Early Access Check-in: Meet us in the conversation pit with The Anacrusis
Updated: Feb 8
Early Access Check-In provides brief updates on early access releases and shares impressions of what's available to play today.
As I approach 30, I've begun to realize that a large part of my gaming life has spent been chasing the high of the late 2000s and early 2010s. When gaming was a cathartic release from the hellish school day, when Team Fortress 2 was $20, and when Steam was a fraction of what it was today.
Some of my fondest gaming memories come from that era — before my friends and I became adults and we had ample time to play. Besides Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike, and Garry's Mod, Left 4 Dead was a huge hit in my group. A game about surviving the zombie apocalypse with bright and vivid characters and an engaging gameplay loop driven by the exciting "AI Director"? We ate it up.
Time went on, we moved on, and many of the people who created games like that moved on too and pursued new jobs.
Cut to 2022. The pandemic has brought me and my friends closer together than ever... and those golden glory days have made a reappearance as some ex-Valve and Riot developers conspired to bring us an experience reminiscent of those Left 4 Dead days.
Enter: The Anacrusis.
The team behind The Anacrusis, Stray Bombay, formed in 2019 under the watchful eyes of former Valve writer Chet Faliszek and former Riot Technical Designer Dr. Kimberly Voll. From the start, their focus was creating cooperative games. They too craved the connection that games like Left 4 Dead fostered in a pre-social media boom gaming community.
Cue 2020 and all that brought with it and their intentions were set. They were out to make a wholly cooperative experience that could be played again and again with the help of an advanced AI running the experience behind the scenes.
It may be reductive to say, but they were out to make a new Left 4 Dead. Needless to say, many before them have tried and failed. Back 4 Blood is the closest modern reinterpretation, and even that is lacking a special something that the original game captured.
After six hours playing through the early access content for The Anacrusis several times over, I can definitively say that Stray Bombay has all the pieces in front of them to make a worthy follow-up to a classic that also stands out on its own.
One of the easiest ways to get out from under the massive shadow of a legendary game is to drastically change your aesthetic. Stray Bombay decided to strap a rocket on their back and put as much distance between themselves and their "grounded" big brother by bringing the whole affair into space. Trade zombies for aliens and cities for one big spaceship, wrap it all up in neat '70s bow and you've got The Anacrusis.
And let me tell you, the vibes work wonders.
The '70s are so hot right now
First things first, the cast of characters is infinitely more diverse than their predecessors with more immediate bursts of personality from the outset. Lance, Liu, Nessa, and Guion all hold (held?) jobs on the Isolode, a large starship that set out years ago in search of intelligent alien life. They found that life... but it wasn't friendly.
Story isn't fully rolled out in the content that's out so far. Only three of the game's first five episodes are available to play in Early Access, and the focus is clearly on crafting an enjoyable play experience. It's hard to fully grasp what they're going for story-wise because it drip-feeds you details by design. Story and character details slowly unravel as you play, with the game's AI Director even able to detect which voice lines and what pieces of the story each player has learned up to that point, feeding the freshest content possible to each set of players.
Only after our third full playthrough of the game's content did I start to get a fuller picture of each character's role on the ship and how they interacted before the whole alien space invasion. It's an interesting way to deliver a story, making replays worth it not only to unlock more lore each time but making them unique from a narrative perspective as well.
Visually, the game couldn't stand further apart from its "horde shooter" peers if it tried. Fully embracing the '70s aesthetic, you've got conversation pits in every other room, brightly colored uniforms only matched by the brightly colored designs on the walls, and retro-futuristic technology ripped straight from your favorite Star franchise of choice plonked all around.
It's a welcome reprieve from the usual "apocalyptic" — and generally gross — vibe and aesthetic of games like Vermintide and Back 4 Blood. And if the headline didn't make it obvious, we love us a conversation pit. So The Anacrusis didn't have to work too hard to pull us in.
Embrace tradition, reject tradition
Across the three "episodes" available, you and three friends (or bots) fight through waves of aliens to get to a safe room for a brief respite before heading right back into the fray and repeating the process. Unique objectives are littered throughout (ex: playing hot potato with rare radioactive alien technology that burns up if held for too long; activating escape pods by standing together on a point) but the core experience is familiar. Again, without being overly reductive, it's Left 4 Dead.
