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Anodyne (PC) artwork

Anodyne (PC) review

"Wonder and dread"

I am a strong believer that a chief aim of art is to instill wonder. I suspect I am not the only one whose childhood was shaped in some way by such works as 1993's Batman: The Animated Series, Super Metroid, and other works that used powerful art direction and atmosphere to elicit a strong impression on their audience. Despite lacking high production values, Anodyne captures this feel in an inimitable fashion.

Your character, a silent, unassuming boy named Young, is instructed to go save The Land from a looming threat. In the first navigable area, an ominous forest divided by an untraveled concrete road, we find our one and only weapon, an innocuous broom. From the simple combat and the game's top-down presentation we infer that the gameplay of Anodyne is essentially that of a Legend of Zelda title, specifically Link's Awakening, since a lovely jump command is at your disposal after a point. Anodyne's gameplay is solid as expected, but the title distinguishes itself through its level design and atmosphere.

Though cast in simple pixels, The Land is vast and diverse. From sunworn cliffs to dimensional rifts, each location is filled with beauty and personality due to wonderful art direction and music. Exploring a new area is often an emotional experience, with soft string melodies crafting a warm feeling to the central plains and ominous ambiance instilling heavy dread in a monochrome town in which you should absolutely not talk to anyone. Finding these areas is more of a true act of exploration than anything in most Zelda games because the order in which you progress through the Land's regions is largely up to the player.

Eschewing the route most Zelda-style games have of presenting a seemingly nonlinear world that clams up almost entirely once you realize you need to go to X Place to get Y item to get Z obstacle out of the way, Anodyne crafts a large world comprised of subareas that the player can tackle in a largely unrestricted manner. Each subarea has unique assets and means of progression. You've still got those switches and keys to use, but Young must also use his trusty broom to pick up piles of dust to use as weights for pressure plates or rafts for bodies of water. Anodyne's level design succeeds on a macro-scale by being nonlinear in the order you tackle dungeons while offering convenient warp points; on a micro-scale, it succeeds by diversity in artistic design and complexity in the contextual use of a simple set of game mechanics, rather than just burdening you with a pile of items you'll scarcely use more than once each, as most games emulative of the Zelda formula tend to stumble by doing.

Although Anodyne's level design is perhaps the best I've seen in such a game, the title wouldn't be as great as it is were it not for its personality. Anodyne's identity is manifested in humor as often as it is in more solemn moments. The relevance of these is largely contextual, with driving strength imbued by the atmosphere of the game. Anodyne captures that difficult-to-describe feeling elicited by the best visual interpretations of the fairy tales of old, with each strange new location instilling a sense of discovery yet also unease. Young's traversal of strange hellscapes struck a chord with me in this regard, and, as subjective as this observation may be, I can't see myself being the only one affected in this fashion.

Completion time is around only five hours, yet there's still a good amount of time to be spent in The Land. Anodyne is a subscriber to the delightful theory that it's fun to break a game apart upon completing it; after the strange, interpretive conclusion to the story, one can return to the game with the ability to swap tiles about at will. A wall's in your way? Not anymore! Nothing beyond this barrier? You'll be the judge of that! With this new ability, you'll be able to collect more of those cards that were mandatory to progress through the main story, this time accessing even more areas! Many secrets lie in wait for the diligent explorer, but Anodyne has plenty to enjoy regardless.

Despite its apparent simplicity, Anodyne is a game that inspires the best kind of wonder. It isn't for kids - some violence and dialogue preclude that, sadly - but jaded years didn't stop me from appreciating its charm. Familiar gameplay or not, Anodyne is still truly one-of-a-kind.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (February 03, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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