Video games as a medium have come a long way in recent years in exploring the human mind, in particular the psychological effects of trauma. The indie scene especially has started to produce some stellar works like Celeste and Hellblade that mix storytelling and game mechanics in ways that attempt to allow players to interpret and comprehend the nuances of mental health. Anamorphine, a game by a very small development studio Artifact 5, aspires to be named in this category of revolutionary experiences. It’s a mostly passive walking sim where the bulk of player interaction is moving through its spaces and holding gaze on specific objects, hoping to trigger the next sequence of events, and its ideas, though interesting, are simple in execution. Yet, it somehow crumbles under the weight of whatever modicum of ambition it has, undermining any chance at imparting a memorable message.
In Anamorphine you play as Tyler, a photographer who’s just moved into a new apartment in a new city with his partner Elena, a professional cellist. Before long, Elena falls victim to an accident that affects her ability to play, effectively ending her career and robbing her of her passion. The game strives to explore the effects of Elena’s tragedy on Tyler and the toll that her trauma and subsequent depression take on his own mental wellbeing. Over the course of the game, you’ll relive Tyler’s memories surrounding the tragic events and witness his own self-care depreciate as he tries to understand and combat Elena’s deteriorating mental state. Kudos to the team at Artifact 5 for attempting to tackle the subject matter from a relatively fresh perspective, and credit where credit’s due for (in my limited judgement) handling it with the proper care, but a number of glaring issues bring down the entire experience enough that any good is very quickly undone.
The game does offer up some cool imagery at times, but a game with as heavy a subject as this can’t and shouldn’t get by on cool imagery
For starters, while Anamorphine is a relatively short experience coming in at somewhere just over an hour, there’s a lot of recycled content. Much of the narrative here is told through dream-like scenarios that represent Tyler’s memories through the filter of his current psyche and although these can be visually interesting and even thought-provoking, the same two or three ideas are recycled ad nauseum throughout. There is some degree of sense in the idea of repetition and revisitation as far as Tyler’s experience is concerned, but that notion feels like more of an excuse for recycled content than it does a reason. If the development team had been afforded the time and resources to craft some more scenarios and experiences to more fully realise their vision this might have been a short-but-engrossing trip with genuine impact. Instead, it’s a short-yet-padded-out walking sim with well meaning ideas that fall completely flat. Most of the ideas that Anamorphine has around representing matters of the mind and psychology are disappointingly derivative of existing works in both gaming and other mediums, and again most of them come off more as exercises in corner-cutting than creative revelations.
This scene looks visually interesting, but boils down to just wandering around, and it’s repeated multiple times throughout the game
Art is subjective, of course, and perhaps I’m missing something in the narrative and misjudging it. Who knows? What is certain and worthy of criticism is that Anamorphine is a basic looking and mechanically simple title that is somehow still one of the most unpolished and borderline broken games that I’ve played in a long time. While the overall style can be quite nice at times, Anamorphine isn’t much to look at. Basic objects with low quality textures and very little in the way of lighting or atmosphere make everything look decidedly last-gen, and even then the game struggles to push out a reasonable framerate at the best of times. Worse still, frequent loading screens constantly interrupt the flow, ruining what would be some otherwise neat transitions between scenes and completely breaking the pace of some of the most pivotal and emotional moments in the story. On top of all of that are frequent audio and graphical bugs, and even one game-breaking crash that wound up delaying this very review while I waited for the devs to patch it. There’s usually some degree of leniency around a very small team having to push through technical woes in order to achieve their vision, but the fact is that the vision for this particular game isn’t overly ambitious, and yet the execution is wholly lacking. The kicker at the end of all this is that the game costs a whopping $44.95 on the Australian PSN store, which makes it not only one of the shortest and undercooked examples of its genre, but one of the most expensive.
I didn’t take this screenshot, this was attached to one of the many bug reports my console generated when the game would crash
I wanted to like Anamorphine. I really think that gaming as a medium has the potential to tell stories around issues of mental health in unique ways that can bring about awareness and understanding. It’s not even that this game does a disservice to that cause, it just doesn’t add anything new, and despite treading well-worn ground it somehow fumbles at every step. Then it asks for a crisp pineapple for the trouble.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher