No, it’s not as good as Bayonetta.
Having produced perhaps the single best fighting action game in history, Platinum Games have wisely decided to do a slow-motion dodge around their past achievement and instead plant a solid roundhouse kick in the face of a slightly different genre: the multiplayer arena brawler, which seemingly expired in a fit of artistic pique after the sublime and ridiculous Powerstone 2 on Sega’s noble, doomed Dreamcast system.
Where the Powerstone games wisely drew their focus away from direct physical confrontation in favour of lurid slapstick battles consisting almost entirely of flinging chairs and saucepans and statues of Buddha and model pirate ships at people, Anarchy Reigns dives right into the fray with a song on its lips and murder in its heart. Unfortunately, the need to simplify its combat system into a form that can accomodate online PvP competition has also resulted in a weirdly depthless experience that can’t quite keep up with the demands placed on it by battles that can consist of up to 16 players.
Where Bayonetta presented us with a fighting system of seemingly inexhaustible depth and interchangeability, Anarchy Reigns has had to bow to the inevitable and realise that allowing that range of dodging, countering and move-cancelling would simply not be practical in multiplayer; no-one would ever get a hit in. The solution they have come up with is imperfect - characters are locked into combos once they begin and grapples confer a window of invincibility – and settles for the necessary evil of turning ninety percent of battles into incoherent bundles full of characters constantly punching random opponents in the back of the head while they try to fight someone else entirely.
The characters themselves are divided, essentially, into categories of strong-but-slow and quick-but-weak, with very few in between. In practice, the chaotic nature of the fights offers very little incentive to play as anything but the strongest characters, who will be able to do more damage in the short window available before they inevitable get struck from behind by a random interloper.
While clearly constructed as a primarily online-focused title, Anarchy Reigns also includes a fairly substantial single player offering, transplanting its multiplayer mechanics whole-cloth into the campaign. This means no upgrades, no unlockable moves or combos and no way to extend the rather ingenerous health bar, which initially comes as something of an unpleasant shock for anyone used to the array of customisation options available in every action game since at least the original Devil May Cry.
The story follows law-enforcement cyborg Leo Victorion and bounty hunter Jack Cayman, only one of several characters returning from satirical Wii action-game MadWorld, as they travel the world hunting for rogue police-officer Max Caxton, who has had a breakdown and murdered his wife. Starting off in the gamely silly mode of most Japanese superhero fiction (it is often reminiscent of Fist of the North Star, among others), the game quickly begins to introduce more nuanced material – Max accidentally killed Cayman’s six-year-old daughter in a bungled hostage rescue – and never quite seems sure which is going to dominate.
By the end of the game, Max, genuinely mentally ill and genuinely a murderer, is slumped on his knees, sobbing and howling into the dirt, clawing at fistfuls of dust and begging forgiveness from the sky for his life of sin, driven mad by the stink of his own corruption. The effect is to produce something like David Peace’s Red Riding Series if it featured a superhero pimp and an army of cyborg ninjas.
Graphics: 3/5 - Not the most beautiful looking game of recent times, nor even of its release week, though it benefits from a bright and varied colour palette and a sense of morbid decay in its characterful environments. The designs of the characters themselves are rather less memorable, however, with very few of them sporting a look that would be out of place in an issue of DC Comics’ Lobo circa 1996.
Sound: 3/5 - Daft cartoonish vocal performances paired with a soundtrack that serves to provide a fitting accompaniment to the relentless pounding of fist and foot on face, but utterly fails to stick in the memory the way Bayonetta’s did.
Gameplay: 3/5 – Multiplayer is chaotic, though entertaining, and works its magic best when taking place in arenas that give its fights room to breath and for players to pair off for fights that are allowed to become something more than a lot of furious button mashing punctuated by the occasional cheap grab. Despite its flaws, it rarely frustrates and provides a certain base level of raucous enjoyment that is more closely refined in the game’s single player mode. The campaign’s four open arenas are home to a variety of short-burst challenge missions which rarely grate on the nerves and provide a sense of brutalist empowerment necessarily missing from the multiplayer.
Longevity: 4/5 - The campaign mode can be played through starting with either of the two characters and each playthrough will last an average player around six hours, perhaps. For those who fancy themselves, it’s worth dipping into the game’s punishing Hard mode, which pits you against undying martial arts colossi capable of annihilating you in a single flowing combo of relentless savagery that will have you trying to bite your own face in fury. On the multiplayer side of things, there isn’t currently much competition in the online brawler genre, so those who discover a taste for it should be able to settle in here for the long haul.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5
Anarchy Reigns is an interesting proof of concept, moving Platinum Games away from their usual artfully polished works of delicately violent art and into a more punkish, seat-of-the-pants kind of rough-and-ready action game that calls to mind PS2-era games like Urban Reign and Godhand. A little frayed around the edges and, yes, anarchic, this is still an interesting take on both the beat-’em-up genre and online PvP multiplayer that rewards those willing to meet it halfway. They don’t make them like this any more, and the signs are they may never again. Get it while it’s hot.
- Elliot Mears