack of it; Anarchy Reigns is certainly not a ghost town, but there just aren’t enough inhabitants for a balanced multiplayer game. Those who are truly dedicated will be able to stand with the best, but it’s a learning curve that may ultimately prove to be too much for most other players.

Verdict

And it’s here that I’m in a tough place as someone reviewing the game. I love Platinum, and this has their style all over it. I love the idea of an MMO beat-em-up where Anarchy’s the name of the game, and the amount of work put into the multiplayer mode is something that has to be admired. But in reviewing a game, I’m essentially reviewing the experience that I had (and therefore, that you may have) while playing it. The online mode’s impressive but it’s not something that you can just pick up and excel at; sadly, the small pool of players online means that you have little choice but to learn the ropes while competing against people far better (or worse) than you, and that can be difficult to enjoy. It also means that you sometimes have to wait ages for matches to start, and that you may rarely be playing in your game of choice. The best way I can see to play Anarchy Reigns’ multiplayer is to get a bunch of friends together (online; the game has no split screen) and stick with each other. It’s in this environment that Anarchy Reigns would truly shine, because it’s a multiplayer with a lot to experience: you just have to clear some major entry barriers before you can really begin enjoying yourself.

The single player mode, meanwhile, offers a fun, if dated, distraction, and there’s something inherently satisfying about getting to step back into the shoes of Jack to take out some more baddies as the hip hop soundtrack blares over the carnage. But Leo’s story isn’t nearly as fun, and when the online community disappears there’s not much you’ll be left with.

In the end, Anarchy Reigns is a title that I can recommend mainly to the biggest fans of Platinum Games. It’s definitely possible to get a lot out of this game, especially its multiplayer mode; I just wish its release was handled better so that we could have had more people online to play against. A more fleshed out single player would have helped to remedy this, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s not without its share of fun, and at $30 you can’t go too wrong. If you’re still interested, I encourage you to give it a shot sooner rather than later if you want anybody to play against. If the idea of a wacky Japanese online beat-em-up doesn’t compel you, however, there’s little in here that will change your mind.

Positives

•The single player campaign offers some addictive fun while it lasts
•Awesome cutscenes and music in the usual Platinum Games style
•Return of fan favorite characters, a decent list of very different fighters to choose from
•Expansive online mode that some will put hours upon hours into mastering

Negatives

•Many, however, will grow frustrated quickly by the lack of players and uneven matchmaking
•The short single player campaign, fun as it can be at times, feels dated and a lot like an afterthought
•Combat fails to reach the heights or balance of real action or fighting games
•No offline multiplayer

Note; this is a review of the Xbox 360 version, written about a month after its North American and European releases. Multiplayer status on the PS3 may vary.

SEGA was not smart to delay its Western release date so far away from its Japanese one, though they did have the sense to price this title accordingly. Taking its official $29.99 MSRP into account, a C+ instead of a C.

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