The A(nodyne) to Z(elda)
Anodyne is an extended homage to the 16 bit era adventure games that graced the SNES and NES back in the day. If you have played The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past or other games inspired by it, you will know what you are getting into within the first few minutes of starting. But what sets Anodyne apart from countless other Zelda clones is that it is not afraid to play with your expectations of what the genre can and cannot do. While most will feel right at home via the top down camera angle and simple combat mechanics, that feeling will dissipate quickly as the game delves deep into the comically surreal and disturbing world you find yourself in. The result is a beautiful action adventure that manages to entertain and disturb despite its problems.
Throughout your adventure in the various lands that make up Anodyne you will be playing as Young, a silent young man with white hair and glasses, armed only with a trusty broom. Yes, a broom. What were you expecting, a sword? Regardless of your taste in weapons, Young is entrusted by a sage to wander the lands in order to eventually defeat the evil Briar who is trying to envelop the world in darkness. Along the way, you clear out various dungeons and collect cards in order to advance further into the game. Yes it does not make the greatest amount of sense in the world, and Anodyne recognizes the fact by poking fun at itself along the way. Because in the end, it does not matter why you do what you do, but how you go about doing it.
Complexity Within Simplicity
The basic gameplay in Anodyne is simple. As Young the player wanders expansive locales, solving puzzles and beating up enemies in order to attain more cards and defeat various enemies. The broom serves as a basic weapon and functions properly, as most of the combat revolves around running up to an enemy and pressing the attack button. Such simplicity allows for most battles to focus more on studying the enemies attack patterns, dodging those attacks and then striking the enemy when the moment is perfect. While most enemies are relatively simple in terms of their design, the boss encounters are far more challenging. While difficult, they are not frustratingly so, and in general provide a decent challenge for the player no matter their experience.
What is frustrating is the game’s jumping puzzles, which become very prevalent in the second half of the game. It's not that the controls are unwieldy and difficult to use; quite the opposite actually. The problem stems from the often limited amount of time the player is given to see a puzzle, react to the puzzle in an appropriate manner and eventually succeed as a result.
There is a helpful death counter in the menu screen that tracks how many times you have died throughout the course of the game. Before acquiring the gear which allowed me to jump, I had only suffered two deaths up till that point. By the end of the game, I was well over 50, and I showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The Dark and the Light
But aside from the very frustrating jumping puzzles, Anodyne works well as a game, which makes its atmosphere and design ever more compelling. While most gamers will recognize such typical locales as the forest level, the temple ruins and the mountains as they play through the game, they will often be surprised at some of the other levels they explore. Such as the rat infested hotel. Or the world populated by giant plants with legs. Seriously, the various pieces of information throughout that dungeon deal with the pain of being born and the purpose of life. This is not a game for children, and I hope that those who play this be fully aware that this is not meant to have a happy tone. It is disturbing at its core. Fun, but disturbing.
But what really makes Anodyne's atmosphere so great is not the use of disturbing elements throughout, but their juxtaposition with the seemingly comedic and light hearted elements that go along with it. The sage who tells you what your mission is often grumbles at the stupidity of your character, and the statue he is often accompanied by makes light of that fact. In the forest level mentioned earlier there is a bear that talks about his love for berries, before describing the number of times he has had sexual intercourse that season and asking that you please do not “defecate on the berries”. And then there’s the level set in black and white suburbia that revolves around violence and the false sense of reality that comes with suburban life. This is a dark game, and you can never feel at ease because it always seems that something in the world is ever so slightly off. The unsettling musical score that is always present helps create that sense, and it is a testament to the developers that I often stopped what I was doing and stared at the screen, listening to the music as I looked for something wrong.
Anodyne is a game that, despite one very problematic gameplay element, manages to play with a tried and true genre and create something new and exciting. It lasted just long enough to make me wish that it had ended earlier, and the card collecting feels like its sole purpose is to extend the game, but these are minor grievances. If you are looking for a retro style action adventure with a twist, look no further than Anodyne.
Good gameplay, great atmosphere and story, intriguing setting.
Jumping puzzles suck, lasts a little longer than it should.