Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns review
We've all heard the phrase “seize the day,” but what if that “day” happened to be the most important one of your entire life? And what if it were not just the most important day of your life, but your family's lives, for generations and generations? If only you knew exactly how to make the most of it... This is the central idea of Maybe Later Games' time-bending adventure, Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns. It's a very pretty and imaginative game of many brilliant ideas, though each is executed to varying degrees of success.
The game begins on Ann's eighteenth birthday, and it's not a happy one. Like in a visual novel, title cards appear over a digital painting of rain falling on a modern-day city street, soaking the young woman. These tell us about Ann's struggles: losing her parents, having no money and few possessions, bouncing from foster home to foster home, and eventually ending up in the grips of homelessness. Just then, a man runs by dropping a strange ring in her change cup. She puts it on and the real game begins.
You wake up in what appears to be a town square in early Victorian England. Styled like a '90s JRPG, the overhead pixel graphics show a cute and quaint little place called Alderdale, populated by a host of interesting characters. Players control Ann, displaced in time with no clue what happened, where she is, or what to do. Walking around using the keyboard, you are given free roam to explore the small village and converse with each of the townsfolk. A clock in the top-right corner ticks forward at a sporting simulated pace, letting you know you're on some sort of time limit. As you walk near a hotspot, it highlights and you can hit a button to interact. When you encounter mysteries or obstacles, a Quest Log is filled with notes on what you've encountered to help you keep focused.
The first challenge of Ann Achronist is gathering enough information to discern the object of the game itself before the clock spins around to midnight, when the day ends and you find yourself back in your unfortunate circumstance on the rainy streets of your own time with the option to begin again. You're stuck in a time loop.
It may take a few tries, but eventually Ann learns that she shares her surname “Achronist” with a boy in the village, and that young Matt also suffers the same homelessness and joblessness that Ann does in the present. So Ann makes it her mission to find the boy an apprenticeship. To help her achieve this goal, you must find inventory objects, navigate trees of dialogue, and run small quests or errands for other characters. The same day loops and loops each time it hits midnight, and if you decide you’d rather not wait, restarting is effortless as you always have a “Restart Day” option in your menu. If you're waiting for certain events or times of day in the current loop, you have two different fast-forward options to get you there at roughly 2x or 10x speed.
Once you figure out how to arrange an apprenticeship for Matt, you unlock the first of what becomes a series of “endings.” Apparently the line of work you set up for him ends up being passed down through generations of your family. Having altered the future of Ann’s direct ancestor, you find yourself back in front of a different digital painting with more title cards telling you how her new life has marginally improved as a result. I suppose you could stop there and feel like you solved some puzzles and reached a proper end to her story. But that's not the only option, nor is it the preferred one as Ann remains unsatisfied with her new circumstances, so she activates the ring again. You’re now presented with the chance to revisit the town of Alderdale, only this time you can do it as the version of Ann from either of the first two timelines.
This is the Möbius strip the game places you in from here on out. Ann's influence on her ancestor Matt creates a causal nexus that impacts her own future, which in turn alters the version of herself able to be projected into the past to affect her future, creating yet another alternate Ann to send back to the past. Woof, time travel! Each Ann you unlock has a different set of abilities. Some hold possessions that can be pawned for more money, making acquiring certain objects easier. Others have more game-changing abilities. For example, in one loop Ann apprentices Matt to a witch. In turn, Ann grows up in a magical coven and returns to the past with the ability to read minds (through a series of word-matching mini-games that are very fun). Another time Ann connects Matt to a baker, and when she returns to Alderdale she is, as the game puts it, “curvy,” which grants her certain opportunities her skinnier self is denied.
If that last one feels problematic to you, it's not the only aspect of Ann Achronist that falls under that category. Apart from the questionable central idea that vocations are fixed throughout generations – though I understand this still has relevance in some areas of the world – the idea that you're controlling and rooting for a character who keeps eliminating entire lifetimes of family and friends for incremental enhancements to her social station and financial status is uncomfortable. This is especially troubling as her lot improves and it’s revealed how a perfectly respectable vocation makes her children miserable and encourages you to eliminate both the life you've built for them and ... well ... Ann’s own existence in that timeline.
The later chapters of the game deal with this ethical morass from two different sides. Ann begins finding even her most lavish lives to be hollow, and a witch who proves to be an antagonist-cum-spirit-guide begins to lecture her on the selfishness and ultimate futility of her quest. But at the same time, the game attempts to justify this same pursuit through a bandit’s letter detailing his philosophy that poverty is a disease that must be fought by any means by those experiencing it, and that this fight supersedes any ethical lines crossed in service of that goal. It seems the game wants to have its cake and eat it too; even though I was supposed to be questioning the morality of what I was doing, I was clearly meant to continue going back in time to try again for more, consequences be damned.
This issue never does really resolve itself, either. The game ultimately finishes with a bittersweet ending that feels too muddy to derive any valuable answers. Ann’s struggle with the morality of her actions to that point abruptly falls away without a meaningful payoff, so that what could have been a very soul-searching examination of one’s choices and priorities in life ends up as nothing more than resigned acceptance of a disappointing conclusion. It’s all so much less elegant than such a thoughtful underlying concept deserved.
That said, the core conceit is not without some questionable elements as well. The idea that apprenticing Matt to a secretly homosexual librarian would lead to his great-great-great-great granddaughter being raised by two librarian homosexual men, or apprenticing him to a lusty baker would lead Ann to grow up in a family of seven children (you know, because of the lust) with a larger body (you know, because of the baked goods) might seem humorous or ironic, but Ann Achronist doesn't handle them that way at all. You discover the “struggles” of each life by reading maudlin prose while sad music plays over a tableau of each variation of Ann's birthday. This gives the sense that the game is devoid of any sense of irony or self-awareness, which is markedly strange for a game with a pun in its title.
