BSK Games' Anoxemia is a story-driven exploration game that puts you in control of a drone named ATMA. You guide scientist Dr Bailey around the ocean floor to collect plant samples in a section of the sea that had become polluted during a period of war. From this simple premise, you'll likely notice that the game is largely an escort mission set underwater, combining two of gaming's most hated tropes, but can Anoxemia rise to be greater than the sum of its parts or will it sink into the depths of obscurity?
The opening sequence is told through a short comic strip that explains the mission, a simple retrieval of infected plant samples, and this continues to expand as you progress through the game's 38 levels. When his submersible crashes and the links to his ship are disabled, Dr Bailey vows to continue his mission but time is of the essence with supplies running low. Lack of supplies isn't the only issue with which Dr Bailey has to contend either as his isolation is also affecting his sanity, something mostly conveyed through in-game dialogue. Throughout his journey, he often mentions that he believes ATMA is going to leave him to die or even turn against him. Not only that but he often refers to recognising the areas, recalling being there before and having memories of dying there. While this most likely refers to the player dying and restarting the level, it helps to highlight Dr Bailey's descent into madness and helps to create a truly believable feeling of despair.
As you begin you’re immediately presented with two timers; one is for Bailey's remaining oxygen supply with the other representing the drone's energy levels, both of which are slowly ticking away. These timers add to the tension and create a sense of urgency, making you feel like you need to get through the sections as quickly as possible while searching for items to extend your time. These timers carry over from one stage to the next, too, so there isn't any type of reprieve when moving on, making those supplies even more precious. After a few horrible mistakes and a fair number of silly ones, too, the realisation hit that death resets the level as well as supplies. These timers then began to lose their grip and the overall sense of urgency started to fade, as too does the sense of despair of Bailey's predicament.
There are no checkpoints mid-level either, so a failure will result in having to restart the level from the beginning. This can be annoying during some of the more complex sections. Thankfully, most of the levels are short and once you've worked out where you need to be going and which tools you need, it isn't too difficult to get back to your previous location. Players shouldn't spend too much of their precious time repeating objectives over and over again, although overconfidence and rushing forward a little too quickly can also lead to an untimely death. The other benefit to these short levels is that it makes it ideal for quick play sessions, allowing players to pick it up for a few minutes and feel like they have made some progress.
Even with the time constraints, exploration does have its own rewards. Crates dotted around the levels contain additional supplies to extend how much time you can spend in the depths. Locked boxes, which can be opened by the drone's sonar pulse, often provide upgrades that increase your energy and oxygen capacities on top of the usual oxygen tanks and batteries. Thankfully, these crates only need to be found once, so if you inadvertently die after finding a few of them, you don't need to go and find them again and any upgrades you have found will still apply.
In order to progress, you'll need to guide Dr Bailey through many different underwater mazes in both exterior and interior locations. You'll need to avoid mines, hunter drones and laser cannons, most of which will kill the good doctor in a single hit. Your main objectives rarely differ from collecting a number of items dotted around the map or reaching a specific location and there is very little variation throughout the 38 levels, which can become tedious after doing the same thing over and over again.
When you start your only ability is a simple sonar pulse that highlights certain hazards and points you to your objectives, but it only points you to the objects in question and doesn't help you to find the correct path. As you proceed the game introduces new mechanics to help you to get around. Many sections you will need to collect dynamite, which when placed on specific rock walls will open up new paths. A quick boost can be used to move Dr Bailey out of harm's way or to fight against strong currents and a tethered harpoon can be shot from the drone to help move some objects out of the way, or sever the chains holding sea mines in place. Many of these abilities also deplete your energy reserves and so should be used sparingly, forcing players to think before they act.
Controls are simple and easy to pick up. Similar to those of twin-stick shooters, the left stick moves the drone with Dr Bailey following closely behind at a more deliberate pace and with a sense of resistance caused by the water. His larger size means that he also can't fit through some of the smaller gaps that the drone can and he can get caught on the debris and detritus scattered around. It is a small annoyance that can hinder progress, but once you learn to navigate areas with a little more care and attention, it isn't much of an issue. The right stick is used to aim the drone's harpoon with either trigger used to fire, while the face buttons are used to activate the drone's sonar, to tell Dr Bailey to stay where he is, or to emit a short burst that temporarily disables nearby hunter drones.
Unfortunately, certain large objects such as boulders aren't easily manipulated and can be infuriating to deal with. Your drone's harpoon largely has little effect on these larger objects and trying to push them with the drone is often met with resistance. When moving one of these objects is the key to proceeding, frustration levels can easily rise to boiling point, especially with your oxygen and energy levels slowly ticking away.
The undersea world is dark and gloomy, with very little light being able to reach that far down. As would be expected, Anoxemia mostly uses a deep black and blue palette to paint an accurate picture of the depths and creates a dark atmosphere that amplifies Dr Bailey's sense of isolation. Interior locations are even darker and more claustrophobic, making them more difficult to navigate, but more colours grace the palette in these later areas. At times it can be hard to differentiate between walls in the foreground and the background clutter, making some areas extremely frustrating and requiring more than a little trial and error to proceed.
Anoxemia has a total of 22 achievements up for grabs, many of which are tied to things players will do regularly during a normal playthrough, such as collecting oxygen tanks and batteries, finding treasures chests, and dying, of course. The latter action of these has four achievements linked to it for dying once, ten, 100 and 1000 times; the last of these could take a while to unlock, but it wouldn't be difficult to grind out by loading a level with a sea mine close by and swimming directly into it over and over again. While none of the achievements are secret, most of the descriptions are very cryptic, making it difficult to decipher exactly how to unlock them. When they do unlock, it's not always obvious what criteria has been met.
SummaryAnoxemia has a wonderful sense of tension and a dark atmosphere with an interesting enough plot highlighting Dr Bailey's isolation and possible decent into madness, but it begins to lose its charm as you progress. The lack of checkpoints can make repeating the areas very tedious if you die from any of the hazards or from your supplies running out, but the short levels do make up for this. There is some incentive to exploration and it does provide you with some helpful upgrades, but your main objectives rarely differ from collecting a number of items or reaching a specific location. There is enough to keep players entertained for a few hours, but the repetition and lack of variety in objectives holds back what could have been a far more exciting game.
- Beautifully dark and tense atmosphere
- Simple controls and easy to pick up
- Short levels make it ideal for quick play sessions
- Lack of checkpoints can make some sections repetitive
- Lack of variety in objectives
- Some frustrating physics, mainly related to boulders
EthicsThe reviewer spent eight hours scouring the seabed for supplies and treasures, all while having some issues moving a few troublesome boulders out of his way. 11 out of a possible 22 achievements were earned for 320 gamerscore. An Xbox One code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
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