Some games make life hard for themselves.
Take Anodyne, whose top-down RPG stylings, presented with SNES-era fidelity, are clearly gazing with adoration at The Legend of Zelda’s puzzle-bashing, monster-slashing adventurism.
This is not Link’s Hyrule, though, and Anodyne goes to some pains to set itself apart from Nintendo’s franchise. For one thing, it tackles themes beyond the maturity scope of Zelda; for another, it does so with a broom and some trading cards.
Yeah, a broom. See, Anodyne is set in the mind of its protagonist, Young. It cloaks itself in some generic questery about saving the whatnot, but really it’s about mind stuff. The broom is symbolic, right? It’s used to attack monsters and sweep the hell out of figurative dust, which presumably is the root of all mental illness or something.
As silly as it sounds, it sorta works. Patches of dust can be picked up with the broom and placed again to form a barrier, activate a platform, or function as a boat, for example. Hey, I never said it wasn’t bonkers.
The cards make less sense. Found in chests, they feature images of in-game objects and characters. I was pretty eager to see what they’d be used for, but they’re really just glorified counters that open certain special gates.
Quirks aside, put it all together and you get a Zelda-flavoured blend of exploration and dungeon-busting. And really, it’s not bad; it’s just not very good either.
Setting up a comparison with Zelda is perhaps Anodyne’s biggest misstep. Zelda’s great success is its pairing of a sense of wonder and possibility with constituent mechanics that are presented with a singular clarity: the hallmark of exquisite and subtle design – design that has benefited from years of iterative refinement.
In short, Anodyne is no Legend of Zelda. Its pacing is shot, its focus is amorphous, and its mechanics are, well, a little dusty. To be honest, at times I was tempted to stop playing, but the game’s atmosphere – its main strong point – pulls it through.
For all that its presentation is a cutesy homage, Anodyne is a pretty dark journey through a mind that holds, as minds are wont to do, some unpleasant thoughts. I’ll take a random pick and throw out womb-based body horror, mass murder, and bunnies.
Still, like many other attempts to present a dream world, Anodyne makes the mistake of being too surreal and fragmented. There is no sense of continuity, just a cut-up sequence of areas and characters and challenges that hint at deep matters but just don’t hang well together. I’m not saying dreams can’t be surreal and fragmented; the difference is, though, that in real dreams one’s critical faculties tend to be submerged in the glutinous logic of sleep.
The upshot of all this is that, at best, I had a fluffy sense of what to do. Anodyne even seems aware of this shortcoming, with characters occasionally spouting some take on “Oh, you’ve found another key. Have you tried it on some gates?” Why yes. Yes I have.
I’m not sure there’s much left to say. I had a lot of hope riding on Anodyne, and while I’m not sold on it others certainly are.
If you’re on the fence, pick up the demo and see for yourself.