Anodyne 2: The Search for Purpose
I made a conscious effort to avoid spoilers in this review, but I think you should experience as much as possible for yourself. If anything you have seen interests you, I fully recommend you play the game.
Video games, like all forms of media, are a language. Their words are written with extra lives and spinning coins and red barrels. One's preferred genres become dialects in conversation with other enthusiasts. The people who identify as "Gamers" are fluent in a tongue all our own.
And like the languages of film, literature, and poetry, it can be used to create art.
After spending trying to legitimize the medium, many games opt to be artful about... themselves. "Meta Games" have grown in the shadow of the focus group era. They spread a message by playing on the language and expectations unique to the relationship between a player and a game. They can be found from triple-A worlds to tiny indie experiences hidden in plain sight.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust strikes me as a reaction to even this movement, another layer of self-reflection. It doesn't use tricks like intentional game crashes or fake Steam notifications. I would even say that its themes are nothing new to those who like this kind of game. However, Anodyne 2 still surprised and delighted me at every turn, evoking some of my favorite narratives in gaming history.
In the world of New Theland, everyone has a defined purpose. Think of it as Futurama's career chips. New Theland is governed by the Center, an all-knowing control point located beneath the earth. Or at least, they used to govern it, until a blight of Nano Dust beset the land. The dust causes people to lose their minds, focusing on negative thoughts and acting out in harmful ways. By the time the game starts, the infestation has nearly reached the Center.
To respond, the Center creates Nano Cleaner Nova, a being with the ability to shrink into the infected and cleanse them of the harmful dust. Nova's purpose is to restore order by fighting the dust one person at a time.
This leads to Anodyne 2's dual gameplay styles. Firstly, Nova explores a 3D overworld with visuals evoking the early 3D era of video games. Once she finds an eligible character, she can shrink inside them to earn collectible dust and cards, which are required for expanding the rest of the world.
At nanoscale, the gameplay shifts into a pixelated top-down world similar to early Zelda dungeons. Nova's weapon of choice is a vacuum cleaner that she uses to inhale enemies and obstacles. It's also the only time the player can actually lose, though they probably won't. From my recollection, time is spent about equally between the two styles.
Using the vacuum at nanonscale is fun, but not revolutionary. The game teaches a few rules early on that carry through the rest of the levels. There are only a handful of enemy types, and exploration, while encouraged, is limited. A helpful map and checkpoint system do make the experience easier, though. Impressively, each level has a distinct environment and mood, despite how short they are individually.
In 3D, Nova can leg it at a slow pace or turn into a sweet car and zip around the world. However, traversing the overworld is not exactly painless. For one thing, the map is less helpful, showing only Nova's general location. This can make finding the exits to other areas disorienting at times. Once the world expands far beyond the center, it can be a hassle to get back to deposit dust. Nova's limited dust capacity in general is a strange decision. Commuting back to the center when the tank is full creates some minor pacing issues.
These small problems are easily brushed aside because Anodyne 2's tone and characters are exactly what I want from this kind of game. Like in Earthbound, the world is full of NPCs that exist solely to tell jokes. Their lives are just as bizarre as their anatomies. Often, they will comment on gaming tropes to humorous effect. This kind of comedy can be tiring to some, but the writing was fresh enough to never annoy me. It helps that the jokes intertwine with the characters' inherent strangeness.
The people Nova shrinks into often have residents of their own. Each level has its own story to tell, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, usually both. And the game isn't afraid to shake things up, even drastically, to further that story.
8-bit graphics (or, more often, stylistic approximations) are familiar territory to modern gamers. Retro aesthetics have become so common that they are now like noise to me. And while Anodyne 2's overhead sections contain some impressive artistry, the 3D world deserves all the real attention. It mimics the early era of polygonal games the same way developers have idolized sprites for the past 15 years. This less common style allows the art to really stretch its legs.
Models are deliberately low-poly and textures are stretched over excessive distances. Doors are noted with a flat, blurry image of the next area Nova runs into. At any point, it feels like the player could clip through the world. The modern frame rate and fidelity on this world gives the impression of a PS1 game hastily ported to the PS2 at the last moment.
In retrospect, the art style works much like a cubist painting does. Instead of hiding its limitations, which are often due to budget issues, the game takes every opportunity to laugh and relish in them. Often, I lost myself in the beautiful polygonal vistas of New Theland, and I felt like it wouldn't be so bad to live there.
Helping this mood is the soundtrack. For the most part, it's atmospheric and melancholy, though it does occasionally branch out. The music isn't the most memorable on the market, but it almost always added to the moment.
And what a range of moments Anodyne 2 has. There is a clear distinction between the first and second halves of the game, and things get... weird. A somehow different type of weird than what came before. As new regions open up, the story and gameplay take sharp swerves, leading to the game's most memorable sequences.
The idea of a midgame twist is hardly new in the world of the meta game. Neither are the questions it asks about control, purpose, and destiny. But the game doesn't just tackle existential themes and curl up crying. It either pushes them aside for the player to digest, or outright answers them.
That's far from a bad thing in my eyes. The point of Anodyne 2 isn't just about struggle. It's how that struggle impacts our personal journeys on the road to finding purpose. And to me, those thoughts and feelings make it art.