First posted on 07 November 2012. Last updated on 07 November 2012.
The game is available at Zodiac.
Anna is a tangled mess of illogical puzzles, incomplete narratives, and nonsense. It may also be among the most beautiful, creepy, and unforgettable games you get to experience. These conflicting qualities make it difficult to offer a quick judgment on this game. Usually the mark of a truly awful game—adventure or not—is that you do not remember much about the game after you play it. With Anna, though, it is not unreasonable to believe that the experience you get from playing it will linger on in your dreams.
So, what is Anna? It is a classic adventure game, rendered in gorgeous 3D graphics with lush visuals and brilliant sound direction that will engage you early and chill you later. It is a brief adventure, although your mileage may vary depending on how long you are willing to endure its shortcomings. The game is full of the usual adventure tropes: you have an inventory, you can combine items, and you will have to solve puzzles to get the story to move on. You will be investigating a haunted house to uncover the mystery or not. Unlike other games with only 2.5D graphics, you can pan the camera in any direction, turn around, and even sidestep.
What is most remarkable about Anna is the game's art direction and attention to detail. While blundering about a haunted house certainly is not new to the adventure game genre, the realism that Dreampainters has taken to immerse you in this house is unique and impressive. The developer has gone to extreme lengths to recreate an actual sawmill beside a mountain range in Europe. I wonder, though, if the developer is also trying to make a statement on some sort of meta-irony of starting a game outside a white boarded house.
You will spend most of what Dreampainters claims to be 3-9 hours exploring inside the house, trying to determine what has brought you there, and to uncover the past terrible events at the sawmill. It is difficult to provide much more context to these goals, since any information on the identity of the character you are playing—as well as his place in the past events, his relationships to the apparitions, and the titular Anna—is largely left to your imagination. You will be piecing his (at the very least, you are sure you are playing a man) story together by mostly picking your way through the abandoned sawmill, puttering through the scattered items before your actions awaken the inhabitants, and finally arriving at a realm that can only be referred to as some poor soul's tortured psyche. It is a ride, to be sure.
Whether indoors or outdoors, the game's graphics are immersive and impressive. Rendered using the Unity engine, you will feel the idyllic moments of basking in the sun outside and later the claustrophobia, fear, and unease of being trapped in a sawmill with a number of apparitions, ghosts, and deadly memories. The art is not only fantastic, it is also imaginative. There are moments of real awe, often coupled with fear that the game can evoke. As well, the game has some uncanny moments. Without giving any spoilers, it is enough to say that you will receive a few well scripted visits by apparitions at some wonderfully unexpected moments, when the game perfectly utilizes the deep candlelit shadows inside the sawmill for great effect.
It is those moments which are frustrating because, unfortunately, Anna a terrible game. Its ambitions as an art piece transcends its ability to showcase its story. The puzzles are the main problem that breaks the immersion. They do not really make any sense, nor do they follow any internal logic in the game world, the real world, or any metaphorical world to where I have traveled (without the use of powerful hallucinogens!). For example, I solved the first puzzle of the game, by accident, and entered the sawmill itself, again by accident, not even realizing that the door was open because what I had done did not seem to make much sense. Unfortunately, subsequent puzzles get worse. It is not a question of difficulty: these are not the classic obtuse puzzles which require incisive and dogmatic logic; rather, they simply seem to require random actions or items.
Even worse, if you miss examining an item in the proper order, you will not trigger events which will allow you to play to the final ending. (There are 3 endings to the game, but only 1 ending involves a full completion of the game's trials and puzzles.) With adventure games, I often prefer to start each play session at the beginning so I can immerse myself completely, but that means I am not going to examine every item in the game again. With Anna, however, I nearly gave up, confused as to why despite solving every puzzle correctly I was getting ushered out of the sawmill early. Such poorly designed gameplay pulls you out, because unless you have near infinite patience to try a near infinite amount of whimsical actions, you are more likely to just give up first in frustration.
Also, even if you succeed, you are not going to ever unravel the game's story or its mystery. While the longest (and "final"?) ending will give you quite a few clues to what has happened, so many other questions are raised throughout your quest (such as "What do those paintings mean?" and "Who, really, is Anna?") that there will never be closure. By the end of the game, I was not too concerned, in part because the poor gameplay had made me give up on thinking that the developer might actually have a true thesis that it was trying to present. If it is the intent of the developer to want me to get the whole story and to be able to identify the characters in this surreal world, then I can confidently say it has failed. On the other hand, if it is the intent of the developer to only want to give me a good scare, then I say it has succeeded.
Offering a final verdict on Anna is hard. On the positive side, the game delivers an adult experience that attempts to provide a deep, emotional experience. On the negative side, it is a flawed experience as a game that is both frustrating and disappointing. That being said, I am interested in seeing more work from Dreampainter—and soon; my dreams can always use new material.