What to expect from this Early Access release of the latest four-player cooperative shooter.
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Stray Bombay has been hard at work developing what could be the next true successor to Left 4 Dead with their upcoming cooperative PvE title, The Anacrusis. While I'm sure they want to avoid those sorts of direct comparisons, it is a little difficult to avoid them given how much of the same DNA is shared between the two franchises. Hell, one of Stray Bombay's founders, Chet Faliszek, used to work at Valve and was the lead writer on Left 4 Dead. Yet, there is still plenty of uniqueness present within The Anacrusis that leaves me hopeful for it perhaps becoming something even greater than similar titles in the genre.

The Anacrusis features teams of four-players going up against hordes of enemies. Equipped with a smattering of sci-fi inspired laser weaponry and gadgets, you will have to fight your way through tons of common foes along with plenty of the more advanced special enemy types. Players will battle their way through a retro sci-fi stylized space station located somewhere in the far reaches of the galaxy. It just so happens that this station is being overrun by aliens and mutants that have taken over the crew. The full story of what happened really isn't given to you on a silver platter but is pieced together through random lines of character chatter and environmental clues.

There are tons of the Grunt type enemies in each Mission. These no-frills common will run at you and slowly chip away at your health should they get too close. Joining them are the more advanced enemy types that are not quite as numerous as the Grunts but do still show up rather frequently within each map. These include large Brute enemies that can tank a lot of hits before going down. They will also often charge at players or leap at them with some impressive speed. The skittish Spawner will create little rolling alien ball turrets that seek players out and shoot at them. The Gooper likes to lob green goop at players, encasing them in a cocoon where the only way out is to have teammates shoot them free. They also like to goop up the ground, which can slow players down. The Grabber can shoot out far-reaching tentacles that will pull players towards it, ensnaring them until freed by a teammate. Next is the Flasher, or as my friends and I called it, the Sun. These Solaire praising enemies don't attack you directly but will instead summon hordes of the Grunts to your location. That alone wouldn't be too bad, but the Flashers also light up an area with a blinding yellow-orange light that makes it difficult to really pinpoint where they are. Finally, there are the Eggs. I believe they're called Eggs. Or it's a nest. Or it's just a collection of spikey jerks that play a little harmonic tune. Whatever they're called, one thing is for certain: They're mean. Startling them is bad news because they will roll at you and almost certainly down the person that startled them in the first place. They're a lot like the Witch in Left 4 Dead, just more roll-y and spikey.

If you have played most other cooperative shooters, you probably know what to expect here as far as the basic gameplay structure is concerned. Everybody begins in a safe room. Your squad equips themselves with weapons that are functionally similar to assault rifles, shotguns, and SMGs. These primary weapons can be resupplied at weapon charging stations scattered throughout levels. Alternatively, you can just flat out swap your weapon for another should you find another one in the environment. At present, I do not know if additional weapons will be added during the Early Access period.

Some Missions will have you simply going from Point A to Point B, with some mid-Mission event to tackle along with a challenging "finale" event. Other Missions seem to be more objective focused, including one where you are tasked with recovering a radioactive item that can kill you if carried by one person for too long. There is another section that tasks players with charging up an escape pod at stations scattered throughout a giant room. I appreciate the push for some variety in the gameplay design beyond the simple "go here, kill, go here, kill, go here, kill, victory."

As you make your way through the levels, you will come across additional "heavy" weaponry that can help you in battle, but once the ammo is expended, you'll have to find another weapon to replace them. These heavy weapons occupy a third weapon slot after your primary weapon and infinite ammo pistol. There are other helpful items scattered throughout the levels including vortex grenades, stasis field grenades, goop (or goo) grenades, explosive grenades, placeable automated turrets, as well as permanent and temporary health refills. Players are also able to shoot out a 360-degree repulser field around their character. This acts as a melee-like ability that can push enemies back to give a bit of breathing room. The repulser field operates using charges that slowly refill over time.

A lot of this is rather standard fare when stacked up against other games in the same genre. However, The Anacrusis does have a few unique tricks up its psychedelic sleeves. Perhaps the most noteworthy gameplay feature is the inclusion of Matter Compilers. These kiosks are rather rare but provide you with some nice permanent character upgrades for the rest of the Mission. Each Compiler will offer each player a choice of three upgrades to choose from each time one is activated. For instance, a Compiler may offer you a permanent health boost, or an ability that reduces damage taken while standing in goop, or you can get an ability that makes your repulse stronger. Though the choices offered at each Compiler are random, it is still possible to build your character up in certain ways to give you a nice advantage for later levels in each Mission.

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The current state of the preview release for The Anacrusis offers players three main Missions to choose from, each of which is made up of several different parts. So far, each of these missions did contain a few unique gameplay elements. There are two more Missions listed in the menu that were not available yet. There also seem to be weekly challenges for players to tackle. It also seems as though The Anacrusis will offer players the chance to add modifiers to alter the gameplay, but I have no idea what these modifiers entail. The entire initial offering for The Anacrusis can probably be experienced in one evening of gaming, which is a bit of a disappointment.

There were some other things that I noticed for this preview that aren't quite ready or implemented just yet. The game does not allow you to pick which character you will play as. The characters are selected for you based on the order in which you join the party. There will be some small amount of customization when it comes to the appearance of your character. You'll also be able to use different emotes, though only the wave was available. There will also be some custom nameplate banners that only seem to show up at the start and end of each Mission. There is a whole tab dedicated to a "Season" on the main menu. All it says is "Coming Soon" when you click on it. Make of that what you will.