Some of these examples have significant impacts on the structure of the game. For example, each iteration of Ann not only has her own powers, but weaknesses as well. One of the most common is that a few different versions of Ann can't read – namely, the ones who were raised in poorer or more “common” professions. This presents an opportunity for more complex puzzles, such as Ann being able to break into a house but unable to read the notes she finds inside. You need to strategize which version of Ann to use by figuring out what you want to try to accomplish in a specific run-through of the day, and then paying attention to how the information the current Ann learns can help another in overcoming obstacles. In that pure puzzle-crafting sense, the idea works. But as a reflection of real-world circumstances, such absurdly broad generalizations come off as silly at best, and at worst, offensive.
For all its struggles beneath the surface, however, the game is packed with charm and good ideas. The characters all have rich stories to be discovered in a variety of interesting ways. Letters hidden in library books, overheard conversations, stray thoughts picked up from passersby, and objects scattered about the world tell a dozen interesting tales about the small village of Alderdale and its eccentric population. You uncover jealous upper-class rivalries, unfaithful spouses, clergy members struggling with sins and heretical pasts, and even a man-eating sentient cabbage (really). While the village is small and you repeat the same time loop perhaps a hundred or more times throughout the game's eight-ish hours, it feels full and rich. I truly enjoyed my time learning about each citizen, and I was delighted every time I unlocked a new area or set of information.
The story itself grows in scope as you progress. Besides helping Matt – and thus Ann – climb the social ladder, a secondary issue crops up as the timestream begins to break down. As you unlock more and more timelines, new anomalies begin to appear in nineteenth century Alderdale. A 3D printer, a coffee maker, a hypodermic needle – they begin to pop up all over town, and as you move into the end-game, it becomes clear that these cracks in space-time must be dealt with. This also creates some humorous dialogue as villagers reference modern concepts in their speech and then seem instantly confounded by what they just said. I found the concept that the central mechanic was contributing to the world's breakdown to be interesting. At one point a character asks you, “How many times have you relived this day?” and it made me sit and consider how many times I had clicked that “Restart Day” button and how – in the fictional world – each of those clicks had an implied, unseen effect. Even as a pre-scripted and unavoidable consequence, it still felt immersive.
The gameplay also expands over time, which is both a blessing and curse. Each new power unlocked allows you to visit new areas and find new things in areas you've already been before. This is satisfying and fun for the majority of the play time. It's great finding ways to open doors – both metaphorically and literally – previously closed to you. The obstacles range from simple fetch quests to complicated, multi-tiered inventory and dialogue puzzles that are challenging and entertaining. But as the game approached the last few chapters, I began to feel aimless and overwhelmed by options. The goal remained simple: find a better life for Ann by changing Matt’s. But I was now dealing with over two dozen characters and points during the day where my interactions with those characters could potentially be changed. Plus, I could choose to live that day as one of eight different Anns.
With an objective that broad and options so numerous but only one course of action that will lead to the end of the game, it took a toll on my enthusiasm. A common pitfall of adventure games is that instead of making players think, “I don't know how to do this,” they end up leading them to think, “I don't know what to do.” While the former is the starting point for solving a puzzle, the latter is a recipe for frustration. Ann Achronist controls this somewhat by allowing multiple solutions for some puzzles and offering a vague hint system through dialogue with one of the characters, but there were many points toward the end where I felt myself falling back on brute-force trial and error: loading a new Ann, clicking on everything, then loading another one and trying again. This is particularly annoying when your latest idea must be tried late in the day or at the end of a long series of events. Mercifully, the game provides you with the option to skip dialogue you've heard before and fast-forward time. These did not entirely save the last hour or two from feeling overly repetitive, however.
Thankfully, the time spent in Alderdale is kept pleasant by the plentiful bounty of Easter eggs and hidden pieces of story, plus the beautiful RPG-styled graphics. The world, while small, is bright, colorful, and lovingly drawn. As you wander through the town’s shops, castle, and the forest around it, the environment feels vibrant. And for all the care put into the retro pixel art, it's enhanced even further by dynamic lighting, reflections, and special effects that appear to light up hotspots or when magic is used. Even though the range of explorable terrain is limited, it never stops being a pleasure to look at. Likewise, the different Ann models are always a treat, as each one has a unique outfit, a different shape, and altered portraits during dialogue that feel like unlockable skins. The score is comprised of orchestral music tailored to each location. It sounds great, but for the fact that you spend an incredible amount of time in the town square and I grew wearier and wearier of that track with every new in-game day. In only that one area, it might have been nice to hear variations on the town's theme as you progressed instead of that same piece a hundred times.
The fundamental ideas of Ann Achronist: Many Happy Returns are incredibly intriguing: an adventure styled after a top-down JRPG, in which the influence you wield on a single day has drastic effects on your character's abilities as you repeat the day over and over to achieve different results; a game built around a series of endings that only lead to more ways to play; even the setting of a small nineteenth century village beset by class divides and personal conflicts that echo down through the ages. And with such beautiful aesthetics and rich world-building, it should have been a joy from start to finish. The problem is that many of these brilliant ideas aren't capitalized on in a way that feels totally satisfying. The dissonance between your goals and the ethics of your quest, the problematic execution of its multigenerational connections, and some aimlessness in the later stages all pull focus away from the many things that this game does well. Even with these disappointments, however, I enjoyed the majority of my time playing it, and I suspect many others will as well – at least, those who come from a long line of adventure lovers.