Starting Anarchy Reigns, we go straight for Bayonetta. But playing just a few seconds of Platinum’s multiplayer-focused brawler – known as Max Anarchy in Japan – is enough to reveal this isn’t the same witch who starred in the studio’s 2009 masterpiece. Just like everyone here, she has a dodge, but you can only use it when a move’s animation is over. Key to Bayonetta’s accessibility was her ability to cancel moves at will and cartwheel away to safety.
It’s no surprise that many of Anarchy Reigns’ characters feel compromised, including Bayonetta (who’s available as a playable character via free download with copies of the game’s first print run and will presumably be offered as DLC later on). We’ve known they would since the game was announced, and Platinum surely realised it on the day its initial design document was produced. If everyone could dodge-cancel their moves, nobody would ever get hit. From the moment Anarchy Reigns was conceived, it was clear that it would be more MadWorld than Bayonetta.
Indeed, other familiar faces come from Platinum’s Wii brawler, including Jack, MadWorld’s chainsaw-wielding protagonist, and the Black Baron. Both are hulking figures, placed firmly on the hard-hitting but slow end of the traditional brawler scale. Indeed, most of the cast sit at this extreme or its polar opposite, with only a handful occupying the middle ground.
One such character is Leo, a member of the Bureau of Public Safety (BPS) and the star of one half of the campaign mode. Yes, Anarchy Reigns has been pitched as a primarily multiplayer game, but there’s a generous singleplayer component here, with players choosing at the outset between the White (Leo) or Black (Jack) side. Whoever you choose, the goal is the same: track down Max, a BPS member gone rogue. Leo wants to rescue his mentor; Jack’s services as a bounty hunter have been engaged by Max’s daughter, who wants him alive.
While there’s some overlap – notably in a few forgettable boss fights – these are discrete campaigns, intended as gentle introductions to the game’s mechanics before you jump into the brutal multiplayer. You use the face buttons to jump, grab, and perform light and heavy attacks, and the latter two are modified by squeezing the left trigger to unleash a ‘Killer Weapon’, such as Bayonetta’s Wicked Weaves. There’s also a block button, a flaky lock on, and your dodge.
There’s some depth here, but Anarchy Reigns’ combat system can’t hold a candle to genre high points such as Bayonetta, God Hand and Devil May Cry 3. Timing is key, since a slight delay between button presses modifies the next attack – launching a foe instead of pushing them away, for instance – while some characters can cancel specific moves by jumping or blocking at the right time. But the game’s relative shallowness is dictated to a large extent by its multiplayer focus.
Like a fighting game, Anarchy Reigns gives you its full set of tools the moment you first put the disc in. There are no new moves or weapons to reward progress, and there’s no way to extend your health bar, which is an attempt to ensure balance when a new player comes up against an opponent who’s already at the level cap of 50.
That’s the theory, but your first experience of online play is unlikely to be pleasant. You’ll get knocked from pillar to post by players who have learned a character and how to maximise miniscule openings. Watching such players at work is a learning experience, and you quickly get a sense of when the attacks in your arsenal should be used, and which of the items scattered about stages are most useful. Tyres and lamp posts, it turns out, briefly stun foes, setting up a free combo.
Or, more accurately, a free combo that will inevitably be interrupted by another player punching you in the back of the head. With up to 16 players on the field, Anarchy Reigns can be a messy experience. Platinum’s borrowed its list of game modes from the FPS genre – including solo and team deathmatches, and objective-based modes such as capture the flag – and some work better than others. At its worst, Anarchy Reigns is a game of 16 people fighting in and over the same ten square feet, a stuttering mess of combos started and then interrupted from behind. Our few online successes have come in the smaller arenas, with four players split into two teams. It’s easier to see what’s going on, to coordinate assaults, and to actually finish a combo without being hit or grabbed out of it.
Platinum deserves praise for trying to move the genre forward, but it’s not been entirely successful. The heavier characters seem the most powerful, since the strength of their attacks means they still do a hefty chunk of damage before their combo is halted. Grabs are vital; players block all the time, and you’re unassailable during a throw animation. Garuda, the mech we’ve already seen rather too much of online, can grab two players at once and take off half their health. The levelling system feels positively glacial early on, too, your meagre scores barely making a dent in the total required to rank up. When you do, you’ll unlock new characters – unless you’ve already played through the campaign, in which case you’ll already have them. Perk-like abilities are unlocked later on, but often there’s no reward for rising through the ranks.
Anarchy Reigns sits awkwardly, then: its balanced multiplayer mode means a fixed moveset and an unremarkable singleplayer campaign, while the high online player count means matches too often descend into scrappy pileups. Neither its on- or offline offerings are essential, but Platinum has shown that an online brawler can work. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but it’s a proof of concept to build on.
PS3 version tested.