Your first online experience with Anarchy Reigns won’t be pleasant. It won’t even feel fair. Head into one of its chaotic battle royales and you’ll find yourself immediately pummelled into a fine dust by an aggressive throng of elite level 50 warriors, your vain attempts to fight back disregarded in a seemingly inescapable flurry of limbs and explosions. It’s disheartening, to say the least.
However, like many of Platinum’s games – and several of Clover’s before it – Anarchy Reigns is a beat-’em-up that requires time and patience; one whose rewards scale with the time you put into it. A few hours in and those punishing introductory battles start to open up, your mind settling in to the raucous rhythm Anarchy Reigns runs at. It may not be as intricate or complex a game as we’ve come to expect from this developer, but it’s no merciless button-basher. There’s a subtle strain of strategy hidden beneath those muscled pimps and over-sexed vixens duking it out on screen.
You start the game with all the tools you’re ever going to get: there are no combos to unlock or extra moves to be added to your repertoire later down the line. There’s a medium and heavy attack, a modifier that allows you to use a limited-use ‘Killer Weapon’ such as Jack Cayman’s chainsaw, and a grab button that activates cinematic throw moves. Combos are activated by timed presses of the attack buttons, with a slight delay modifying the actions performed, perhaps launching a foe into the air or leaping behind them for a surprise attack. You’ve also got a block that will defend you from most attacks until it’s broken, a dodge, and a lock-on that’s of some use when fighting one-on-one, but is best used selectively when battling up to 16 other players.
In terms of depth, the system can barely hold a candle to defining genre masterpieces like God Hand or Bayonetta. Anarchy Reigns’ multiplayer focus restricts the combat system, keeping it from flourishing into something anything as intricate or technical as witnessed in the offline world. The move set is fixed, combos are short and explosive rather than comprised of long strings of attacks, and there are no moves like a dodge cancel thrown into the mix. It’s all about maintaining balance when sparring online, something that hogties Platinum, preventing it from showing off its usual brazen 70-hit combos.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the gradual learning process that sees you slowly eke out the game’s subtler nuances. Let those cruel opening hours pass, find a character you like, and learn how they move. You’ll gradually develop the required sense of timing, and work out how to take advantage of minuscule openings in your enemies’ defence, identifying those sweet spots and unleashing the heaviest attacks in your arsenal. Anarchy Reigns doesn’t spell any of this out; it leaves it up to the player to teach themselves the intricacies tucked away in an otherwise boisterous fighting experience. You’ll eventually reach a state where you can react to your foes’ attacks almost without needing to think about it. It’s a satisfying moment, Anarchy Reigns shifting from gruelling to exhilarating as everything mentally snaps into place.
Although this doesn’t completely vindicate Anarchy Reigns’ flaws, of which there are several. Throws, for instance, are a problem, overused and inescapable once you find yourself caught in the opening animation of one.
The combat also too often descends into chaos. With 16 players fighting in the same spot, whatever encroaching intricacy you might have felt in the combat system is eroded in an explosion of limbs and sparks, the carnage on screen making it very difficult indeed to make out exactly what it is your character – or anyone else’s for that matter – is doing. During these moments of confusion, you’ll often find yourself interrupted by unseen attackers too, your miniature combo chains put to an end by other players that wade into the fray unannounced.
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. The modes that Anarchy Reigns has borrowed from the FPS such as capture the flag – and those it hasn’t like DeathBall – become more fun as the chaos ramps up. That said, the game’s greatest successes are found when the game reins it in, such as in the two-on-two tag deathmatches or one-on-one cage match bouts. Taking place in smaller arenas, and without constant surprise attacks breaking your combo chain, you’re freer to focus on single enemies, making for battles rooted in expertise rather than frenzied button-bashing.
The levelling system that plays out underneath all of this feels like something of an afterthought. Early levelling is incredibly slow-paced, with your initial scores doing little to add to your total required to rank up. You don’t get a great deal when you do, either. If you haven’t already unlocked them in the single-player campaign (see boxout), you’ll get access to new characters and perk-like abilities, but for the most part there’s little real reward for your sluggish progression through the ranks.
It all keeps Anarchy Reigns from attaining the heights of the genre that Platinum had so tantalisingly touched upon with Bayonetta. There is a lot to be impressed with – Anarchy Reigns capably reinvents the multiplayer brawler, mixing in elements of online shooters and presenting it in a framework that is undeniably entertaining, gameplay placed front and centre as only Platinum can – but the somewhat underwhelming single-player campaign, the limitations of the fixed move set, and the repetitious nature of the brawling means the magic that Platinum weaves only holds for so long. The more you played Bayonetta and God Hand, the more you felt you were getting out of it – always learning, always finding new ways to overcome your enemies – but here the adrenaline eventually dissipates. Your abilities level out, and you realise that once you’ve got to grips with the combat system, there’s nowhere to take it. In this respect, Anarchy Reigns feels much more similar to MadWorld than it does Platinum’s other beat-’em-ups.
But flaws aside, Anarchy Reigns still stands as proof that there’s life in the online brawler, and it could go interesting places – if the 2013 Western release doesn’t suffer the fate of audience apathy as it has in Japan, that is. And what a shame that would be. Anarchy Reigns is far from perfect, but despite being less visually striking than the developer’s past titles, it nevertheless embodies much of that Platinum Games spirit, blending energy, humour, transforming robots and hammer-wielding cyborg bulls. There’s real character here, and at the back end of this generation, there are too few games that can truly lay claim to such praise.