Anodyne may easily come across as yet another Zelda clone, and while it does share certain similarities with Nintendo’s legendary franchise – particularly in terms of aesthetics and overall gameplay mechanics – it manages to provide a uniquely enthralling experience, thanks to its obscure narrative and atmospheric musical score.
Originally created by only two people, Anodyne’s plot revolves around Young, who is thrown into a dreamlike domain of his own subconscious and met by a mysterious sage shortly after. Without explaining much, the sage directs Young to one of the many portals located in the vicinity. The sage implores him to find someone by the name of Briar and save him from the approaching darkness. After successfully traversing the initial dungeon and overcoming its obstacles, Young reaches the game’s main overworld, where his journey truly begins.
The overworld feels pleasantly familiar and reminiscent of those found in many 16-bit era games. It acts as a connecting point to each region; environments consist of square segments which are progressively added to the map as Young explores them. While traversing the land, Young will meet friendly characters, stumble upon hidden caves, and uncover treasure chests which more often than not will contain cards. These cards portray characters and monsters within the world, along with an often humorous description, and are used to unlock gates which lead to valuable health upgrades. A set amount of cards is also required to access the final area of the game, which incentivizes thorough exploration.
Other locations can be visited in almost any order and there is hardly any restriction on where to go, though certain secret areas and tougher dungeons are initially locked off. Portals are conveniently scattered across the world and allow Young to return to the starting area while also tracking collected cards in each region. Exploration eventually leads to a lengthy dungeon, which can range from a simple, gloomy cave system to a highrise residential building with crumbling floors. Dungeons generally follow a common principle: the goal is to reach the end while collecting keys to unlock gates, solving puzzles, avoiding traps and fending off monsters, including bats, dogs, jellies, and many more.
Young is a ferocious combatant whose weapon of choice is… a broom (Broom Knight?), which he acquires early on. This glorious tool is not only used to defeat oncoming threats but also swoop up piles of dust. A collected clot of dust can then be utilized to block projectiles, solve puzzles, and cross bodies of water by repurposing it as a raft. Each dungeon culminates in a boss battle and victory awards Young with a special key which allows him to unlock a previously inaccessible area. Once it seems like Anodyne is nearing its conclusion, the world reveals paths to additional, more challenging areas and dungeons.
Combat is mostly straightforward and seldom relies on anything aside from the broom and some agile jumping around; enemies have a pattern and can be effectively eradicated with the slightest bit of patience. It holds true for bosses as well which, albeit pose a greater threat, will rarely take more than a couple of tries to defeat. Anodyne isn’t overly difficult, but it does punish brashness and inaccuracy, striking a perfect balance between challenge and progression; it never keeps the player stuck in the same spot for too long.
Young has the necessary tools to progress at all times, it is only ever a matter of how to correctly use them. With that being said, victories are somewhat unfulfilling, as none of the monsters reward Young with anything; there is no currency, no items to purchase, and no skills to develop. New abilities are acquired from interacting with other characters and through regular exploration: including upgrades for the broom – a wider attack radius, for instance.
This is offset by the game’s mesmerising atmosphere. Every locale has a distinct mood to it, which is masterfully achieved by Anodyne’s multi-faceted musical score; it can be unobtrusive and serene, or chirpy and uplifting in some areas, and eerie in others, creating a perpetual sense of Weltschmerz. It often feels like visiting Silent Hill – as if the surrounding world is about to shift into a darker state – and many of the disfigured, abstract enemies contribute to that sensation.
At times, based on particular actions, it’s not even clear whether Young is supposed to be the “good guy”, or what exactly Briar represents, and I didn’t have a concrete answer even as the end credits rolled. The whole experience lasts for about 10 hours, which is more than sufficient for a game of this size. Additionally, completion unlocks a new ability which allows Young to interact with his surroundings in a vastly different way and discover secret cards.
Despite some of its shortcomings, mainly pertaining to rudimentary combat, Anodyne is an enjoyable and – more importantly – memorable experience. I eventually found myself avoiding combat encounters and just moving along whenever possible, but the game intrigues with its vague storytelling and rapidly shifting mood; it prevents the environment from becoming monotonous by constantly changing the tone and providing unexpected scenes and outcomes. For that alone, it is worth a playthrough.