Anodyne (noun): A pain-killing drug or medicine.
The influence of drugs in our culture is a polarizing topic, bound to bring the worst out of both sides. Yet one agreeable truth to their usage in creative projects is that it allows storytellers to weave cathartic, mind-bending dreamscapes. These themes tend to be limited in use nowadays, as many feel robbed when a game tells them, “It was all a dream.” But what if the dream was a look into the complex psyche of a disturbed individual that fleshes out figments of his imagination into living entities?
Anodyne tells the tale of Young, a man sucked into a world that seems to be constantly shifting between reality and a dream. Greeted by Sage and his always abstract, sarcasm-laced totem, Young is charged with the task of reaching the enigma only referred to as, “The Briar”. The triteness of that statement is not paraphrasing for simplicity’s sake, the player is not given any further explanation. While the mystique of jumping through intergalactic portals and interacting with displaced individuals is quite interesting, there is always a feeling that you are missing an integral part of the story. It is hard to escape that unsettling impression that everyone is following along attentively, but you dozed off during the crux.
What drives the story forward in lieu of an overarching theme is the sinister and playful nature of the characters you encounter. Anodyne makes no bones about showing how much they have borrowed from the Zelda universe, as you will run into unabashed copycats of the legendary series’ most identifiable characters. Preventing this from devolving into hamfisted attempt to evoke pointless nostalgia for the player is that everyone you encounter seems to talk to Young as if he is out of the loop. Uncomfortable vibes can be felt from a handful of particular characters; a man in the forest admonishes you for “not understanding” how things work when you defeat the first boss. Everyone seems to be laughing, and you aren’t in on the joke.
While some denizens are very aware of your existence, acting as if everything is normal, some are off in another world. They don’t seem to fit in your particular time or space, as some conversations trail off into madness at points. It is as if everyone involved in the story is intersecting with one another, unsure of how they arrived, or where they are going. This collection of shady, unpredictable people makes for interesting, and sometimes disturbing interaction. This also leads to a weak spot in Anodyne’s structure: conveyance. Like Link’s Awakening (its obvious influence), hints on where to go next are vague at best, which can lead to frustration. The scarcity of conversations, which sometimes only explain game lore, makes it somewhat difficult to get an idea of what your objective is. While handholding is not something I enjoy, the aggravation of becoming lost in such an enthralling story dilutes the overall experience.
In order to progress somewhat smoothly is to take mental notes on areas that you cannot immediately access. Once you become lost, retracing your steps to regain a point of reference is test of patience slightly facilitated by portals. Using this quick-travel method allows you to hop around the map, but you will still find yourself traipsing across large, useless areas that only serve to muddle your progression. The largest offender of the sometimes confusing design is the lake/marsh area, which is largely empty. The result of such an expansive overworld can sometimes feel like filler. If the maps were reduced by roughly 25% in specific areas, the overall flow would be greatly improved.
What saves this somewhat aggravating world structure is the incredibly interesting locales that are found in later portions of the game. While the first offering of locations are your standard fare of grassy plains, beaches, and precipice adventures on a cliffside, there is a sudden departure that hits you like a brick wall. It is hard not to gush about how disconcerting some of the content in this game is without spoiling anything, but the real meat of the story is found in the later locales, filled with ambiguity and tinges of despair. Sparse usage of swear words are placed so intricately that it brings a harsh sense of reality and immediacy of some conversations. It’s almost like hearing you own child blurt out epithets at the dinner table – you didn’t see it coming and you weren’t sure how to react.
Visually, Anodyne straddles the NES/SNES era where the color pallette is very much beyond NES capabilities, but still meanders close to utilizing full 16-bit design. Some areas are rather bland in appeal, but later landscapes are wonderfully executed and show great amounts of effort in illustrating the locale. However, nothing about the overall design ever jumped out at me like, say, Swords and Sworcery when it comes to excellence in pixel art. In all fairness, the visuals in Anodyne are not what draws the player in, it’s the abstract dialogue and euphoric environment that grabs them early on.
Assisting these themes is the excellent, sublime soundtrack that seems to settle in ever so gently. Like a creeping nightmare, some areas sport genuinely scary tracks, while others float along in a dreamy state. Like the dialogue, the soundtrack is nothing short of arresting for chiptune, a hard balance to strike. Every scene is set so perfectly that you would be surprised to learn this is a title developed by two college guys who split the load of the entire game between themselves.
Guiding you through this nightmare world of bunnies and occasional murder is a WASD/Arrow control scheme. While my hands seemed to rest comfortably for the first hour or two, cramping and a feeling that I wasn’t able to control the game as efficiently as I liked had me switching over to a controller. While this is personal preference coupled with ease of use, I did see an overall improvement in my ability to avoid dying so frequently, as well as not consistently missing jumps to a dizzying degree. Keep in mind that keyboard controls are fully customizable, I was just unable to find one that worked comfortably for me. Anodyne has no official controller support (I used XPadder), the developers are hard at work at beta testing the feature as this review is being written.
Cathartic experiences like Anodyne are few and far inbetween. Haunting storylines found in titles like Indigo Prophecy, where the player is kept at arms length, are being slowly shuffled away from their beautiful usage of subtext. Not knowing anything concrete nearly even two thirds of the way through a game is exciting, sometimes being behind the curve can actually aid the engagement. It is hard to believe that two college students put a game together that rivals one of the best Zelda games out there in the 2D plain, but somehow they out-Miyamoto’ed Miyamoto. Grab yourself a copy, snuggle up to your monitor, and enjoy the ride.