Not every game requires a grand narrative with a detailed world and fleshed out characters. In fact, many games get by with the barebones and do just fine. Anodyne manages to have such a terrible story that it actively intrudes on the rest of the game. The game is at its best when it avoids any greater meaning than have broom, will travel. That’s a shame because the core gameplay is solid and worthy of a better world.
Mechanically speaking, Anodyne is a polished Zelda clone. You play as a boy, Young, stranded in a strange wilderness who must attack, puzzle, and collect his way through a series of fantastical worlds at the behest of the mysterious Sage. The puzzles take advantage of Young’s broom (effectively a sword) and mobility to force the player to figure out creative solutions. Sometimes these puzzles span multiple rooms and take advantage of timing, jumps, and switches. No one puzzle is too difficult, though Anodyne’s attempts at platforming often fail. The controls are mushy and, when combined with the top down perspective and fast pace, can become unresponsive. A few of the largely unskippable challenges become total frustrations when you must coordinate a series of quick jumps knowing that repeated failure means losing progress. Still, the mechanics are quite strong and will be instantly familiar to fans of the genre.
Though the gameplay is generally solid and the puzzles are challenging and clever, the story and world are an absolute mess. There doesn’t appear to be thematic cohesion between levels or even within the same level. One world combines desert and blood aesthetics in a way that is very jarring. It also looks like Anodyne wants to say something but can’t stick to an idea long enough to convey anything meaningful. This is further undermined by completely nonsensical writing that is more a jumble of words than actual communication that people might engage in. On a number of occasions, I found myself reading the dialogue and having no idea what it actually meant. Did I mention that Anodyne forces you to sit through unskippable cutscenes after every death so that you can repeatedly relive the tragedy that is its writing? If developers Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka weren’t going to make something worth reading, they shouldn’t force players to sit through it repeatedly.
Artistically, Anodyne falls into the trap of confusing strange and different with meaningful. Anodyne is unique in many ways, but it’s also completely incoherent. Unfortunately, it joins other critically acclaimed gems like Limbo and Super Brothers: Sword and Sworcery in crafting an experience that is visually and conceptually more exciting than it is profound. The indie gaming scene in generally seems to have a hard time coming up with something worthwhile to say and then actually saying it. Games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable do a far better job getting their point across despite not having a visually unique world to draw upon. If the artists and philosophers could get together, they could produce a game whose aesthetic qualities matched its meaning. Sadly, it seems that we must live with either or.
Anodyne is a great game for those looking for more old school Zelda. It’s got all the action, puzzles, and exploration that those gamers could want. For me, the mess that is the story and world are too overwhelming. I can’t get lost in a world that doesn’t know its own way. Play Anodyne only if gameplay is paramount and story doesn’t matter.