Steam Next Fest February 2023: Pokémon Snap goes cryptid in Project Anomaly
Updated: Feb 10
Every so often, you stumble onto something that you immediately know is special but woefully underappreciated. You're in love with its vision and find yourself shocked that everybody isn't already talking about it. Well, I just tried out the demo for Project Anomaly: Urban Supernatural Investigator and... color me shocked. Why isn't everyone already talking about this?
If you're looking for a 2.5D cryptid mystery photography game with style akin to '90s and '00s cartoons, Project Anomaly: Urban Supernatural Investigator is here, out of the blue, to fan that flame in your heart.
It has a 1-2 hour demo available during the Steam Next Fest from Feb. 6 to 13, so read our thoughts and try it out for yourself!
Just the Facts
Developer: DARK SCIENCE
Publisher: DARK SCIENCE
Release Date: TBA
Preview key provided by Steam Next Fest.
Project Anomaly has an interesting origin story on its path to this Steam Next Fest, one rooted in academia. Starting out as lead developer Adlan Ramly's master's degree thesis project, this undertaking has certainly come a long way and may result in more than just a master's degree when it's all said and done.
Project Anomaly starts out with the player's first day at the Anomaly Research Institute. Program Director Shaw introduces you to the tools of the trade, your oddball coworkers, the lightly horrifying but mostly harmless anomalies you'll encounter (cryptids, mythological creatures, urban legends, and so on), and then sends you on your way. The Anomaly Research Institute is focused on documenting, befriending, and understanding these anomalies. It wasn't always this way, as you learn that Shaw is a fairly new director and that an entire wing of the organization, the decidedly more aggressive Enforcers, had recently broken off and defected.
Using the Institute's unique camera, The Beholder, you'll be able to see and communicate with anomalies, learning about their history and origins and changing your approach to taming them in response to what you learn. Your work with these anomalies is central to solving cases handed to you.
Your first major case is in the city of Neo Noir, a cross-cultural urban zone that just so happens to be the home of several cryptids and one big, big moon. The moon's changing size is the focus of your investigation; you're sent into town to figure out why the moon is... like that... and how it's affecting the residents of Neo Noir.
When Adlan initially pitched the game to us, Anomaly was described as a late '90s, early '00s cartoon with a dash of Y2K retrofuturism. And it certainly delivers on all fronts. Toonami-esque drum and bass tracks, anime-inspired character designs, and a hybrid 2D-3D art style all add to a strangely nostalgic feeling all throughout. And the plot itself, which keeps things both silly and horrifying in equal parts, feels pulled out of some early 2000s anime-inspired cartoon about an organization chasing after cryptids.
Who knows. DARK SCIENCE just might have an entire media franchise on their hands with the world they've built here.
Speaking of cryptids, it's fascinating to see the various cultural mythologies represented in Project Anomaly and learn more about their origins. The demo features 22 different anomalies from all over the world, though there is a slight bias toward popular American and Southeast Asian cryptids.
As previously mentioned, "taming" or befriending these anomalies requires some amount of knowledge about their history, which makes this a somewhat educational experience too. Finding the ways that these mythical beings came into being, usually rooted in tragedy or violence, is a fun way to solve the game's light obstacles. Especially when it leads to even the most frightening creature lowering its walls and softening into a friend shape right before your eyes. Project Anomaly's gameplay loop is just as satisfying as making a cryptid smile.
Equipped with The Beholder, a camera with teeth and a ribcage that perceives the horrors unseen by human eyes, the player ventures out into the world to snap photos of anomalies hidden across the mundane cityscape. Before you enter a region, you select a "shift" which will designate which time of day you'll do your exploring in: dawn, morning, afternoon, dusk, and night.
As you might expect, your timing means different anomalies will be out and about in different areas — not dissimilar to Pokémon Snap letting you re-explore an area at different times of day and night to capture certain Pokémon — so picking when to explore Neo Noir is important.
