Anodyne is unapologetically high concept.
The player is haphazardly thrown into the shoes of Young, a mysterious bespectacled youth who finds himself in a vacant dream-like world. Young is charged by the village elder to defeat terrifying boss monsters and collect magical cards, all with the intent of saving the Briar.
What is the Briar? And more importantly, who is Young? These questions are never fully answered. Those looking for a light-weight and linear gaming experience should look elsewhere. Anodyne‘s narrative is dreary, ambiguous, and steeped in metaphor – not entirely surprising given that the game is named after pain-killing medication.
It’s always a challenge to tackle a game like this. The line between innovation and pretension is a fine one, and even when it’s skirted, it’s difficult to fault a game for being ambitious. Still, Anodyne‘s marriage to ambiguity risks overwhelming all but the most committed players.
Each new area of Young’s ersatz world raises a dozen new questions. Why I am fighting men in biohazard suits? Why is everyone in this village trying to kill me? Why do I have a broom as a weapon? Although rarely boring, the game’s refusal to reveal the underlying inter-connectivity between these eclectic set pieces can grow tiresome.
The abstract narrative is a drastic contrast to Anodyne‘s straightforward gameplay. Anodyne is directly modeled after the original Legend of Zelda. Each sweep of Young’s broom traces the exact trajectory of a jab of Link’s sword. Movement is relegated to the four principle directions of a phantom d-pad. The overworld, divided into discrete interconnected screens, might as have well been ripped from the pages of the Hyrule atlas.
The effectiveness of this homage is a mixed bag. On one hand, Anodyne is sure to please fans of the original Legend of Zelda. It’s simple controls and labyrinthine dungeons make it a striking doppelganger of Nintendo’s primordial title and the torchbearer of a long-discontinued genre.
On the other hand, the game suffers by adhering too strictly to the retro formula. Jumping, for one, feels clumsy. The game’s lack of even rudimentary jumping physics leads to many frustrating half-a-pixel-too-short falls. This, coupled with Young’s hamstrung mobility, limits the strategic depth of combat. Boss fights feel sloppy, and more often than not, it’s equally effective to charge in head-first and trade blows than attempt to telegraph attack patterns.
Anodyne‘s visuals are much more consistent than its gameplay. While many indie games rely on cost-effective pixel graphics as a crutch, Anodyne owns the medium. Each area of the game is illustrated with a distinct colour palette, ranging from vibrant autumn-tinged forests to rusted starlit industrial complexes. No area seems cobbled together or haphazard.
Latter areas of the game turn the entire graphical style on its head. In one dungeon, the 16-bit sprites devolve to 8-bit fidelity (further reinforcing the Zelda parallel). In another, the palette is distilled to sepia tones with an overlaid noise filter, mimicking the texture of old film. These visual flourishes are stunning and help make the game’s often conceptually abstract locales memorable.
Anodyne‘s music compliments the graphics well, but suffers from a sense of gratuity. We’ve known since Super Metroid was released in 1994 that chunky midi music is capable of manufacturing an unnerving atmosphere. However, this atmosphere needs to be grounded by a baseline normalcy. Every haunting dirge needs to be balanced against a neutral ballad – the contrast between the menacing and the mundane is what causes discomfort.
Unfortunately Anodyne heralds in the game with an explicitly unsettling and creepy theme and never offers a reprieve. The unending parade of distorted keyboard noises, echoing pings, and Radiohead-level static quickly desensitizes the player, neutering the unnerving atmosphere the game strives for.
Even though Anodyne only succeeds at half of what it attempts, it’s still an interesting experiment. The game is visually stunning with a narrative that at the very least could be considered thought-provoking. At only $10, it’s hard to argue that this spiritual successor to the original Legend of Zelda isn’t worth a try. Pick it up on Desura or Gamersgate.