Anarchy Reigns PS3 Review

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One day when juggling an enemy in Bayonetta with a barrage of kicks and punches, I thought what an infuriating game it would be if I were on the receiving end. So when Platinum Games started talking about Anarchy Reigns in somewhat vague terms that suggested it would be a multiplayer Bayonetta, I was immediately sceptical. It didn’t help that, leading up to the game’s release, we got sporadic character reveals that seemed to imply it was a direction-less, mish-mash of Platinum’s previous output. With the roster growing from the initial four, more and more MadWorld guests popping up, and finally Bayonetta as a bonus character, I got the impression that the developer was just throwing everything at it to cash in on their established goodwill. Not since Alan Wake‘s PR cycle had I felt so in the dark as to what kind of game they were actually making, but I was still interested due to my soft spot for the brawler genre and my affection for Bayonetta.

With the final game in hand, what exactly is Anarchy Reigns? Should you, through some freaky coincidence, share the following points of reference, it evokes the Dreamcast games Power Stone and Spawn: In The Demon’s Hand, and the Xbox games Spikeout: Battle Street and Unreal Championship 2. It is a multiplayer-focused, heavily combo-based brawler where you engage enemies in team and solo modes akin to most online shooters – essentially the very game I thought would never work. Only, it does.

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Let’s hold off on talking about why it works, for a while, and try to neatly break it down first. Anarchy Reigns is played from a behind-the-back perspective that is more MadWorld than Bayonetta. Normal attack, heavy attack, grab and jump are mapped to your face buttons, while tapping L1 locks on to your enemy, letting you toggle between enemies with the right stick. L2 readies your Killer Weapon – a slower, stronger means of attacking that needs to recharge, used primarily for finishing off enemies. Holding R1 or R2 guards, and you can dodge by pressing a direction and the jump button while guarding. And pressing jump and normal attack together performs a 360-degree manoeuvre that gets you out of a jam at the expense of some health. Each of the characters share fundamentals, so if you learn one you will establish a solid foundation for all, but the specifics of their combos and moves will differ. As you attack enemies, you fill your rampage metre. Once filled, you click both sticks to trigger rampage mode. Rampage mode makes you impervious to attacks, you move faster, and your killer weapon gauge never depletes.

Littered around the environments are different objects you can pick up and throw, each with slightly different attributes but all resulting in your opponent being temporarily stunned. Slot machines in specific locations give a random item or power-up when hit. Controls will change slightly when you use certain items or pick up things to throw, some allowing you to aim freely like a third-person shooter. Before each match you have the option of equipping an extra ability. Think of this as a load-out or a perk, giving you damage or defence buffs, unbreakable guarding or automatic throw escapes. There are 25 of them in total, and you unlock them as you play the multiplayer modes.

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The levels themselves are huge. Accommodating for a maximum of 16 players, they’re multi-layered, vast environments with several choke points and potential arenas. Unlike an online shooter, you can’t close the distance between characters with a bullet, so in order to herd players together or separate them into smaller duels, randomly-triggered level hazards affect certain parts of a map. The game halts for a moment to show a quick CG sequence introducing these hazards – for example, a poisonous gas outbreak or an incinerating microwave beam. The CG intros can come at very inopportune times, but they are host-specific options that can be turned off. These variables, coupled with a mini-map that highlights where your teammates are as well as danger areas, keep jumbling things around in a way that ensures a steady stream of encounters. Also, in order to avoid chasing players for ages, the lock-on mechanic actually speeds you up so a pursuer will inevitably catch up to a fleeing character.

At the beginning of the game, six characters are available in the multiplayer modes, but as you meet certain requirements the roster eventually grows to sixteen (with additional secret ones). You’ll recognize a few returning from MadWorld, including the main character, Jack Cayman, who also stars alongside newcomer Leo in Anarchy Reigns‘ somewhat spartan campaign mode. Dotting missions around the game’s expansive multiplayer levels and bookending chapters with a budget-minded mix of CG cutscenes and talking heads, the campaign is certainly not the reason to bite. You’ll earn medals and you can replay chapters to perfect your ranking and so forth, but it’s all in service of making you more comfortable controlling your character in every situation – an adequate venue for familiarising yourself with the maps. It all circles back to the multiplayer component – you know, the one that couldn’t possibly work.

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Anarchy Reigns transitions masterfully between two disciplines: one of them, a chaotic brawler where everything can suddenly change on a dime, and the other one approaching a combat engine reminiscent of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, where you have precision control and you’re essentially dribbling with your enemy. It never gets as elaborate and elegant as Bayonetta, because that literally would not work. With so many people fighting at once, the game will sometimes be reduced to a hectic, chaotic mess, and there just isn’t the space and enemy complacency to allow that amount of situational awareness and control. When you do end up in one-on-one battles, however, there’s enough inherited from the Bayonetta school of games to make fights exciting and mechanically rewarding, while maintaining a simplicity the game can fall back on when its brawler chops are needed.

