Disclosure: the author was provided with a review code of the game courtesy of Black Shell Media. It’s available to purchase on Steam here.
Publisher: Black Shell Media
Developer: Anvil Drop
Anomaly 1729 or, as its internal files refer to it, “The Cube” (more on that later), is a third-person puzzle-platformer based around gravity manipulation developed by indie studio Anvil Drop. However, the Steam page doesn’t mention the gravity manipulation. What the Steam page DOES do is make it look exciting, dramatic, and mysterious.
It is none of these things. It is a third-person puzzle-platformer. In Unreal 4. Such a powerful engine absolutely wasted. This could have been accomplished in the open-source Quake 3 engine, and some of the faults it has could have been overlooked as a consequence. But when you’re running with the latest and greatest, I’d expect some of its power tapped. Not ALL of it – this is an indie studio after all, but one or two of the advanced features would be nice. Hell, some of the basic features would have been excellent. Vsync, for example. I don’t ask for much, but Vsync is one of those things. Especially when otherwise, I end up rendering 200+ FPS more than I need to, stressing my GPU far more than necessary. The controls are also hardcoded. There’s more technical ineptitude to go through, but I’ll go over each instance as I come to it.
I couldn’t even start the game without running into the first tech mishap. It refuses to start. It’ll show up in Task Manager for all of a second before closing without so much as an error message. Cue digging in the file structure! Thankfully, after several failed attempts at an Unreal 4 game of my own, I know exactly where to start: TheCube.exe! Surprisingly, it starts working, but without the Steam overlay. Meaning my first few hours were not logged. Minor complaint, but a terrible first impression.
You might want to strap in, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride down, and you are all coming with me.
I have such wonderful things to show you.
A cursory glance at the options menu shows nothing truly offensive, save for the previously mentioned lack of Vsync and lack of rebindable controls. There’s something here that says “Story Mode”, though. It describes itself as “toggle all subtitles, audio, and effects relating to the story”. Why the hell would you want to turn the story completely off, and why is it in the options menu instead of being an option when starting a new game?
Alright. Let’s get started for real. This is the first thing I saw:
Was my system font set to Wingdings? Did someone prank me? Was something wrong with my system? Turns out, no. This is intended. That aside, the aesthetic is kinda neat for an opening area. It’s… simple. I just wish they didn’t coast on it the whole game. It’s all UnrealEd’s primitives. Just nothing but huge cubes and rectangles. Though the final area does mix it up with (You might want to find something to hold on to) hexagons. I’m honestly starting to think this was someone’s game design final that they started the week it was due.
The mechanics are just as simple as the aesthetic: You have a thing on your arm that shoots coloured projectiles – one orange and one blue. This is one of two ways to interact with the world, the other being little terminals that either provide more story, provide pieces of the alien language, or remove a field that disables your arm-thing. Nothing earth-shattering there, either. Of course, the pieces of the language you get are so small that you’re going to be guessing at what is being said (Also, I assume the tutorial is in this language as well, because I didn’t see any of it, despite the developer’s claims of an “improved, less intrusive tutorial”). Now, there are also little rotating cube things (Seriously, everything is goddamned cubes) that, when shot, will rotate the room around you. Which way depends on the orientation of the device, and which color projectile you hit it with. I could NEVER get this right. The device has helpful color-coded arrows to tell you which way it will rotate if hit with either color. Unfortunately, it never seems to work exactly like I’d expect it to. Here’s an example:
I want to walk on the wall to my left. In its current orientation, the device claims that hitting with blue will rotate the room left, and the opposite with orange. Not thinking, I hit it with blue. Instead of landing on the left wall, I land on the right. This is a cause for a lot of my frustration with the game. It feels backwards, and when you need to make split-second calls while falling, this can lead to infuriating results. Speaking of infuriating results, it is often possible to end up in a situation where you are unable to continue as all of the room manipulation devices are out of reach. Yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds. The projectiles have a very limited range, and will often fall just short of the target without a jump. The limited range also contributes to potential no-win scenarios where the room rotating devices are out of range no matter what you do, forcing you to go back to the last checkpoint. Thankfully, the checkpoints are before every puzzle room, so you won’t lose anything beyond the room you were just in. It’s frustrating for the longer puzzles, but not as bad as it could be. It’s something that could be easily fixed with a placement tweak, which supports my “rushed final exam” theory. (Keep this in mind, I’ll be coming back to it later.) One of the puzzles required a trickshot that I really wish I had captured footage of. A jump, followed by two room rotations while in mid-air to land on the platform with the exit door. Speaking of the exit door…
All of these issues are compounded by the fact that the room must be aligned JUST RIGHT before the exit door will open. It’s not enough to just get there, you need to have the stars aligned, R’lyeh risen from the deep, found the Ark of the Covenant, and solved a Rubix Cube in order for the door to open. Does it tell you this? No. It keeps the required alignment a closely guarded secret, requiring you to reconfigure the room seemingly at random until you find the magical combination that opens it. Even when you DO get it right, there’s a chance it will still refuse to open. The door will be green, indicating that it’s unlocked, but won’t open. I found the only way to get the door to open was to un-align the room, then re-align it, and only then would the door open. At least a couple of times, this has resulted in the no-win scenarios I discussed earlier.
