Go on a journey with me, back in time. Remember when you were a kid, and you would get all dressed up in your Sunday best to go out to a mid-range family restaurant? You would get the kid’s meal, and the server would put a placemat in front of you, complete with a crayon. This placemat had all the greatest activities: a food-related word search, coloring, and the pièce de résistance – a maze, right in the middle. Now, imagine if they kept working on this flawless concept for decades. The maze becomes more complex. Music and 3D graphics are added, until this simple crayon and paper maze becomes an audiovisual experience. Years of research and development are put into making the labyrinth more challenging; breakthroughs are made, such as discovering that if everything looks the same, the maze can appear so senseless as to bring grown men to tears. Only the most patient and methodical of always-go-lefters make it to the end.
Well, look no further, fellow maze-colorer, this dream is reality. Its name is whispered in secret places: Planet Ancyra Chronicles.
A CONFUSING MISHMASH OF GAME ELEMENTS THROWN TOGETHER
Truth be told, Planet Ancyra Chronicles (PAC) has quality level design, and there are other, well-crafted elements in this title as well. The soundtrack, for example, is nice, with some eerie, light-electronic sounds, and there are some downright creepy sound effects. The artwork often strives to provide you with breathtaking scenery that adds to a feeling of vastness and solitude. The story is not all bad, and the universe is well fleshed-out with details. And yet, all these qualities somehow combine to make a pretty unenjoyable experience.
It feels as if there was a major miscommunication about what PAC was supposed to be. The beginning and end seem to be tacked on as afterthoughts to a different core plot that ended up being too short. In some areas, graphical elements, like rain, seem to be well executed, in others, they seem glitchy and incomplete. Unfortunately, most of the latter elements are thrown into the intro, making for a poor hook. The core portion of PAC tries (and almost succeeds) to be a psychological space horror, but the end switches to brightly lit scenery and optimistic colors in an attempt at a more philosophical message. The whole thing is a confusing mishmash of game elements thrown together.
A WASTE OF GOOD LEVEL DESIGN
But the elephant in the room, the crushingly obvious flaw, is that the levels were designed to be populated, and they are not. There are no weapons, and there is no way to die. This becomes clear minutes in, and even the cheapest of jump scares are castrated as a result. The developers clearly didn’t anticipate you to be unfazed by their occasional (very occasional) humanoid apparitions popping up, but you find yourself clipping through them at full speed because you forgot to be afraid. Other times, when the music becomes loud and ominous, you find yourself thinking “Should I turn around to see if something’s behind me?” but the answer is invariably “Nah”; there is never anything behind you.
That’s because, other than the jump scares, you are absolutely alone. The only people that talk to you are various AI, and the only people you see are essentially imaginary. There are no enemies, but the levels have been carefully designed to provide arenas and cover for combat; vestigial pieces of evidence lie about throughout: empty lockers, item boxes, gun references, and even some useless items, like health packs and ammo (which someone forgot to take out?). This comes to an absurd sort of climax when you actually find a pistol, but you can only pick it up, examine it, and put it back down.
The result of all this is hours of wandering between brief voiceovers through empty space stations and a planet colony. Your life becomes a task of finding the next switch to open a door somewhere, and then to find that door. It is, in other words, a glorified maze.
IF YOU’RE PATIENT ENOUGH, THERE IS A PLOT
The plot, without spoiling too much, is about a man who has awoken from hibernation to work at a planet colony, but the crews of the colony and the space station above have been decimated by a mysterious virus. You follow the instructions of an AI to figure out what happened, to try to find a cure so the virus doesn’t get back to Earth, and to investigate an alien AI that was discovered on the planet. Meanwhile, the alien AI taunts you, along with another woman who periodically chimes in to mock your sanity.
There are the makings of a good plot, and the voice acting is decent. The manmade AI is a polite yet slightly creepy female voice, the alien AI is a more forceful and ominous male voice, and the third woman is snotty and maniacal. However, mundane wandering disjoints the plot, and everything comes to an end all-too-quickly in gameplay time – even if it seems like an eternity in aimless-wandering-around time. As a result, the developers seemed to have appended another story at the end as a bit of a salve.
PAC frequently subverts itself in this manner. The ending section, while for some reason looking much more polished than the rest of the game, makes an attempt at philosophical depth by being esoteric and confusing. This isn’t helped by things like the loading screens, of which there are only three, to stare at over and over, and they are filled with weak arm-chair philosophy and typos. In the end, a lot of hard work and potential falls flat, and the only thing that ends up fitting perfectly into place is the overall theme of multiple personalities – because Planet Ancyra Chronicles has no idea what it wants to be.
Planet Ancyra Chronicles appears to be made by a team of developers who are each individually good at their jobs – the level design, the narrative design, and the score all have their moments. Unfortunately, it seems the team suffered from miscommunication, because this title’s individual parts struggle to fit together into a single, cohesive experience. Perhaps only the most persistent of players will be able to make it to the end of this otherwise interesting story.