Review – Anonymous;Code (Switch)
Starting in on Anonymous;Code immediately brought me into the paradox of control. The idea of control is one that people struggle with, every day, in multiple aspects of their lives. Sometimes we seek to wrest control of our destiny and future in a very grandiose way, seeking to carve a path into the bright tomorrow with the tools we forge ourselves. Sometimes we simply want to take the reins of little moments – our outfit, our lunch, our route to work – so that we can justify and ignore all the control we had to give up to get to this moment. Still, we can’t predict the future, and the decisions of yesterday affect today, with no chance to do it over again.
But what if there was a way to extend our sphere of influence and try once more? If we could take the knowledge of what might happen in any number of scenarios – blue shirt instead of white, salad instead of sandwich, local roads instead of highway – and use that to guide us to the best possible outcome? It would be a whole new way to exist, to eliminate and parse down outcomes in order to glide ahead with near infinite success, living “our best lives” in a way that could only be described as easy mode. Yet it would be using this power not for ourselves, but to help others, that would make it more than just a cheat code: it would be an invaluable asset to the world. This is the crux – and inherent flaw – of Anonymous;Code.
Fans have been waiting for years for the release of the next addition of the Science Adventure series, and with good reason. Titles like Steins;Gate and Robotics;Notes have become synonymous with enthralling, verbose visual novels that captivate through magnificent storytelling, hard science backdrops and various nods to the real world Japanese areas where the games take place. The latest, Anonymous;Code has been in production for so many years that there was a Vita port planned when it was first announced. After many delays and setbacks, after drilling down on a remaster of the Steins series and bringing the full Science Adventure catalog to the Nintendo Switch, the global release of the newest installment is finally upon us. The question on everyone’s mind: was it worth the wait?
Anonymous;Code is a multi-layered, dense cake of cyberpunk, future science and full-blown conspiracy theories, wonderfully seasoned with the tropes and anime-elements that cemented Mages and Chiyomaru Studio as masters of their craft. Published by Spike Chunsoft in the West, it’s incredibly difficult to boil down the storyline of Anonymous;Code in any succinct way. Our main protagonist is Pollon, a hacker who goes about fighting for justice with a strong “ends justify the means” approach to legality. A happenstance meeting with Momo, a girl in a pink cat costume, leads to absolute mayhem involving the local police, the government, and the Vatican, in that order. In a frantic flurry of moments, several things quickly become clear. The young woman is in danger. Pollon must save her. And the fate of the world as they know it hinges on whatever happens next.
Like so many other things that come from the Science Adventure department, Anonymous;Code uses a particularly different way to interface with the player to prevent this game from being a kinetic novel. Shortly after meeting Momo, Pollon discovers the existence of Saving and Loading, which breaks the fourth wall with a sledgehammer and gives him access to the same menus you’re using. Pollon can move through time and space in this way, but going back to a from before might erase a future load point, so he must be careful. He retains his memories with each load, and thus can use knowledge of what will come to help prevent those things from happening. Pollon’s use of this system naturally will draw even more unwanted attention, so the need to continue using it grows exponentially.
This Save/Load deal isn’t chaotic and arbitrary, but actually quite limited in execution to keep the game from being several hundred hours long. There is only one button to “activate” Pollon’s ability, and, most of the time, it does nothing. You push it and Pollon has a variety of admonishments for trying to Load before it’s time. Moreover, the further on you get in the game, you’re more likely to run into false Loads: times where you think it’s opportune, but loading will only throw you on course for a quick and dirty bad ending of which there are many. Nineteen, if I counted correctly, and I think I found them all.
Reviewing a visual novel is a tricky bit of work, and Anonymous;Code is no exception. From a literary standpoint, there’s so much that’s done right. Every character who matters has a good amount of backstory and information, from an orphan due to a catastrophic event to an astronaut who got stuck in space for over a decade. The one exception, in my opinion, is Pollon’s best friend, Cross, who feels incredibly one dimensional in a world where everyone has great detail where it matters. Things like a couple of police officers not getting a backstory, that I can deal with. But Cross is there basically from the beginning, is a huge influence on early and end game situations, yet I feel like I know less about him than Rosario, a woman who shows up more than halfway through the game.
The story is incredibly long, full of twists and turns, and it felt well paced for the most part. The beginning is so dynamic and exciting that I could barely put down the Nintendo Switch in spite of needing both food and rest. The initial discovery of Pollon’s powers, of Momo’s back story, of the greater evil that comes in the form of supercomputers, religious zealots and angry little boys kept me glued to the screen. I haven’t had a page turner like that in a while, and this is after having a positively delightful romp with Jack Jeanne just a couple months ago. This wasn’t like a good visual novel: this was like a great sci-fi pulp, something that hit every note to grab you and pull you in.
The further you dive, the more you begin to appreciate in terms of stylistic choice and decisions. The earlier chapters have so much exuberance and promise, and they’re shot through with enough oddball moments to keep you from being stuck in a thick read with no relief. The support from Wind, a highschooler fully committed to his virtual girlfriend (who seems to barely tolerate him). The existence of police officers who are also idols and have the BEST police outfits ever. The entire moment where Anonymous;Code realizes their treading water into Dan Brown territory and acknowledge it is so delightful that I filled my memory card with screenshots.
These delightful elements that evoked seemingly every movie I loved from the 90s was only further paired by the excellent voice casting of Anonymous;Code. I spent equal amounts of time in both English and Japanese, a process that was seamless thanks to a quick toggle in the menu screen. Not needing to completely reload the game to hear how the Cyber Force Dolls sounded in two languages made for a stronger appreciation of proper voicework. Cassandra Lee Morris (Bambi) and Laura Stahl (Juno) are exceptional in their English roles and should feel incredibly proud of the range that was given for these two minor but compelling characters. Naturally, Max Mittelman (Pollon) and Anairis Quiñones (Momo) were gangbusters, and I loved the translation of emotion into reading. The pinky promise between the two was unbelievably emotional, and Pollon’s breakdown at the end of the “normal” ending broke my heart.
