This is the one to get you interested in visual novel games. Close the loop. Hack into God.
Trying to convince anyone that forking out £49.99/$59.99 for a visual novel game has always been a very hard sell. The genre is one of the most niche there is, and many will look at these games and think: “They surely can’t be that good or exciting. I’d rather buy a book at a fraction of the price than buy that!”.
That’s exactly how I felt myself a few years ago, but then I discovered the award-winning and one of the best-selling visual novel games of all time, Steins;Gate. From that day on, my gaming world changed, and I have enjoyed being aboard the hype train of Steins;Gate to see it grow in popularity. Steins;Gate, on my PlayStation 3, was such a good game that I rank it in my top 3 games of all time, next to Uncharted and God of War. Yes, it is THAT good.
Anonymous;Code is a story about a young hacker named Pollon Takaoka, who very soon gets himself set up for embarrassment in front of his friends by claiming he’s meeting a fictional girlfriend. They watch to see if this mysterious girl who doesn’t actually exist arrives or not, that way if she doesn’t, they can poke fun at Pollon for lying. However, much to the group and, indeed, Pollon’s surprise, out of the blue a very cute girl named Momo does actually turn up for a date.
Pollon, who is as confused as you (the player) are at this moment, soon discovers that Momo is actually being chased by the police and the military. Pollon decides to be chivalrous and help Momo escape, only for them to get caught. However, after a set of flashbacks and the discovery of an app on Pollon’s BMI (mobile phone of the future), he realizes he can literally reload the world back to points in the past to change his course of actions to be able to escape and/or alter the future.
It would be difficult to delve deeper than this into the story for fear of revealing spoilers for the game, but the obvious start would be, who exactly is Momo and why are the military, government, and even the church trying to capture her? What caused the military satellites to malfunction in the year 2036 and kill over 5,000,000 people? As far-fetched as it seems, the fate of the world is in the balance, and it’s up to Pollon, with Momo, to find a way through the branching story to re-load and repeat and get it right to save us all.
One of the biggest issues Steins;Gate had was that it had an incredibly slow start. Mages/Chiyomaru Studio have most certainly been listening to feedback as you are literally thrown into this fast-paced story from the very get-go. The game will certainly grab your attention and doesn’t take long at all to throw you into the thrills and spills of the game’s first chase scene.
Character development is an extremely important aspect to get right in visual novel games, and for the most part, and where it counts, Anonymous;Code starring Pollon does it well. As lead characters go, Pollon most certainly gets the spotlight and is wonderfully voiced acted in English by the talented Max Mittleman, a.k.a.: Ryuji from Persona 5. He has just the right blend of innocence, cockiness, and energy but is also a loveable rogue all wrapped up in one. Having Max (i.e. Ryuji from Persona 5) do the voice work of Pollon was an inspired choice as he most certainly carries the entire game.
After him, though, the cupboard is a little bare, which unfortunately, is not due to a lack of talent or interesting narrative but more a result of the fact that as the game does have such a brisk pace, there is little time to linger to get to know everyone. There is, in fact, a vast cast of characters to come across, and many were interesting in their own right, but maybe because of the fallout of Steins;Gate being too slow by spending too long on side characters, I feel the development team went too far the other way here.
Another small disappointment would be that other games in the series felt a little more cerebral and adult. Anonymous;Code comes across as the flashy juvenile amongst these other greats. This may not be a deterrent at all for some and most certainly will broaden the appeal. Even so, there were still surprising aspects about the story that get introspective and occasionally deep. Again, without going into spoilers, this added depth to what appeared to be devil-may-care-type players and drew you further into the world.
There are very few mechanics here in Anonymous;Code other than the moment to engage the re-load feature and to navigate the game’s excellent menu systems.
To re-load you will get prompts from bad endings at where the best place to change things will be, and it is as simple as clicking ZL/ZR on the Switch at the right moments to open the window of opportunity to changes. It’s a mechanic I’m sure we would all love to have in real life and a very simple yet immersive tool. The only issue here was at times it wasn’t clear where exactly you needed to change events, which then ended with me mashing the ZL/ZR close to where I thought it would be until something happened.
The one area where the game lets itself down is the occasional obtuse path you need to navigate to get further into the game. This only really hindered my play once, but the time that it did was counterintuitive to how the game had been played thus far, so it was frustrating.
Other than that, there are great customizable options with regards to text speed, fast forwarding, or just having the game on auto. The menu texts were clear and easy to use and had great designs for a little visual flair where you least expected it.
For the simple medium of a visual novel game to get me to write “thrills and spills”, you know it means that, visually, this game is incredible! The art style is more of a living comic book than a straight-up manga/anime adaptation, which may have been a specific design choice to appeal to a wider audience. Either way, it works.
For the most part, the story is delivered in text sequences, with characters’ chatting overlayed on a background or still artwork displayed and revealed in the form of a comic book style, frame by frame.
There are a few animations during the text sequences, and although few, they are buttery smooth! For example, if Momo screams in surprise as she delivers her line, her hair and loose parts of her clothing would bounce authentically. The majority of characters move their mouths as they speak too, so although this game is considered a visual novel, they are blurring the lines between a still book and full-blown anime/cartoon.
What is very striking, however, is the excellent artwork, designs, and clarity of everything on the screen, even in the Switch handheld mode. As the world is set in the future, the designers have really gone to town with some over-the-top designs mixed with much more mundane but functional ones. However, the beauty is in the detail. For example, during a chase scene, the view of the game goes to first-person, and while Pollon is checking things, instead of just blank lines with text appearing, there are cool little futuristic backdrop overlays that the text is placed upon. These little details add up and keep your eyes peeled for visual interest.
The audio other than the voice acting was also excellent, with some superb cyberpunk, eclectic beats that really ramped up the excitement through some of the more thrilling sequences.
And that is about it. The joy of playing visual novel games is there isn’t much to them to get used to other than to get the speed of the text set to how you like, put the game on auto, and sit back and relax. The fact that the game lets you adjust these settings to how you want perfectly is quite a big deal for people like me who have played many visual novel games.
The quality of the presentation and the story that unfolded shows how well this developer is evolving and expanding the visual novel genre to a wider audience. I literally got myself some snacks and drinks to sit down and enjoy how this story unfolded, just like binge-watching a TV show. The fact that I could interact with this “TV Show” only made the experience all the more immersive. This game is most certainly a great introduction to anyone curious about the visual novel genre and yet another masterpiece in the Mages/Chiyomaru Studio library.
This is the game to recommend to anyone new to the genre of visual novels. Veterans of the Science Adventure series may feel a little disappointed in the lack of character world-building and depth of the cast. However, what they lose in side character depth, they gain in the breakneck speed and thrills that Anonymous;Code brings more than anything else made so far by these developers.
A great story with a simple hook of being able to re-load the past to change events to get to what you need together with a stunning presentation, exciting narrative, and great voice acting and audio will most certainly appeal to a wide range of gamers.
Developer: Mages/Chiyomaru Studio
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Release date: 8th September 2023