A throwback to the 16-bit, top-down 2D era of dungeon crawling adventures, Anodyne sets the scene in a dreamscape and touches upon a surprising array of themes for a game of this nature. Owing a lot to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, your protagonist is in his own dream, running about collecting things, discovering secret areas and dispatching of an eclectic mix of weird enemies on his way.
Anodyne is a mixed bag at best, combining a beautiful series of macabre dreamy landscapes and some quite moving, thought-provoking themes with no real narrative of which to speak, and some platforming sections which are not only out of place in the game, but also INSANELY difficult.
As you begin the game as mute Young, you soon meet a Sage who tells you to explore the land. You then quickly arm yourself with a broom – yep, a broom – and set about your quest. Quite what you’re doing and where you’re going is anyone’s guess, this is a dream after all, and dreams don’t have to make sense, right?
This is the first instance Anodyne really lets itself down. “It was all a dream” is a plot device used by the worst movies and TV shows to cover up terrible plot holes or end a narrative when the writers can’t think of a decent end to the story. The dreamland is Anodyne’s story, and that’s the justification of stringing together seemingly random dungeons, mazes and motorways. At no point in the game do you truly feel you know what the hell you’re doing, you just rely on your innate gameplaying and problem-solving skills to get from A to B.
This is odd as Anodyne is rich in themes and ambience. From the very beginning there is a sense of unease and intrigue which truly sucks you into the game. Littered throughout the world are things that allude to a wider plot, but come the end you realise they were just things. Mazes are littered with corpses, and dungeons have scrawlings on the walls and posters dotted around that indicate Young’s parents’ deaths; but nothing concrete. The game makes me want to learn more about the protagonist, but his mute nature and Anodyne’s inability to tell a story are a detriment to a fairly decent game.
The gameplay itself is standard dungeon exploration; getting keys to open doors, prodding enemies to death, smashing walls to reveal hidden areas and collecting items, but all set on a fantastic backdrop. If you don’t care about the story, Anodyne is much more fun to play, but that’s not to say the gameplay is perfect. The world is pretty big. Early on you can go down relatively your own path, and soon you’ll find a door you won’t be able to access until later. Much later. But when you have the right key for the job there is a lot of backtracking to do, and oftentimes it’s not worth it.
Fighting enemies and solving the many problems in the game is solid old school gaming. Your broom is your main weapon throughout, prodding the weird and wonderful enemies into submission, and it can also be used to pick up bundles of dust and put them elsewhere, obscuring lasers or obstructing enemies. Boss battles, although just a case of remembering their movement cycles and striking at the right times, are a lot of fun and rarely frustrating. Challenging, but fluid controls and collision detection make them a joy.
The game, at various points, requires you to undergo some platform elements too. While out of place in the game, halting the ambience and disjointing the gameplay, some platforming wouldn’t have been the worst inclusion in the world to bring a little difference to the game had it not been so stupidly, incredibly hard. Anodyne, aside from this, is sometimes challenging and rarely infuriating. But come the platforming sections, the game goes from charming, pacey problem-solving to a pixel-perfect, unforgiving rage fest. I’m talking Super Meat Boy crossed with Dark Souls in terms of relentless difficulty and frequency of deaths. Some platforms are placed in a way that dexterity of only the highest calibre is required to jump diagonally, move mid-air and land sharply on the very last pixel of a rock before progressing to a more difficult series of platforms.
Anodyne is a competent game full of intrigue and plays on its dreamy setting for you to project your own narrative, and for the most part – especially if you like older Zelda games - fun and interesting to play. But difficulty spikes like the platforming, and overall lack of any sense of direction or purpose, leave Anodyne a frustrating entity. I ended the game wanting more.
But there was more; the collectible cards I’d amassed throughout the game granted me access to the deepest recesses of the world, but thinking about having to trudge back through the maps, and the potential disappointment at the other end, was enough to deter me for good.
Anodyne is emotive, evocative and a good deal of fun. Sadly, it’s also directionless, disjointed and infuriating at times. Definitely a game to get if you like your 16-bit Zelda-a-likes, adventuring, or appreciate artistic merit. If games can make you smash your hands down onto your keyboard through annoying level design and difficulty spikes, or if you want a game to have some semblance of purpose, I’d suggest giving it a miss.
Anodyne is a huge achievement for a two-person team to create, but the whole package definitely needed attention to key aspects to make this game wholly recommendable.
Anodyne (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
A throwback to the 16-bit, top-down 2D era of dungeon crawling adventures, Anodyne sets the scene in a dreamscape and touches upon a surprising array of themes for a game of this nature.