An office. A shopping mall. A movie theater. We’ve all been in these spaces before. And though there are outliers, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The near uniformity of these locations, along with (if you don’t work there) limited access to them makes them feel simultaneously familiar and mysterious. It’s as if those cubicles, rows of stores, or loudly carpeted theater hallways could go on forever if you were allowed to fully explore them. Most of us only see these locations during their business hour too: full of movement, people, and activity. Depopulate these places, removing the chatter along with the occupants, and these mundane places begin to feel otherworldly. This feeling pervades Anemoipolis: Chapter 1, a walking sim where wandering liminal spaces and basking in that strangeness is the core of the experience.
Beyond The Backrooms
For those familiar with the concept of liminal spaces, “The Backrooms” may come to mind. Though “liminal spaces” is a large category, The Backrooms have become nearly synonymous with the aesthetic. An endless maze of mono-yellow colored walls with carpeted floors and overhead fluorescent lights, this widely circulated creepypasta has spawned multiple games and an ever-expanding world of lore, not unlike the popular SCP concept. While Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 features plenty of sprawling, uncomfortable locations, it’s not based on that mythos and it’s not as focused on horror.
I’ll leave out the specifics of how you get there, but Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 begins underground in a large, empty, dimly-lit indoor pool. After some simple puzzle-solving and navigation, you enter a bright and expansive, mostly featureless building that sits somewhere between a mall and a convention center. Relaxing music plays over the interior’s speakers. From here, players can choose which new environment they want to explore using sets of elevators that require tickets to operate. These tickets, the same kind you’d win at an arcade, can be found in small strips or big rolls all over Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1. Outside of navigating through the strange layouts of each area and solving small, rare puzzles, collecting tickets is your only other objective.
As you explore these sometimes shifting, sometimes static interiors, there’s a sense that anything could happen. Whether in conference rooms, an indoor putt-putt course, locker rooms, or a waterpark, there’s a tension that feels natural and effortless. Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 alternates between hallways claustrophobic enough that only one person could fit down them to rooms so large it can feel like a journey to make it from one wall to another. Paranoia persists regardless of which of the two situations you’re in. Will something or someone be around the next bend in this miniature golf course? Am I actually alone in this barren set of conference rooms where chairs adjust when I’m not looking?
When many PC horror games are rife with jumpscares, tactless gore, ear-drum-destroying audio, and edgelord-tier stories, it’s refreshing to see Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 create such an effective atmosphere with so little. Only on rare occasions does the game press the gas and prod players to amp things up. It’s not a horrifying or terrifying game, but it has plenty of anxiety to spare.
Pretty and Plain
Adding to the eerie nature of the environments is how empty they are. They’re minimally decorated, with the objects chosen to dress each location seeming to be ones that help define them. For example, there are floats and slides in the water park, uncomfortable chairs in the conference rooms, and candy machines, shutters, and coin-operated rides in the mall. When you’re lost and wandering the levels, more rarely used items can serve as landmarks or indicators that you are indeed progressing. I found a water fountain – an object I’d never seen yet – in one level and it was like finding water in the desert; it was proof I was going somewhere.
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1‘s visuals are striking. There might not be many models populating the locales, but everything here looks nice. From materials like the ceiling tiles and the crazy carpet patterns in the theater to the bright lights bouncing off glossy surfaces and water, it’s all visually appealing. Reflections can sometimes be wonky, but the game’s surreal nature prevented me from determining if this was a feature or a bug (especially when it’s so often nice looking). There’s also attention to detail in realizing these mundane places. Exit signs, emergency lights, electrical outlets, and other small details bring these places to life.
Sound design is similarly minimalist. You’ll be hearing your own footsteps throughout the entirety of the game, sparse music, humming lights, and occasional sound effects when interacting with objects. The reverb applied to these effects does a great job of hammering home just how large the spaces you explore are. Interacting with gumball machines in the mall has individual pieces of candy clattering onto the floor, echoing throughout the empty space.
Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is interesting and unnerving, but it lacks interesting challenges and/or motivation. As this game (or part of a game) is titled “Chapter 1”, I’m hopeful that this won’t be the case when looking at whatever Anemoiapolis shapes into as a total package, but there just isn’t much here to engage with on a gameplay or narrative level. There’s atmosphere, uneasiness, and large spaces to wander, but there’s little reason to continue beyond: “I wonder what the next place looks like”.
I don’t take too much issue with the game’s three-hour runtime, but that in those three hours, there were maybe four puzzles and around three areas that required interesting navigation/platforming beyond wandering in bespoke or auto-generated mazes. Being able to interact with random elements of the environment like candy machines, showers, and lockers serves no gameplay function, but I appreciated the addition as it was one element that made the world feel more real and like I was inhabiting a space instead of just moving through it. But that is the core of the game, simply moving through it.
Some form of narrative could serve as the carrot at the end of the stick here, but there’s very little of that to find either. Beginning with little more than the protagonist trying to pronounce the name of the game, Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 then proceeds to explain nothing. To my knowledge, it doesn’t even hint at any possible story threads until the very end, but that only serves to confirm plans for a Chapter 2.
If this is only the start of a larger project and the first effort from its solo developer, Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is a promising start. Its liminal spaces are interesting, beautiful, and disquieting to inhabit. If you’re looking for mood-gaming or a walking simulator with novel locations to move through, look no further. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in a story of any sort or engaging gameplay, there’s little for you here. Like the concept it’s based on, I hope Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1 is transitional, and that what we see in Chapter 2 is a large expansion on this eerie foundation.