Anonymous;Code Review – Hack Into God, Become Time’s Arrow

    Title: Anonymous;Code
    Developer: MAGES
    Release Date: September 8, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS4
    Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
    Genre: Visual Novel, Mystery Adventure

One game I’ve been cautiously anticipating for who knows how long is Anonymous;Code, the next entry in the Science Adventure franchise that, at least from the outside, seems to have gone through quite the chaotic development cycle. Given how each mainline title in this series stands on its own, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Anonymous;Code, but what I did want right from the outset was for it to understand what it was trying to do. From a mechanical, thematical, and narrative lens, I was just hoping that everything would meld together meaningfully in a way that left a loosely similar profound impact as Chaos;Head, Steins;Gate or Robotics;Notes.

After fully completing Anonymous;Code, I found that prediction both offbase yet fitting. This truly is a Science Adventure like no other, as its considerably more ambitious storytelling results in an experience fans will reflect on for a long time.

In Anonymous;Code, the world set in 2037 boasts significant technological improvements that blur the line between reality and fiction. However, it recently faced a disaster called the Sad Morning on February 6, 2036 —a hacking incident that resulted in the loss of innumerable lives. In the wake of facing that tragedy, protagonist Pollon Takaoka and his friend Cross Yumikawa, members of Nakano Symphonies, both take on assignments as hackers to make a living.

Following one ordinary job, Pollon ends up falling victim to his pride, claiming that he is, in fact, eloping with his nonexistent girlfriend. This leads to an encounter with a curious girl on the run, Momo Aizaki, drastically changing the course of Pollon’s life. After failing to save her from her pursuers, Pollon somehow gains the ability to Save and Load in real life, akin to a video game, causing him to redo past faults all for the sake of helping Momo. Further, he also uses this new functionality to solve “Quests” posted by the infamous Cicada 3301 on 4chan that put people’s lives in danger.

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Several other factors are also involved here, notably, the Vatican seeking Momo for their own ends and the usage of GAIA. This Earth simulator that a prodigious 14-year-old boy constructed can correctly predict events to a scarily accurate minutia. But when considering how Pollon alters the future because of his Saving and Loading, you can imagine that’s going to conflict with GAIA and the one helming it.

First and foremost, it’s worth emphasizing that Anonymous;Code is arguably the most intricate entry in the series by extension because, while it can be generally understood standalone, it possesses so many connections to previous Science Adventure titles that I find it difficult to recommend to newcomers. In particular, there are crucially recontextualized facets from Steins;Gate and Chaos;Head Noah that I picked up on, which will make veteran fans view every game in a brand-new light. It’s to such an extent that you should ideally know the past games before experiencing this one.

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As a fan who’s followed the series for years, I naturally found this all pretty engaging, but someone who has no history with Science Adventure will undoubtedly find themselves out of their depth with Anonymous;Code, especially in the last third or so where it just goes balls to the wall with its premise and consequential reveals. Speaking of, this is an entry that highly prioritizes story above all else, as evidenced by its relentless pacing. It’s no exaggeration to say that Anonymous;Code has the most breakneck pacing in the whole franchise.

Unlike Steins;Gate, which has a very clear line between its two halves, so to speak, and Chaos;Child, which progresses at what feels like a snail’s pace, Anonymous;Code just goes straight into it. The opening segments introducing Pollon and company are quite brief but effective, swiftly leading into establishing and developing the core dilemmas plaguing the cast. In fact, I’d say the pacing is most similar to Chaos;Head Noah, where it’s all succinct.

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This isn’t to say that the cast is weakly handled at a cost because they’re mostly terrific, but compared to, say Robotics;Notes, you’ll be spending far less casual time with these characters. You will still get to know the major players and most side members fairly well, though only on essential bases. In hindsight, Anonymous;Code’s handling of its cast is pretty impressive because it manages to simultaneously make a decent chunk of them genuinely endearing and captivating in the midst of high-stakes conflicts. As a result, the few more toned-down lax scenarios feel earned and amplify later implementations of tension.

Pollon is an excellent protagonist, sort of reminding me of Takuru in some ways. He’s a cocky youth who has a little too much faux confidence in his capabilities, yet he doesn’t let that impede his efforts in doing what he believes is truly just. Thanks to the Hacking Trigger mechanic we’ll get into later, he also forges a bond with you, the player, that builds a unique rapport you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a visual novel or any story, really.

