The horror genre is full of cheap jump scares, lazy writing, and combat that drains all sense of terror. Sure, there are exceptions, but the genre has been in a bit of a slump for some time now. Thankfully, Anna: Extended Edition is a smart entry to the genre that pushes its scares far beyond the realm of loud noises, sudden enemy appearances, and mediocre storytelling.
Originally released in 2012, Anna told the tale of a man’s journey to an abandoned sawmill in search of a strange woman named (you guessed it) Anna. Their relationship is unclear, as is the reason why you’re looking for her in the first place. Over the course of the short campaign (roughly 2 – 3 hours), you’re tasked with solving complex puzzles and scouring hidden books and notes to gain the answers you seek. However, 2013 saw the release of the extended edition of the game, which included “new environments, puzzles, user interface, music, improved graphics, and a new character.” Whether you’re a fan of the original, or trying out the game for the first time, this is the definitive edition of the game.
Fans of old-school adventure games will feel right at home. The majority of Anna is spent exploring the sawmill and picking up, using and combining items to solve puzzles. For the most part, these puzzles are logical, but tricky. One of the features that makes Anna stand out is the fact that the different books and notes you pick up are essential clues in figuring out most of the puzzles. Weaving the solutions into the lore is a really clever idea that encourages players to scour every bit of the environment and pour over every last bit of text. If you’re finding yourself hitting a brick wall on a puzzle, it’s likely that you’ll find a helpful hint buried in the text of a book or note in your inventory.
It’s worth noting that some of the subject matter delivered via the books and notes is occasionally uncomfortable. While some pieces of text might simply tell a small story, others discuss rape and murder at length. While I typically tend to stray from spoilers in reviews, the extreme and graphic nature of some of these notes is worth the warning.
Now as interesting and smart as the puzzles may be, it’s difficult to feel calm while inside of the mill. Although abandoned, there’s a strong sense that you might not be alone in your search. Floorboards creak above you, strange whispers can be heard behind doors, and a strange wooden statue seems to randomly appear throughout the halls and rooms of the mill, disappearing when you turn back to look at it. There’s a dark and foreboding air about this place, made all the more terrifying the further you progress and the more you piece together the story. While there are definitely a few moments where jump scares are utilized, the real horror in Anna comes from the uncomfortable atmosphere and the dark story that unfolds.
Anna is also a game of extreme oddity. There are some sights in this game that stray more into the realm of the abstract than that of pure horror, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s definitely creepy to see objects move by themselves, or a shadow slide from one side of the room to the other, but a giant eyeball tree and a plant with mannequin limbs? That’s definitely a more unique touch. The funny thing is that there’s even a few times where the odder things feel more scary than the intended ones.
However, as odd and frightening as the visuals can be, it’s the audio of Anna where the horror shines. The sounds of the creaking mill, the quiet whispers around you, and especially some of the sound effects from the well crafted scares are simply terrifying. If for the sound design alone, it’s worth playing Anna in a dark room. If you’re feeling especially brave, you could always take it a step further and put on headphones.
Anna also uses a sanity mechanic that adds an additional layer to the game. Staring at unsettling sights for more than a moment, getting stuck on puzzles, or getting caught by mysterious “events” will make your character lose sanity. Essentially, sanity acts like a health bar, where losing all of it will result in a game over. However, the state of your sanity also dictates the way certain things play out. If you have a full sanity meter, the chance of scares will be much lower. On the flip side, a low sanity meter will result in more scares, creepier noises, and a much more terrifying experience. Successfully completing puzzles will fill up a small portion of your sanity meter, letting you continue further without as many frights. This is a potentially divisive mechanic, since it alters the feel of the entire game. I struggled through my first playthrough, getting stuck on puzzles and encountering multiple events, so I definitely had the most frightening experience possible. On my second playthrough, I was able to run through the game pretty quickly, almost never losing any sanity. This created a more tame experience that had considerably less scares than my first playthrough.
Unfortunately, even the clever puzzles and spooky atmosphere can’t help the technical issues that plague the game. Screen tearing is constantly a problem you have to deal with, as is lengthy load times, which can take upwards of 30 seconds just for moving from one area of the mill to an other.
If you’re just looking to play the game one time, then this may not be as big of an issue. However, those looking to get everything out of this game should beware. Depending on how thoroughly you play through the game, you can finish with one of eight endings. While a couple of them aren’t worth the hassle, some of the bigger questions in the game are only answered via certain endings. If you want to see them all, you’re going to have to deal with these technical issues for a much longer time.
Although some technical issues are present, Anna: Extended Edition is still a worthwhile experience to be had. The mysterious story fits in perfectly with the dark and foreboding setting the game takes place in. If you’re a fan of tough puzzles, dark stories, or great atmospheres, then I can’t recommend this game enough.
– Zack Burrows