I. What is Anna?
Anna is a new game from Dreampainters. You can purchase it here. It is equal parts puzzler and horror with a heavy dash of ambient narrative added. The game promises a horror game experience on the level of Amnesia, partially achieving this through adapting to the play style of the player. Like you, I think that sounds really great, so I jumped on the Anna wagon as soon as possible. This review/thinking through of the game is going to be a little more structured that most of what I write because I have such mixed feelings about the game. It is wildly frustrating and opaque, but I still enjoyed it for what it was. This review is a little more structured that normal, if only to keep my thoughts in some kind of cogent, readable form.
II. How does Anna play?
Anna is a first-person puzzler. It takes place in a grand total of three different “rooms,” and while that sounds ridiculously small, it actually creates a nice space for the game to bloom in. You find yourself using the same items and locations to solve different puzzles, and the closeness of it all makes the process of completing puzzles pretty fast. Beyond that, it is standard first-person adventure fare–there are items you pick up that you put together or put inside things to let you go along to the next part of the game.
The puzzles, however, are incredibly difficult. As you’ll notice above, I said “completing.” That’s because the process of solving puzzles is hair-pulling, frothing-at-the-mouth, megahard. My playthrough time was about 3.5 hours, with a full half of that being me standing in the corner of a room trying not to tear my eyeballs out in frustration. The puzzles are unintuitive and have no rhyme of reason–it is often “hunt the location” in order to figure out where random items in your inventory apply to the world. That said, I am really terrible at adventure games, and I make it a priority to never play them, ever. That probably has something to do with it, and I am more than willing to say so, but some of the puzzles at the end of the game are incredibly opaque. Like I said, stronger minds than mine might prevail.
III. What is Anna about?
Honestly, I have no idea. The game opens with a (seemingly) internal narrator that mentions a building that he sees in his dreams. With that, I was plopped in front of a super-old sawmill and I started along my merry puzzle-solving way. After solving certain puzzles, I was treated with voiceovers that unlocked certain parts of the story. There was a woman who I was obsessed with. I spent more and more time in the forest cutting wood. There was a demonic ritual and a goddess; an all-seeing eye that was happiest when no one but Anna was left. But I cannot tell you who Anna was. I know that I didn’t escape her.
Anna is similar to Dear Esther in that is gives you pieces of narrative that you are forced to put together. The strength of the game is not in its plot, but rather in its puzzles, and figuring out the narrative puzzle is probably the most difficult. I imagine a studious person, taking multiple playthroughs, could put together a grand unifying theory of Anna that would put Kotakus and Redditors alike to shame. But that person isn’t me; I am content to stew over the small fragments that I have. (Side note: I think there are some narrative similarities to Von Trier’s Antichrist. Someone engage me about that.)
IV. Is Anna scary?
I don’t know what scary means. There is a famous Gene Siskel quote about telling other people what is funny or what is sexy–you can’t do it. If someone doesn’t think a scene is funny, there’s nothing you can do to convince them. I think horror, and general scariness, works the same way.
I can tell you that I was unnerved a couple times while playing. The use of sound is masterful. Often the choral vocal track will simply cut out, leaving the player in the silent space of an abandoned lumber mill. My footsteps echoed. I could hear someone walking around a floor above me. Sometimes there would be pinging, or screaming, or crying. I was unnerved for most of the game, and there were several scripted moments when random objects, like dress forms or plants fused with human limbs, popped up in front of me and performed some kind of weird, wire dance. Those moments had chills rolling up my spine. Additionally, there are several times when the player’s vision changes, altering the familiarity of the local space into something much more foreign and occult, which really adds to the ambient horror.
So yeah, it is scary if those things sound scary.
V. Is Anna a good game?
I think Anna is a good, if flawed, game. I was literally filled with rage over the difficulties of some of the puzzles. However, the developer has indicated to me in an email that better hints and directions for those puzzles will be included in the next patch for the game. Also included will be additional language support.
I really think that Anna is ambitious in a lot of ways. There are some design decisions that boggle my mind, but they also sometimes work in strange ways. Dreampainters is a studio to watch–I am definitely interested in whatever comes out of the studio, taking into account what they learned from the process of making Anna.