Have you ever had a great inside joke with a friend or family member? Maybe it’s one that has kept you laughing for years. To you and those that you share the joke with, it’s absolutely hilarious. Now, have you ever tried to explain that inside joke to someone who wasn’t in on it? You know that confused look that the uninitiated typically give you? That’s the face I found myself making as I played Anodyne 2: Return to Dust. This game clearly understands what’s going on, but it never gets through to the player because of some awkward writing and flat gameplay.
Developed by the aptly named Analgesic Productions, this “multi-genre” title definitely left me feeling numb by the time I was finished with it. You take control of Nova – a human (?) that has hatched from an enormous egg of some kind after absorbing vitamins and nutrients. Your parents (?) are omnipotent, celestial-looking beings that talk like awkward teenagers, and you must travel through a collection of surreal worlds in order to meet surreal characters in order to stop the Nano Dust. This microscopic evil is infecting the inhabitants of the outlandish dream world of New Theland, and Nova, as a Nano Cleaner, must shrink and enter the bodies of the sick to do some dusting.
That overall goal sounds simple enough, but the game never shakes off that way too abstract feeling of the beginning “egg” area. When it comes to stories in games, I’m one of the first people to say that we need more original ideas. I mean, we could fill those enormous craters left behind by lithium mines with all of the middle-aged, brown-haired, emotionally-constipated, white men with guns simulators that we have. Yet, on the quest for originality, one can easily make something too abstract. Anodyne 2 is bewildering. Abstract concepts and information are dumped on you so frequently and in such poorly communicated ways, that all you feel is lost. The most apt comparison I can think of is a surrealist art piece. You can call it “On the Beach” all you want, Picasso, but that doesn’t mean it suddenly doesn’t look like crap.
When I say that the game is too abstract, I definitely don’t mean it’s complex. Much like an inflatable pool, it just isn’t that deep. Each paragraph that shows up for character dialogue and Nova’s inner thoughts is either too long or laden with the aforementioned surrealness. Not to mention the fact that they pop up with an irritating frequency. It makes it difficult to actually get into the gameplay. Of course, that has its own problems.
In spite of those problems, Anodyne 2 has a unique idea for gameplay that ties into the game’s charming visuals as well. The game is split into two halves: exploring through New Theland, and exploring the bodies of its citizens. The former of these is done in a third-person, action adventure angle. Here, the game seeks to emulate the style of an early 2000’s title. That means lots of polygons, rough textures, and limited animations. It works to great effect, actually. It feels and looks exactly like an original Xbox game – albeit in an HD resolution. All that’s done gameplay-wise when the game looks like this is exploration. You meander from character to character in order to help out their insides. Occasionally, and annoyingly, an odd little rhythm minigame is your means of entering a character’s body. If one can call it a rhythm minigame, since the inputs don’t match up with any type of music at all.
Within a suffering character is where you’ll experience the second half of the game. The old-fashioned 3D models are gone, replaced by a 2D pixelized sprite art style. Additionally, the camera switches to an isometric viewpoint and this is where the bulk of actual gameplay takes place. You’ll move from one room to another in order to solve little puzzles and clean up Nano Dust. To do so, you’re armed with a little vacuum that can suck up enemies and objects. You can then launch any sucked up projectiles to use them as weapons or to navigate through the rooms. This is definitely the strongest part of the gameplay, but it isn’t challenging nor engaging.
With the gameplay being pretty weak, the only worthwhile part of Anodyne 2 on Xbox is its presentation. Truly, it should be applauded for this alone. Even the music succeeds in pulling the player back to that early, three-dimensional time period. However, a nice bit of music and some neat aesthetics do not make for a complete or fun experience. In addition to the lackluster gameplay, the story is just too obtrusive to enjoy. Like someone trying to explain an inside joke, it feels too much like a waste of time.