The success of a game is invariably followed by similar games, developed by overzealous companies hoping to ride the coattails of their progenitor’s success. The release of DOOM in 1993 essentially kicked off the FPS mania that continues through today, and Sony’s God of War has seen its DNA present in the likes of Dante’s Inferno and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
Now we have Anna, an independent title from developer Dreampainter that tries to ape not one, but two recent indie successes: Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. It tries to blend together the physics-puzzle gameplay of the former with the pang of tragic loss that ached throughout the latter, while trying to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Anna starts much like Dear Esther, with the player’s character in parts unknown lamenting the loss of his beloved Anna, although the sprawling isle of Dear Esther has been swapped for a much more intimate setting, taking place almost exclusively inside of an abandoned sawmill. Almost immediately, the player is asked to solve a handful of physics-based puzzles, prying rocks loose from their moorings and opening doors with a flick of the mouse. Finally, after assembling a broken mirror over a doorway, the game finally steps away from its maudlin landscapes and moves inside of the sawmill, where the terror awaits…
Or at least, it’s where it should await. Anna tries to build up the defenseless scares of Amnesia by denying the player any means of self-preservation. There are no knives, guns, or axes, no means for the player to stave off the threats of the game and save themselves.
Of course, this is also a moot point, as the scares that Anna presents are ultimately toothless. Sure, there are a few jump scares to be had (opening a wood stove only to turn around and suddenly be staring at a flaming mannequin certainly threw me for a loop), but there’s no risk to the player. Any sense of dread comes more from the fear of loud noises than any real sense of danger. It becomes so rote that even the moments of the game that are supposed to be unsettling—there is a singular fixation on eyes that is eerie at first—quickly become declawed, reduced to shrug-inducing window dressing for the surprisingly boring proceedings.
Which is too bad, because Anna certainly has its heart in the right place. The game itself is striking at times, with the environments alternating between striking and colorful in the outdoors and shadowy and foreboding inside. Even the puzzles are mostly well-executed and satisfying when you solve them. However, the fact that the game simply isn’t very scary or absorbing drags down the solid, attractive presentation. It, unfortunately, winds up being far less than the sum of its parts.