Mento's May Madness More: #24 - Anodyne

May the Twenty-Fourth

The game: Analgesic Productions's Anodyne

The source: The Retro Groupee Bundle (and I also owe a thank you to user @starfoxa for the heads-up)

The pre-amble: Anodyne is a 16-bit action adventure game that very much takes its cues from the Legend of Zelda series and Link to the Past in particular. The goal is to explore an increasingly surreal series of worlds and conquer dungeons for key items. The protagonist Young's chief (and only) weapon is his trusty broom: not only does it defeat enemies like a sword, but it can also pick up and deposit piles of dust which have various effects on obstacles in the environment. With the exception of a major mid-game event that unlocks the second half of the game's content, Anodyne is almost entirely non-linear and strongly emphasizes exploration and puzzle-solving just like its inspiration.

The playthrough: Anodyne is fantastic. I played Neutopia a while back for another blog feature which was similarly a "Zelda clone" and I wondered what the point was of making a game just like Zelda and not only not trying to improve on the mold but not even giving the game a unique makeover to give it its own sense of character and personality. (Of course, it was just to give Turbografx-16 owners their own version of Zelda. Apparently making cross-platform clones of exclusives was often a lucrative market.) Anodyne avoids this situation by making a game as playable as its inspirational source and paints a veneer of bizarre surrealism over it.

This game can get oddly personal.

The best analogy I can think of for what this game is about is Mitsuo's dungeon "Void Quest" in Persona 4, a reference I assume most people reading this will get given how popular the P4 Endurance Run was. While ostensibly a chance for the game to honor its famous forebear (that would be the original MDigital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, released in 1987) with a dungeon crawl crammed full of nostalgia-rich 8-bit pixel art texturing the 3D environments and a lot of dopey, deliberately badly translated messages. What it really represented was Mitsuo's fractured psyche and the revelation that he was basically empty inside: the dungeon trappings and RPG clichés were simply him trying to make sense of the world and the people in it through a filter of video games. In a similar fashion that's what Anodyne appears to be doing. Much of the game is open to interpretation (it is, ultimately, that kind of game) but that was my impression from the often cryptic messages left behind by its odder denizens about Young and his interpersonal relationships. Young (or maybe Ying?) is clearly not a straightforward heroic protagonist, and for that matter Anodyne is not simply a quest to find some great treasure and save the world.

How delightful. This particular dungeon is kind of gooey, by the by.

But I've railed against psychobabble plots and deliberately obtuse narratives before now. It's something that can grate quite easily, especially if its not handled well or the actual game around it isn't all that compelling. Fortunately, Anodyne avoids both of these issues by putting forward a really well-crafted game filled with secrets and thoughtful puzzles in an intriguing and quite expansive universe. That I spent a significant portion of today playing it all the way through to its conclusion ought to speak volumes.

The verdict: I've completed it so that's all for me. I could easily recommend it though.

Edited by BisonHero

@mento: Heeeeey Mento, you're like the only person on this site who made a thread/blog about having actually finished this game, and I recently finished it, so let's chat.

Anodyne, huh? It's a strange one. I want to put its writing in the same camp as Braid, in that it's probably very introspective and deeply personal, but so much so that its contents seem scattered and disconnected to anyone but the creator. And Braid is actually somewhat cohesive, relative to the stream of consciousness, surreal atmosphere of Anodyne. I like the part where instead of talking to a fisherman, you prod him into this horrible bloody vortex, where you go into a bunch of dungeons that are rather womb-oriented. There's a bit in the suburbs that implies Young changed his name from Ying to Young? It's really all over the place, and I could just as easily believe that the game concepts were inspired by a dream journal somebody kept and just picked random bizarre nonsense out of. Regardless, I agree with you that it's an intriguing and expansive universe, and I'm glad it had Mitra (and Wares) to occasionally lighten the mood in what is otherwise often a very...unnerving atmosphere.

As for the gameplay, like you said, quite engaging! The secrets were cleverly hidden, and that last power let's you do some wild things, even though obviously the dev accounted for them. The game strikes a good balance of big levels with lots of areas to unlock as you find keys, but the map let's you not get too lost. The gameplay reminds me a lot of Link's Awakening, which is the only 2D Zelda I've played that has a significant "jumping over pits" component to its gameplay.