What is an anacrusis? In music and poetry, it’s the unstressed notes and syllables before the actual start of a verse or song—think “happy” in the Happy Birthday song, or the “oh” in the very first line of The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s, in other words, a short phrase or a motif, used to bring emphasis to something else in the piece.

It also says something about a game that calls itself The Anacrusis, a co-op first-shooter created by indie studio Stray Bombay, which is headed by ex-Valve and Riot game veterans who had worked on some of the most popular games in the industry: Left 4 Dead, Portal and Half Life 2. Even in Early Access, The Anacrusis is already shaping up to be more of a homage to Left 4 Dead, showcasing the merits of its biggest influence, rather than a groundbreaking shooter that’s coming into its own. Despite its glossy, retro-futuristic sheen, it feels like a reskinned version of the classic Valve shooter, as it largely recycles that Left 4 Dead formula of getting your buddies together, shooting hoards of space zombies in their faces, and yelling very loudly when the shit hits the fan.

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This isn’t to say that there is nothing of splendour to be salvaged from this shooter. Set in outer space, The Anacrusis is all smooth curves, flashy pastel hues and ‘60s silhouettes, and from the get-go it quickly impresses with its super snazzy vision of a futuristic space station. Bright pops of colours adorn the now-derelict station, from the splashy carpets to its playful, rounded furniture, which stands in stark contrast to the bloodshed taking place around you. You can play as one of four survivors—although you can’t choose your preferred character, as I would have loved to—who don’t possess any particular strengths or disadvantages. You then pick up a weapon from the safe room, and kamikaze your way across the space station, spilling buckets of alien blood on the velvety carpets along the way. It’s a bit of a pity that everything has to be so darn messy in this wonderfully chic station.

At the same time—perhaps due to the game’s current Early Access state—The Anacrusis gives you barely any context as to why you’re shooting alien zombies in the first place. While it begins every episode with a swanky video cutscene, it’s mostly shrouded in ambiguity, which begs more questions than it offers answers. Environmental storytelling is also threadbare, and the game only has three episodes to play through at the moment that can be completed within an evening or two. As such, it’s deeply unfortunate that its first episode is also its weakest. You’re quickly herded towards the heat of battle with zero tutorial or instructions after picking up your weapon from the safe room, which meant that my friends and I were fumbling around and trying to get our bearings in the opening minutes; it took us a long, long while to figure how to heal other party members, for instance.

Anacrusis 1

The Anacrusis does not leave a good first impression. The alien hoard you first meet are your garden variety zombies—they plod along in great numbers, eventually lunging towards you if they notice you—but for now, they largely serve as target practice. Then the rest of episode one is more or less the same routine of blasting these meat fodder to smithereens, aside from a few distinct encounters featuring the Brute, a bullet soaker of an alien that’s the answer to Left 4 Dead’s Tank. The guns, too, are lacking the specific sort of heft and feedback that you would expect to feel in a shooter. The default weapons are largely similar—you could offer me a million bucks and I couldn’t tell you the difference between the Plasma Rifle and the SMB—so the key is to look out for the game’s more unique, but far more scant weapons. One of them is the Arc Rifle, which blasts shockwaves of lasers that unleash a potent daisy-chain attack on the zombies- I mean, aliens, around your target. Bugs occasionally make an appearance, and while I’m not usually particular about bugs in games, The Anacrusis is far from polished, and its jankiness can render the game frustratingly unplayable at times. At one point, the in-game voice comms was unceremoniously cut off, which means I have to restart the round. The first episode of The Anacrusis just felt unremarkably drab, even a chore at its most laggy.

In episode two, The Anacrusis gradually gets into the groove as it tosses a greater variety of space aliens for you to ravage: there’s the Gooper, which will spit sticky green goo, slowing down the movement of anyone unfortunate enough to stand in its way and even immobilise them. There’s the Spawner, which are these little alien orbs that unfurl themselves into some phallic-shaped thing that spits poison at your party. There’s the Grabber, which… grabs you. There’s also the Flasher—incidentally one of the smartest, but also most frustrating alien types—which would blind you with a flare so bright that it’ll probably cause some retinal damage. All these fights are orchestrated by an AI director akin to Left 4 Dead’s, tweaking the intensity of the hell spawns’ attacks according to your crew’s capabilities, which makes fights more manageable when you’re at the throes of death. Even with its somewhat substandard guns, the patter of the bullets you’re raining against these alien bodies becomes a satisfying rhythm. It feels good, at least, even if it’s not radical.

Anacrusis 2

For all its resemblances to Left 4 Dead, The Anacrusis does try to introduce new dynamics to its experience. One particular mission that involves picking up an alien tech is reminiscent of a relay race, in which you’re passing on a highly radioactive gadget like a baton to other members, and which significantly pumps the adrenaline and propels combat to a blistering pace at that moment. There’s also a perks system that grants some bonuses in combat, ranging from increasing your movement speed, to speeding up the rate of your healing, all of which can be carried over to subsequent levels. But in the face of The Anacrusis’ frenetic combat, these perks aren’t consequential enough to turn the tide of combat, or significant enough to encourage players to adjust their play styles. Most of all, there is sadly very little pomp and bluster to all the blasting and shooting you’re doing in the game; it is somewhat empty, bereft of truly punchy, hell-raising moments.

The litany of problems that The Anacrusis faces, aside from its similarities to Left 4 Dead, translates to a half-baked shooter. Even the game’s impeccably stylish retro-futuristic aesthetic doesn’t quite have the pizazz to nudge it beyond the confines of the shooter it was so inspired by. But there are moments of ingenuity that peppers The Anacrusis with bits of genuine thrills, and perhaps the key is for The Anacrusis to spend more time in the Early Access oven just a little longer. Despite these issues, there is still something quite exhilarating about the bullet-dispensing action of The Anacrusis, even if it’s camouflaged by layers of congealed alien guts. With some polish, it can get better—hopefully even graduating from merely playing second fiddle to zombie apocalyptic shooters.

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