And the game can become just as scrappy as it needs to. When big chaotic brawls happen, you’re constantly drop-kicking whoever is in view, getting your licks in until somebody throws a tire or a flaming barrel at you. You’re hammering your 360 attack to buy yourself a few seconds to breathe, and just as you’re taking a devastating beating or dishing one out, a sudden carpet bombing of the area may shift the tide of the battle completely. It doesn’t feel like the game is stopped dead in its tracks, because its ability to shift gears allows it to operate on that level. A fight may then branch out, you taking an enemy with you down a multi-storey building, ending up in a one-versus-one in a different area. You start circling each other, and the game suddenly allows for a measured, nail-biting encounter where the subtleties in tactics re-emerge.

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It’s also very transparent with what you’re doing wrong, usually making it easy to identify and fix weak links in your strategy. Your equipped ability is especially handy here. If you find yourself breaking out of combos using the 360 attack often, you may be losing battles because by the time you strike back, that move has drained too much of your health. You can remedy this by equipping the ability that removes the damage penalty for using it. Playing on, you’ll eventually learn to moderate your use of that attack and meanwhile find new weaknesses in your strategy. When you’re ready to give up that particular ability boost, there’s probably another that better suits your needs. That cycle continues and the feeling of cause-and-effect makes simply reacting to your experiences very rewarding. It makes Anarchy Reigns a fun game to fail at because you can immediately apply what you’ve learned from it and notice the improvement.

In addition to the self-explanatory deathmatch modes, Battle Royal is the free-for-all mode where a whopping 16 people duke it out. Tag modes put you on a team of two, enforcing teamwork by letting you respawn almost immediately by moving a marker to your buddy’s position. Should you be separated on opposite ends of the map, moving your marker takes ages. It’s a simple, effective way of emphasising sticking together. Death Ball is a Speedball-esque, team-based mode where your group needs to hold on to the ball for a set amount time, prompting the opposing team’s goal to open and you then throw the ball in (or run with it) to score. The fighting aspect works the same and it boils down to protecting whoever holds the ball from attackers, which means combat is paramount in this mode as well. It stands out as the only goofy game mode, but it’s sensibly designed and fun to play.

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Not only does combat feel fundamentally satisfying, everything you associate with single-player, ranking-based games slots perfectly into Anarchy Reigns, because it is every bit as score-based. You score points for dealing damage, using items and getting kills, but you also gain bonuses for getting consecutive kills while staying alive and lose points for dying. Point incentives encourage you to build large combos, to see a fight through and finish off an enemy. As you rack up consecutive kills, a prompt shows up on-screen (saying +1, +2, or +3) and point bonuses get calculated with a sound cue to go with. It goes straight to your brain’s pleasure centre. At the end of a round, additional bonuses are layered on top of your score. There are ones for dealing the most damage, getting the most kills, using the most items, longest combo, and so on, ensuring that even if you haven’t gotten the most kills, you’ll likely get your due recognition.

Anarchy Reigns may not feel like the seemingly bottomless well of potential tactics and means of expression that Bayonetta is, as it is an inherently more limited game in terms of scope. It does, however, tap into a similar vein. When you find an opening, there’s a dependability to the moment that occurs in the combat cycle which allows you to employ whatever moves you feel like. It’s that free-form dynamism that echoes the fundamental appeal of Bayonetta, albeit in more limited supply. Meanwhile, it possesses the quick gratification and addictive, hypnotic quality of a brawler as you smash into a group of opponents, sometimes taking out several in quick succession while score indicators flash on-screen. In lieu of Bayonetta‘s abundance of options and depth of mechanics, every enemy in Anarchy Reigns brings with it a sense of context by virtue of being player-controlled. Enemies may be easily despatched of, or they can just as easily turn into drawn-out, epic battles that are sure to leave you thirsting for payback, lending each subsequent encounter, in turn, a sense of history. It is a human factor that has propelled online shooters since the dawn of Doom and Quakeworld, but the increased sophistication of the interaction here makes it all the more palpable.

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I didn’t think MadWorld was an especially good game, and I had issues with Vanquish, but in the end I admire everything Platinum has done. There is a sincerity to their output and a refreshing irreverence for genre conventions. That’s not to say there’s a stubborn contrarian nature to their design, but where games are currently iteration upon iteration – each new game learning from the last and getting more polished in all the ways we completely expect – Platinum seem to be so specific with what they want to accomplish that there is no obvious roadmap. Though certainly evocative of some specific titles, Anarchy Reigns isn’t a derivation of anything you’ve played – its not going to scratch a familiar itch, nor is it likely to be iterated upon in turn unless Sega decide to pursue a sequel.

The point is that Anarchy Reigns isn’t perfect, but it’s nearly a perfect version of itself. I have a list of nitpicks in my notes, and I could go on about how the lobby system feels a little clunky, how level aesthetics are a little samey, how the environmental hazard intros probably should have been cut from the game, and how the campaign could have been better. But really, those are shoved so far into the periphery when you’re playing the game that I would have to pretend to be bothered. It gets the core gameplay right in ways nobody had any business even expecting, and it will likely remain one-of-a-kind. If the prospect of playing an online fighting game that strikes a satisfying balance between old-school brawlers and modern action games appeals to you, I honestly can’t imagine that Anarchy Reigns will disappoint.

9/10

by

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Version tested: PS3

Also available on: Xbox 360

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

Genre: Brawler, Beat 'em up