So when we downshift and spend more and more time into game mechanic based moments, it disengaged me from the experience. Suddenly I was reading less and less and focusing more and more on when and where to “hack.” Pollon’s windows of opportunity to act got smaller and smaller, so it became less natural. It felt like I was debugging the game instead of playing it. You spend so much time needing to read further exposition on scientific theories that feel tangential at best that it gets murky and difficult to navigate. The last thing you want is to glaze over something important, but certain moments, particularly a lot of Chapter 8, feel vestigial. Then again, that could be because of the very repetitive screens that are in stark contrast to all the dynamic places that you encountered previously.
In particular, the finale of the game was a massive ask in terms of players patience and understanding. There comes a moment where players need to infer a different way to interact with the game in order to finish it, and it feels both natural and unnatural. If I’m playing soccer while my brother is playing baseball on the adjacent field, it would never cross my mind to say “This goalie is impossible, I’m going to go borrow that bat to make this easier.” That would be both illegal and a criminal act. Yet, in my mind, that’s the equivalent to what needs to happen in order to merely finish the game. Getting the true ending goes a step further and asks players to think so far outside the box you’re in the apartment building next door, catching your second trespassing charge of the year.
Yet is this what players want and crave in a game? It’s long been thought and said that visual novels demand a different kind of audience participation, and these boundaries are being tested regularly. Doki Doki Literature Club is lauded for being on the cusp of utter madness in order to play, so why should it be any different that Anonymous;Code creates bizarre and almost illogical actions? Once these triggers revealed themselves to me, it felt natural and like an extension of the game. Of course there should be something obtuse to move the game forward, it flies in the face of everything else in the game and THUS it works out that way! Naturally there’s an esoteric means to get the final ending of the game, why the hell should normies be able to complete it?
My feelings and opinion waffle wildly based on where I am at any given point in the day. I cannot overstate how much I loved the story and the implementation of turns in Anonymous;Code. It felt like I was constantly grinning to myself as further and further tropes revealed themselves and the characters reveled in the almost obnoxious level of Internet mythos that made up the plot points. There are maid cafes entirely staffed by middle aged men pretending to be cute girls via AR helmets. 4Chan is a prominent reference point and is a side character that moves forward several story elements. There is an idol performance with the song being all about password safety. There’s nothing better than seeing blue text that indicates there’s a new tip to read up on that adds NOTHING to the game but everything to my laundry list of mental trivia.
The music and soundtrack are something else and almost as eclectic as the game itself. One of the earliest tracks feels like it was lifted from the rave scene of the early 2000s. There’s so much ominous, liturgical music that you half expect Tom Hanks to come running around the corner. There’s electronic ambience to shape the mood accordingly, from relaxed Christmas time shopping to dodging the very real New York skyline collapsing on you. The score is far from omnipresent, though, and the silent moments help to underline the importance of text and speech that’s being dropped at any moment.
Plus there is such an astonishing collection of different art stylings that this visual novel is just as significant in the visual sense as the literary one. Building off the improvements in technology, speaking characters have excellent motion tracking in line delivery, and the localization has done wonders to make the English voices sync almost as well as the Japanese (and still have the script be cohesive). Key moments change from the normal animation style to a comic book panel delivery which does an outstanding job of channeling the energy and excitement of a great action sequence. The different but rare moments of video animation give promise and appeal to an adaptation in the future, which I would gladly and gleefully consume.
A game is only as important as the person who plays it. The best RPG in the world doesn’t mean a thing to a person who never played it, or the gamer who staunchly dislikes turn based combat. The crummiest shovelware title is the fond childhood memory to at least one person whose parents bought it on a whim. Players who are long time Science Adventure fans will develop different opinions and arguments as to which of the titles is the best, and I, personally, will be open to any and all takes on the different entries because I like to hear from fans. Anyone who has more to say than “Kurisu is best waifu” or “Momo isn’t cute enough for the games” will be heard, because everyone’s voice matters.
Anonymous;Code is probably my favorite of all the Science Adventure series. It might be one of my favorite visual novels overall. It’s got such a fantastic tale to tell, and it’s got enough real-world references and ideas that kept me running to Wikipedia to find out more. The voice cast is dynamite, the length is enough to keep you running without tiring, and the music is otherworldly. In the course of my own reflection, I will warn players against the bizarre mechanical moments, but I do not condemn them fully. They’re meant to challenge you, and that challenge makes the unlocking of the game that much more satisfying. In the end, the fantastic story gives the perfect gift to players: curiosity about the world we live in and questions about what it means to be alive. If a visual novel can cause you to question existence, it’s doing something right.
Amazing character design, and creation of areas and locales. Comic book art for cutscenes is genius, and the animations remain remarkable. Davide’s second appearance is so upsetting, I loved it.
As much as I now can appreciate the change of the system at the end, I cannot forget how frustrated and confused I was for more than a day. Players need to be ready and accepting of some very odd choices that, ultimately, pan out.
Top notch voice work and such a banging soundtrack. Exists well in the game work as well as an everyday score, though listening while driving will result in at least one speeding ticket, if not a reckless endangerment charge.
For several days, this game was my world. I’ve told everyone about it and I cannot believe how much I’ve enjoyed revisiting different scenes and moments to relieve the music and the atmosphere. It’s seriously remarkable.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Anonymous;Code is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, and PS5.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Anonymous;Code was provided by the publisher.