Remember how I said there was a story before? I lied, and I apologize. What it has is a carrot attached to a stick by a string. The carrot is the end of your suffering. Every time you reach for that carrot, it smacks you with the stick, represented by yet another puzzle room. At first, you don’t feel it. You might even be having fun with it. But once it runs out of tricks (Around the time it introduces the platforms that move when you shoot them), each level becomes a chore. This is when I started leaping for the carrot like a starved animal and really began feeling each impact of the stick. It even rubs this in with “Is this the last challenge you have to offer?!” right at the start of a room. I finished that room, cheering that my torment was finally over. The door opens… into yet another puzzle room. This one larger than all of the others I had seen before. I don’t think I’ve ever been so deflated by a game before. I wish I could tell you this happened at a point close to the end of the game. It didn’t. Or at least it didn’t seem that way. I solved both puzzle rooms, which lead me to a place under where I came from. A lift takes you about half-way up to a platform with a switch on it. It turns off the second of two fields that disables your manipulator projectile thing. The only way forward is further up. Back where I started. Given the thought of solving the last two puzzles again frustrated me, I hung it up for the night. I came back to it the next day to discover that I had lost progress. One of the two fields I had previously disabled was back. I guess I did it in the wrong order. I never did find the switch to re-disable that other field.
Oh, right. I said I was going to talk about the story. Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult to talk about, as it’s delivered in that alien language, and as a result, I missed a huge portion of it because the bits to translate it to a point where you can start making educated guesses at what’s being said don’t exist until later in the game. For those of you that have played Final Fantasy X, imagine if all the dialogue was delivered in Al-Bhed from the start. You’d have no idea what was going on. Funny enough, the main character is completely disconnected from the events of the game. When you finally get all the translation pieces and look at the markings on a wall, he says: “I understand this writing, but how?!” Um… You DID collect all of the translations, remember? It’s not like you’ve spoken the language the whole game or anything. Again, I’m getting sidetracked. It follows a… thing named Anomaly 1729, which eventually calls itself Ano. Ano wants to… do something. It’s never actually elaborated on. Ano is talked to by a disembodied voice that calls itself Yuler. These are the only two characters in the game, and I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about either one of them. It’s not that I don’t care, the game is just incredibly tight-lipped about what’s going on. You go forward because it’s all you can do. You solve puzzles because they’re there. This all ends in a long, exposition-heavy cutscene and a choice: join with the core of the world and take Yuler’s place, or hurl yourself into the unknown oblivion that is “the edge”. Given the choice of ruling my own personal Hell or killing myself, I took the latter option with the thought that it’d end the game faster.
Jesus H Christ, I have never been so wrong. It adds two more puzzle rooms that take everything you’ve learned so far and throws it all out the window. The rooms no longer rotate, platforms orbiting the bridge you stand on do the rotating now. These were quite possibly the easiest puzzles in the game, and for this I am thankful.
I rest my case.
I stand here before you, a broken and defeated man. I know this game is indie and was likely made on a budget of whatever they could pull from the couch cushions, but damn it, there are some things you just don’t do. There are standards. I’m fairly lax on these standards when it comes to indie devs because I know it can be hard, especially the first time. But Anomaly 1729 takes common game design wisdom and stuffs it all into the trash with what seems like sadistic glee. I expect something that resembles effort. It doesn’t need to be complex, it doesn’t need to blow my mind, it just needs to do something, anything well without turning its own feet into swiss cheese.
Anomaly 1729 has lowered the bar for indie devs everywhere. If you are considering suicide for any reason and need something to push you over the edge, look no further.