The two creators of Anodyne went on the offensive in promoting their game this past weekend. They kept tabs on all the news items and reviews, commenting, twitting, redditing; organized a sale, and even put up an official banner on the front page of Pirate Bay. All that to get some positive word of mouth going and push their game into as many hands as possible. And my hands were plump and ready! Any doubts I had, disappeared because of the promo price and promises of creepiness and eeriness hiding behind the 16-bit exterior of the game. There was fun to be had and I wasn’t going to miss out!
Anodyne is a tale of Young, a white-haired guy traveling through the fields of his mind. The story is a complicated labyrinth of silly dialogs, strange characters and unexpected events that lead to a very basic message of peace and friendship. I think the authors wanted to include everything and the kitchen sink – they wanted to point out all the issues that bother them. As a result there’s no structure and no coherence – no real context is created for the story to breath. It doesn’t ask any questions and offers only vague goals, but, surprisingly, it still works.
However, it’s the environments and random characters that drive the game forward. Young’s mind is a strange place – familiar yet strange and unordered. There’s a bear who can’t stop talking about berries and a cat who is the chosen one in training. There is a world populated by boxes and ruled by a cube, a gray ghost town whose denizens can’t stop dying and a red desert with harmless giants. I wandered around this world chuckling at the silliness of some parts, smiling at the unexpected weirdness of others, and grinning at the occasionally disturbing events. Anodyne is immensely explorable, even if it often leads you down a specific path, that path is an imagination-feeder of the best kind. It feels a real story would only get in the way.
And another important element that makes Anodyne work as a whole is music. The synthesizer soundtrack assembled from soundfonts and cooked in a computer is crucial to creating the thick atmosphere of the game. This is one of these fine instances where music isn’t just in the background invisibly adding bells and whistles. In Anodyne music is at the forefront actively creating the world, setting the tone and distancing the game from its Zelda roots.
And, let’s be honest, these roots run deep. Anodyne looks like a Zelda game (top down camera, screen-hopping) and it plays like a Zelda game (press A for attack, B for jump), but this isn’t just a clone. It channels the gameplay and borrows heavily from 16-bit Zelda‘s design, but manages to be its own thing too. Mechanics of Anodyne are extremely slick and clean which makes it feel simplified, but it’s definitely nice to have an annoyance-free, tight Zelda-like. Besides, the game may start like a cakewalk, but gradually becomes harder and more complicated. The challenge is never too daunting, though. The only frustration may come from some of the end-game jumps, but they’re nothing insurmountable. My in-game counter shows the number of Young’s deaths as 42 – for a game with jumping in it, that’s nothing.
In the end, some of the technical aspects of the game are also worth pointing out. The options in the menu, as expected from an indie game made to work in Adobe Air, are very few and far between. One can redefine the keys, change the volume, or make the window very very small. What one can’t do is make the game work in real full screen – the big black blocks on both sides of the screen stay there forever. I mean, it doesn’t really bother me all that much, because it’s easy to grow used to it, but it’s something that shouldn’t happen in a PC game.
All in all, Anodyne is Zelda: A Link to the Past on mildly-powerful reality-altering drugs. In my opinion, it’s a fun adventure, perfect for two evenings of roaming around strange places. The game is slight but not empty and slick but not free of challenge. Also, despite wearing its influences on its sleeves, it has an identity of its own – at some times light-hearted, at others unsettling. It creates a world that’s definitely worth exploring when the next promo stumbles upon us.