I’m not sure whether I’m the best or the worst person to review games that are purportedly scary. I’m a monumental, towering coward with sufficient imagination that most games that claim to be horror are capable of freaking me out at least a little, particularly before anything actually happens, which might make me a bad judge as to what’s likely to scare you. On the flipside, I adore horror in just about any medium and lap up as much of it as I can, so I’m a bit of a connoisseur.
With that possible disclaimer in mind, let’s look at Anna.
First and foremost, you need to understand that Anna is a horror adventure game. Yes, okay, its first-person stylings might make it look a bit like perennial trouser-browner Amnesia on first glance, but no: it is most definitely a point-and-click adventure game, with all the inventory management and “USE sharpened teddy bear ON half-inflated clown” that the genre suggests.
It’s also most definitely a horror game. The game’s basic premise is that you’re exploring an old, probably haunted sawmill in which terrible things happened, and your character is trying to uncover what they were and why he’s having nightmares about the place. Obviously, terrible things will happen while you’re there; which of those terrible things you’ll see is one of the game’s more interesting quirks, but that’s something we’ll get onto in a bit.
In any case, this gives us two criteria for judging Anna: is it a good adventure game, and is it a good horror game? Could success in one overshadow problems with the other?
The former first: is it a good adventure game? Um, not really. It works, certainly; you wander around in a first-person view with no interface cluttering up the screen. Clicking on highlighted objects brings up a simple set of Use/Examine/Pick Up options, and tapping a key brings up your inventory in case you need to use something on something else.
The problem is that the game takes a few of its cues from the lesser examples of the genre. Some items require pixel-hunting to locate, hidden as they are among similar-looking bits of detritus with which you can’t interact, and the majority of the game being bathed in semi-darkness doesn’t help. Worse is that you’ll wind up with multiple objects that have similar uses, but only one of them will help with a particular puzzle, and there are a fair few entirely useless objects that you can take.
A bigger problem is that you rarely feel as though you’re working towards an actual objective – you’re just doing stuff because it’s there to be done, really – and a few of the puzzles are firmly in moon logic territory. Without getting into spoilers, as this is a fairly short game and I don’t really want to ruin anything, I still have absolutely no idea why one of the last steps of the initial puzzle (to unlock and enter the sawmill) worked.
In the game’s defence, most puzzle solutions are hinted at if you take your time and examine everything, and it’s possible I missed some clue before trying the adventure gamer’s Swiss army knife approach of “USE everything ON everything.” The ones that don’t appear utterly insane tend to rely a fair bit on symbolism – this is a horror game, after all – so they do make a degree of sense within the game’s supernatural logic. It’s also worth noting that there aren’t a great many locations and most are pretty self-contained so, if you’re stuck on what to do, you don’t have too many areas to scour for missed items or too many objects to think about.
It’s not a fantastic adventure game, then, although many of its problems are mitigated somewhat by everything in the previous paragraph. And as a horror game?
Anna is… I think the word I would use is “spooky,” but I’m not sure if that gives it enough credit. It’s not the sort of game which has zombies leaping out of walls or monsters dropping from the ceiling; indeed, it’s not an actively hostile game, although the environment feels threatening.
There’s a mix of jump scares, creeping dread, and just plain unsettling imagery. Solving puzzles tends to trigger environmental changes – some large, some small – which are usually bizarre and creepy enough to add to the unease, and there’s some excellent use of sound to keep players on edge. Again, the game’s short enough that I don’t really want to go into spoiler territory for any of the horror elements, but there were a couple of moments that skyrocketed the fear. There’s a bit of a downside in that the small areas and occasionally obtuse puzzles means you’ll eventually get a bit inured to the creepy goings-on in any one area because you’ll be going back and forth so much, but I’m enough of a wuss that I can’t say I minded this too much. You, however, might.
Anna mixes its scares up somewhat, and I’m not entirely sure how. Some seem tied to particular objects or locations, while others seem to either trigger randomly or after a set period of time. The upshot is that you’ll be hit with different scares at different times when replaying, although how different they are and how different this makes the experience feel are both up for debate; when chasing the game’s alternate endings, you are fundamentally replaying the same puzzles in the same locations, and that does drain the tension significantly.
Special mention has to go to the use of light and darkness in creating an atmosphere, though. While it makes things a bit of a pain in relation to puzzles, there were moments when seeing a moving shadow out of the corner of my eye nearly made me jump… and then I realised it was a normal shadow, but because it was being cast by a flickering candle, it appeared to have a life of its own. I made this mistake regularly.
Then there were the times when they really were things moving.
Since I’ve mentioned flickering candles and shadows, it’d be remiss of me not to point out what you can plainly see: the production values are really rather good. The bright and inviting exterior gives way to the ruin and decay of the sawmill’s interior, while generally pleasant music twinkles away in the background, nicely at odds with the horrible events about to happen. The lack of the music at some places serves to add to the tension, too; when the mellow sounds stop and you’re left with nothing but ambient sounds, the comparative silence is far more worrying than screeching violins ever could be.
Despite its failings, I’m inclined to look favourably on Anna. It’s not a great adventure game, and its problems with that side of things occasionally make maintaining its horror atmosphere tricky. Indeed, at times its unevenness makes it feel a little like a trial game, but one that showcases potential for far greater things in future.
On the other hand, its low asking price, decent atmosphere, and a number of nice little touches mean I’d certainly recommend it to horror buffs who’ve been intrigued by what they’ve heard, and its short runtime (about three hours for a first playthrough) means the puzzles won’t have too long to infuriate you. Anna won’t blow you away, but it’s worth checking out just for what it gets right.