Second Banana

Second Banana
The Best Planet Companion

Peter Parrish | 24 Aug 2010 13:45
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Every one of these characters stands head and shoulders above the Tolkien-derived nonsense found in many videogame RPGs (often hampered by their unflinching submission to a single interpretation of what a "fantasy" setting is.) This is vital for a party-based RPG, as the functions of its sidekick characters are essentially limited to providing the main player with additional attacks, dialogue options and quest choices. When a player adds a generic wizard to his party, he is already more than halfway toward knowing the sort of attacks and plot choices it will ultimately unlock. Meeting uniquely written characters throws the player off-guard; it confounds expectations and forces him to make assessments based on the character presented before him, rather than prior genre knowledge. By avoiding cliché and subverting convention, Anachronox greatly enhances these functions.

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In so many RPGs of this type, party members are selected by players on the basis of their job or what skills they offer, because that is all that defines their character. In Anachronox, players decide which characters they enjoy spending virtual time with. It's not a decision based on crude statistics, but one based on empathy.

In Anachronox, one of my choices would always be Democratus.

Democratus is a planet, which is inherently cool because the only other time a planet showed up as a party member in an RPG was ... never. Players' first encounter with this global titan is when Boots and the gang land on its outer ring, an area populated by the upper class who control surface-wide policy via an intricate subversion of the Ancient Greek democratic tradition. Official outer ring policy is, "Everyone Has a Voice," but people on Democratus are so monumentally moronic that in order to prevent them voting themselves into oblivion, a High Council is in place to offer "gentle" guidance. The Council periodically leaks its opinions to the general population, allowing the people to feel smart and involved when they vote exactly the way those in power want.

This funny (if not hugely subtle) critique of democratic authority also takes a swipe at bureaucratic inaction. Although the High Council has side-stepped the tyranny of the majority, it is still powerless to act in the face of its own blithering incompetence. As missiles fly towards Democratus' surface from a militant foe, the High Council is unable to react until it has first processed other important votes such as "Shall Cyclical Vomit Torture be abolished as a form of punishment for first degree murder committed by planet-dwellers?" Only the intervention of our plucky gang of heroes (after a lengthy battle with fearsome red tape) saves the day.

By itself, this would be an engaging CRPG quest, an example of interesting, well-written sidekicks playing a crucial role in expanding an engaging narrative. Things get even better, however, when the High Council of Democratus votes to thank Boots by shrinking the planet down to a more manageable size and tag along with him. At this point, Democratus enters your party as a standard RPG character (though in the place of standard weaponry and armour, he is equipped with various planetary defence systems.) One of Democratus' special attacks is called "stare down," during which the planet inflates itself to a larger size (much like a bird fluffing itself up to intimidate a rival) and uses a gaze-beam to subdue nearby foes. The absurdity of having a planet float around after you throughout many of the game's levels can't really be overstated. It is utterly bonkers, yet brilliant.

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