Granted, I still do wish some characters got more limelight. As contradictory as this sounds, for as well as the characters are handled, I simply wanted more from them. Cross, for example, Pollon’s partner, is effective support, but aside from an optional scene that delves into how became part of Nakano Symphonies, that’s about all the insight you gain regarding him. There’s also a plot-heavy character you meet face-to-face in the later hours that’s more of an exposition machine than anything else, which is likely at least partially intended, but it did feel like a missed opportunity. Still, interestingly, despite being one who highly values character work, the lack of focus on some individuals here never really bothered me. The story just does such an awesome job pulling you in that the somewhat lacking supporting cast never felt like a substantial detractor.

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While the cast could’ve used additional personal facets to latch onto, the core story of Anonymous;Code is absolutely phenomenal. The latter’s strength is bolstered by the stellar gameplay integration of the primary mechanic, the Hacking Trigger. You see, you, the player, can be understood as a character in-game. The ability Pollon gets to Save and Load is tied to an app of his that you have direct access to, and Pollon, while not aware of your exact identity, knows you’re out there.

You and Pollon share the same save file selection screen, and you can make it appear via the Hacking Trigger button. Doing so will tell Pollon that you believe he should Load at that time to undo a mistake or prevent an incoming one. But he can either refuse or accept your help. And since you’re able to suggest Loading at any point you’re witnessing events from Pollon’s perspective, he’ll only accept your suggestions when circumstances deem it sensical.

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Pollon will also make his own manual saves in the save file selection screen you two share, which is the basis of his subsequent loads. It sounds confusing, yet it’s far simpler to understand in practice. Essentially, the gameplay loop comprises you reading text like a standard visual novel with the addition that you need to manually activate the Hacking Trigger so Pollon can progress past certain obstacles. You’ll be faced with conundrums that can be perceived as puzzles, with you needing to figure out the best lines of dialogue that will encourage Pollon to Load.

Of course, Pollon can still choose to Load a file from an unfortunately faulty suggestion by you that leads to a bad end, so you must consider knowledge from those failures when needing to pass supposed blocks in the main story. You can obtain a few supplemental scenes and alterations from optional triggers, too. I love pretty much everything about the Hacking Trigger system because it feels like an astonishingly more compelling evolution of Steins;Gate’s limited time travel instances. This is also the most frequent and personal a gameplay mechanic that has magnificently impacted a Science Adventure protagonist since Takumi’s delusions in Chaos;Head, so I was left pretty satisfied with it all.

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Back to the narrative, for as much I adored it, the fault I had with it aside from the not-as-strong handling of the cast was the ending scene. It’s difficult to get into here, but, at least to me, it lacked the emotional gut punch previous entries have. I’m sure this will wildly vary depending on the player, though, considering the subject matter.

I’m sure this is evident, yet I should emphasize it anyway; the presentation of Anonymous;Code is spectacular. The sheer vibrancy of the backgrounds and characters, as well as the clever UI with a few secrets of its own, give this entry a visual identity comparable to the distinction of the original Steins;Gate’s character models. This is especially amplified by the Manga Trigger.

While not appearing too often, select plot events will depict themselves as if they’re ripped straight from a manga, and to say they’re memorable is an understatement. I was initially concerned that these scenes would almost feel like cheapened versions of what the normal presentation should’ve offered, but I was dead wrong on that assumption. Each Manga Trigger scenario breathes so much color and life that I loved each and every second of them.

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Another element that impressed me was the English dub. This is the first Science Adventure entry to have received such treatment, and it ended up providing, with no hyperbole, one of the best English dubs ever produced. Every single character’s enunciation and tone is handled perfectly to such an extent that I could not imagine playing this title without the English dub. Honestly, I remembered being skeptical about the casting of Max Mittelman as Pollon, yet I was sold not even a full hour in. If you’ve been on the fence about playing Anonymous;Code with the dub, I heartily recommend it; you will not be disappointed.

Lastly, I can’t comment on the translation quality seeing as I’m not familiar with the Japanese script, though this was remarkably better than the questionable mess that was the Chaos;Head Noah localization at times. I know that’s probably a low standard, yet it was abundantly clear throughout my time playing that there was great care, time, and work spent into ensuring that the themes and concepts of Anonymous;Code were communicated well. This isn’t a factor I believe you should worry about heading in, especially if you’re not super familiar with the series.

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Anonymous;Code takes some understanding of the Science Adventure series to wholly appreciate, but its world-building is what I would regard as some of the series’ best. It acts as a culmination of ideas seen throughout numerous titles, creating an unconventional experience that is extremely rewarding. Despite a few stumbles found in the cast and the ending needing a bit more time to be fully realized, what’s here is an immaculate story with brilliant pacing that makes every scene and interaction meaningful and necessary. The fantastic English dub and presentation only serve to help matters. I have no idea where the Science Adventure series will go from here, but after seeing the sheer love and ambition poured into Anonymous;Code, I’m more confident in this series than I’ve ever been.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.