But I kind of think it has the chance to be better than Left 4 Dead? Hear me out.
In Early Access, The Anacrusis features a very early version of their overall vision. There are only three of five episodes available. The game's Season system isn't implemented. Unlockable cosmetics for characters and weapons are hinted at but are not available in any way. The game's bots make questionable decisions at times.
But the pieces are there for brilliance.
Even in its early state, The Anacrusis is a refinement of what's come before. Left 4 Dead's AI Director was heralded for its ability to introduce unique enemies and hordes, not randomly, but with intention. It kept the tension up without overwhelming the player and for the most part, it worked. There are some issues I have with the pacing of those original games, as I remember many runs dying just as they started thanks to a particularly punishing route plotted by the Director.
The Anacrusis employs a similar AI Director, rebuilt from the ground up. It's hard to pinpoint the exact differences... but it feels smarter. It rewards exploration, hiding key items in even the most remote corners of the map, and it generally ramps things up differently. Anacrusis's AI Director slows things down a bit at the start of runs, lulling you into a false sense of security before springing a horde or even a few special alien types on you just around the corner. By the time you reach the final few stages of an episode, you're just barely limping into an airlock with your heart pumping in your chest as you prepare to push forward.
"I can definitively say that Stray Bombay has all the pieces in front of them to make a worthy follow-up to a classic that also stands out on its own."
Special alien types also feel like refinements of past favorites. Instead of the hulking beasts that were Tanks in Left 4 Dead, you're facing a much more agile Brute in Anacrusis. Instead of the elusive Smoker, you've got the slightly beefier Grabber to ruin your momentum. Instead of the looming dangerous Witch, Anacrusis employs a squad of sleeping rolling balls to get your blood pressure up. Again: Familiar, but refined.
Shoutout to the "love to hate" Goopers and Spawners, two very annoying special aliens that do their very best to run away from you while trapping you in goop and summoning incredibly strong babies respectively. Oh and we don't talk about the Flasher. Don't ask.
Space is promising, y'all
One of the things that's most exciting here is the setting. We're working with sci-fi. Space. Lasers! It's rife for innovation, and while what's in place now may be basic, I'm optimistic that Stray Bombay knows they've got fun putty to mold with here.
Take, for example, the weapons. You've got your SMG, assault rifle, and shotgun — but sci-fi. So instead, it's the SMB, Plasma Rifle, and Blaster. Sure, each weapon effectively operates the same as its Earth-based counterpart, but the promise of the setting is what we should focus on here.
Stray Bombay has already confirmed new weapons are on the way as the game progresses through its Early Access period. My hope is that they let loose their creativity and introduce some wildly unique sci-fi weapons down the line. There are special weapons (the Arc and Laser Rifles) that you can pick up in the world, and a re-envisioning of melee attacks as a bursting pulse shield, which already show that the team is looking to make the most of the sci-fi setting. We'd love to see even more.
My group in particular felt a dedicated melee weapon could really stand out amidst all the guns.
The biggest innovation on the formula is the introduction of perks. Back 4 Blood implemented them as cards you could unlock and bring into any run, but The Anacrusis keeps things a bit more random and thematically consistent. Throughout each episode, hidden stations called Matter Compilers provide players with a new perk. These range from fairly basic boons (faster revives and healing) to surprisingly inventive (being able to heal your team with enemy slowing goop). It fits the setting, it makes sense in the world, and I kinda love it. If Stray Bombay keeps this inventive thinking in mind as they move forward, they're on the right track.
I tried to keep things brief, but The Anacrusis has its Grabber hooks in me. At Early Access launch, there's tons to enjoy. A full run of all three available episodes takes just a few hours, but with weekly challenges that introduce unique modifiers to any given episode and lore to uncover in replays, you can easily sink 8-10 hours into what's available now before getting bored.
Stray Bombay is looking to implement tons of new goodies, including unlocking those final two episodes over time and eventually introducing their Season system, which promises even more story content and cosmetics to unlock.
And they've got Game Pass on their side too, so if you aren't quite sure about dropping the full $20, try it out for free with a Game Pass subscription and come on back later when it's a bit more feature full.
With the pedigree of the team behind this one and with the quality of content they have at launch, they just might have captured the nostalgic highs I've been chasing all these years.
I mean... watch this clip from our stream and tell me you aren't interested in experiencing those emotions.