Though this is not a review, I can't help but mention some of the major areas in which I felt The Anacrusis was lacking. I mentioned that there are just three primary weapon types to choose from at the start of each level. The problem is that there are only ever those three weapon types to choose from. There are no upgraded versions of these weapons to be found. There also isn't a weapon attachment or modification system that could serve as an alternative to the lack of a more diverse selection of weapons. I suppose the same could be said about the rarer heavy weapons that you can find in the levels. There is an arc weapon that is good for dealing with mobs of enemies. There is a laser that can rapidly take down tougher enemies like the Brutes. Then there is the placeable turret which I'm not counting as a "weapon" because you place it and let it do it sown thing. Beyond that? Nothing. All in all, that means that there are technically just five main weapons beyond your standard issue pistol, two of which cannot be reloaded.

Beyond that gripe, there are several other issues that make the entire experience feel a bit on the shallow side. There seems to be little penalty for individual deaths in the game. If someone is completely killed, they can be respawned anywhere and at any time. The only risk is that it might trigger another horde event with a bunch of enemies showing up in the short span of time it takes for the killed player to rematerialize. Revived players also seem to return with full health, which means that death really isn't a big concern. In fact, my friends and I never once failed a level due to death only. Yes, we had to restart levels because we were all immobilized in some capacity (via Grabber or in the Goop cocoon, for example), but never because we all died.

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I love the whole idea of a '60s-era inspired space station floating along in the far reaches of space. It's a unique idea and I am definitely on board with it. However, the overall environmental design leaves a lot to be desired. The game is mostly made up of similar looking hallways that, while colorful, are still rather barren. The world needs some flavor to spice it up a bit. Give me more areas with posters on walls or in-universe advertisements. Let me see personal belongings in some of the numerous crew quarters we ran through. I would have also loved to have seen more environmental interactivity beyond shattering glass, but most everything seemed to be firmly cemented in place.

I would have also liked to have seen some sort of gore or dismemberment. There are little spurts of orange alien blood that shoot out, but that's kind of it. Perhaps we've been spoiled by games like Left 4 Dead where there are several levels of gore and dismemberment for even the most common enemy types. When a Grunt dies in The Anacrusis, they do seem to have a little death animation before falling to the ground, which is a nice touch at least. The special enemies just seem to ragdoll upon death.

I fully realize that it's kind of a dick move to compare The Anacrusis, a game made by a small development studio, with something like Left 4 Dead which was made by Valve, a studio that has several hundred employees. However, these are just some of the expectations that I expect other fans of the genre will bring up. Hell, knowing how gaming communities can get, I'm sure there's going to be tons of other features, bugs, and missing content that gamers will bring up that I didn't even touch upon here. The game does offer up some unique and innovative ideas such as the retro sci-fi space station setting as well as the character altering Material Compilers. These are good things and I like them a lot. However, as a whole, The Anacrusis feels like a big step backwards from other modern, cooperative PvE titles. In a lot of ways, it's even lacking features that were present in, you guessed it, 2008's Left 4 Dead.

There is also no difficulty selection. Instead, the A.I. driven "Director 2.0" will adjust the difficulty on the fly depending on how well your team is doing. Even though Left 4 Dead had a similar A.I. director, it still featured difficulty options. I'm sure there are people who would prefer a more easy-going experience, just as there are players who want a tough as nails challenge. Difficulty options that still incorporate the dynamic nature of the Director 2.0 would be fantastic to see.

If you don't have a group of friends to play with, I would probably avoid this game right now if you think you might enjoy a solo jaunt through the space station. The A.I. companions are just not good. Like, they're honestly kind of bad. They often get stuck on geometry. They will also often just stand still, even when an enemy is attacking them. Thankfully, there is cross-play between players on Steam, Epic Games Store, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. The game will also be available on the same day for Xbox Game Pass subscribers, which should help a lot with finding people to play with.

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This is just the Early Access release for The Anacrusis though. According to the game's Steam page, this Early Access release will run for at least 9 months with the team at Stray Bombay hoping to get the full version out by the end of the year. They say that the full version of the game will include more episodes, game types, and other unspecified content. There will be weekly challenges to engage with. The devs have already implemented some changes based on feedback they've received, so that's encouraging. The team also plans to fully support mods and the mod community, which is just fantastic. Mods are certainly what kept breathing new life into the Left 4 Dead franchise (I swear I'll stop mentioning that game!) long after official content stopped coming out.

I do not think that The Anacrusis is bad per se. The content that I played did not feel severely buggy or broken (besides companion A.I.). I just feel as though the current state of the game is lacking in several key areas. The game certainly has a lot of potential.

I mean, who knows? Right? Maybe all my gripes are going to vanish in the months ahead. There is a lot of development time ahead where things can change rather drastically. I will be sure to keep an eye on this one as development progresses. If the development timeline pans out and the full release happens near the end of the year, I'll gather my friends up for another space adventure to offer up a final review of the game.

Additional Information
  • The Anacrusis
    • Developed by: Stray Bombay Company
    • Published by: Stray Bombay Company
  • Price: $29.99 (USD)
  • Platform previewed on: PC via Steam
    • Previewed on: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, 32GB DDR4 3600 RAM, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti
    • Also available on: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, and Epic Games Store
  • Release Date: February 13, 2022 (Early Access)
  • ESRB: N/A
  • This game was provided to Total Gaming Network for preview purposes.

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