When you enter, exploring the streets of the city with your pure human eyes, you may notice a few telltale signs of an anomaly's presence. An upturned barrel. A broken street light. An ATM with cash spilling out of it. A tiny fire burning endlessly on the ground. Only when you bring The Beholder up to your eyes are you able to see these anomalies. Snapping a picture will add them to your database. After the first few, you start to get a sense of where these anomalies may be hiding and find yourself scanning the landscape with your camera frequently in anticipation.
It's a fun little game of hide and seek, especially considering how the time of day changes things up, and later on, the special camera filters you'll unlock show you anomalies otherwise hidden from the world. After you've taken a photo, you're able to approach the anomaly and start a conversation. The entity will be initially defensive, ready to attack or trick you into falling for their dangerous games. But, using what you know about their past and a dash of common sense, you're able to talk them down. Do it right and they become "tame," befriending you and giving out a hint about something to go investigate further. Make a misstep and they just might attack you.
Knowing that your interaction with an anomaly could end just as suddenly as it starts, there's a tension within every interaction. Cracking through their shell with the right choices and creating a bond with an anomaly, though, is an intriguing aspect. It would honestly be really interesting if the full release continued any of these relationships beyond this first interaction, maybe eventually leading to anomalies themselves handing out tasks to the player.
Most of your progression is based on snapping the right photos for the right cases — this game's version of quests, essentially. To solve the greater mystery of each new chapter, you'll have to mine out information by taking smaller jobs from the townsfolk that give you clues about what's really going on. Chipping away at the bigger mystery this way is really satisfying, and it makes engaging with side quests feel as important as anything.
Photos can also be taken back to the lab to be analyzed by your coworkers for more information and new cases. This is one of my favorite aspects of the game, as it encourages you to think in broader strokes about the world around you and consider everything when it comes to solving this game's mysteries.
For example, there's Rodlin, the Anomaly Research Institute's linguistics expert. Just outside of a giant Japanese temple in Neo Noir's East Borough are some containers with Japanese lettering on them. Only after taking a picture and showing it to Rodlin do you learn what they mean and, in turn, unlock a new anomaly to be found in the city.
With time-limited shifts — and the ability to be sent back to the lab at any moment if an encounter with an anomaly turns violent — your continued visits back to base never feel fruitless when you have photos to turn in and things to learn about.
When you get toward the "end" of the mystery, though, it can be lightly exasperating to figure out exactly what you're missing to trigger the game's end state. There are so many factors, which is part of the fun as much as part of the frustration — time of day, visual filters, and some anomalies are even hidden behind cases you need to uncover first by showing photos to your colleagues back at the base. I found myself wandering the streets of Neo Noir, semi-aimlessly, trying to find some hidden anomaly or some NPC whose quest I hadn't taken.
It only really manifests toward the end of the demo, so it's hard to say what the full release might be like, but some kind of pointed hint system once you reach a certain level of completion in the area could be helpful.
That's just about the only negative I could attribute to the game and it borders on nitpicky. It's a near two-hour demo and it executes every part of its vision perfectly. There are tons of bigger, more expensive, and more discussed games that can't accomplish that. And that's worth celebrating.
It's almost hard to write about Project Anomaly. Adlan and DARK SCIENCE have a game here with an undefinable kind of X factor that pulls you in deeply. Project Anomaly — with its unique Toonami-era aesthetics, photo-based investigative gameplay, and educational mythology experience — deserves more eyes. Progress on the game has been slow going, presumably as Adlan finished out his schooling and found work elsewhere, but I CANNOT wait to see where Project Anomaly goes in the next year. Wherever it goes, I know I'll be chasing it down with my camera to document its next steps. In the meantime, try the demo yourself and consider wishlisting the game and spreading the word about this unique experience. (It certainly helps that this game effectively serves as a video game adaptation of our favorite paranormal horror podcast, Parascience.)
Keep up with our week of Steam Next Fest coverage right here on Video Games are Good and then once you're done reading... try the demos yourself and consider wishlisting the games we've written about. Wishlisting goes a long way toward supporting indie developers!