Anodyne

Anodyne opens with the the most generic of beginnings - filled with Proper Nouns, a Chosen One and a World Saving Quest - only to cheekily undermine that premise seconds later, with snarky flowers & humorous rocks belaying the lack of self importance present in this world. Young, your silent protagonist, is handed not a sword and armor to defend the realm, but a broom, before promptly being thrust into a world filled with strange creatures and dreamy landscapes. 

Said broom is a very straightforward tool, allowing for only a simple jab as an attack, with just a few upgrades down the track expanding its reach. It’s use however is not limited to simply taking down enemies - dust litters the world which you can sweep up, which can then be repurposed a number of ways to solve puzzles. This central mechanic is basic, but is used effectively in a multitude of delightful ways throughout your adventure, keeping it from becoming stale and boring. On the contrary, the game is almost Nintendo-like in it’s ability to come up with such a number of use cases for a tool with only one function.

This 2D-Zelda-alike pays high tribute to it’s inspirations, with it’s charming pixel art, spoked dungeon design and moody soundtrack. Played out in single screen squares laid out grid style, it feels like Anodyne could just as easily be a forgotten Gameboy classic. The main portion of the game will only take you around 4 hours to see through, with an additional few hours of “post -game” content available for those that want to fully explore what’s on offer here.

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***Spoilers***

A big part of the joy to be found in Anodyne includes all the secrets tucked away in various corners of the map. A decent chunk of these can only be discovered through the use of of an end game item, the Swapper broom extension. This extension gives you the ability to swap any 2 tiles with each other almost anywhere in the world, and is where Anodyne breaks from conventional game design to really let you play around. This is essentially game breaking, allowing you to go just about anywhere - and the world is cleverly designed for you to do just that.

Using this tool completely shatters the fundamental design of the game, yet encourages and rewards the player for doing so. This exploration is immensely satisfying, hearkening to a time of glitch exploitation in games of an era of design Anodyne emulates. Think some of the ways Pokemon Red/Blue were able to be broken - walking on unreachable tiles to skip entire areas, for example (one of the secret items/areas is even an homage to Missingno, something that brought a big goofy grin to my face). Breaking into sections of the map otherwise unobtainable led to some of the coolest areas of the game - the Archive and Debug areas are certainly standouts.

The game contains 49 “cards” and 13 “secrets” hidden around various pockets of the world, which double as cool snippets of world building and add to the mysterious nature of the experience. A good chunk of these are very well hidden across all areas of the game, but not too much so that hunting them down becomes frustrating - the world size is small enough that traversing back and forth is a non issue, with the portals in the Nexus (hub area) being crucial to jumping between areas. Finding everything this game has to offer and confronting the end-end of the game became immensely satisfying and novel, something that you only really see in this kind of indie gem.

***End Spoilers***

Anodyne’s world design extends the idea of it’s dreamlike state vividly through the way you dive down it’s rabbit holes of areas / dungeons. The main overworld is simple enough - a basic forest with a few NPC’s and basic enemies - but as you explore the cliffs, swamp, beach and all other areas you expect to find, other more interesting locations begin to reveal themselves. An old, decrepit hotel sits at the end of a freeway; A mysterious village full of shady figures. The design is truly stretched in some imaginative ways, with a new uneasy delight always to be discovered 'round the next corner.

To keep the mood suitably eerie, the track list of this game is incredibly well done. The main overworld theme is quite hum-worthy, sticking in my mind as I write this. The ambient sound design is also a delight, from the rain falling around the tower to the motion of sweeping up and distributing dust. While being recently released on Switch this could easily be played on the go, I would encourage anyone looking to play Anodyne to keep the sound up, or at the very least stick in some earbuds.

The story of what is even going on in Anodyne is largely vague, mostly due to this being a first game created by 2 people in 9 months while still in school. Developer Sean Han Tani’s post mortem of Anodyne does a good job of breaking down why this is - there’s a bit of assumed knowledge by Sean on the part of the player, something that’s hard to break through when every minute detail of a game is inside your head when creating it - but while Sean comes to the conclusion that this is a negative, I found it to be largely compelling. A lot of games (and a lot of media in general to be honest) often spoon feeds you story, character motivation, history and lore, so an experience that has you unpacking a narrative through your own thoughts and interpretations can be much more intriguing when done well.

While it seems this result for Anodyne was partially on accident, it works largely in it’s favour. It might be more of an increasing boredom of basic narrative structure speaking to this, but the deviations Anodyne makes from your typical narrative framework along with the snippets of barely-there story make it all the more interesting if you’re into that kind of thing. Thankfully the game doesn’t hinge on the narrative though - you can come at Anodyne from a completely mechanical standpoint, ignoring the story entirely, and still find plenty here to be worth your while.

The above post mortem also mentions the idea of changing up the game design to incorporate more battle gauntlets and less puzzles, which I’m glad never came to be. While the combat is quite basic, it’s the puzzle design of each room that makes this game shine. In the beginning, unlocking a gate is as simple as defeating a couple of annoying bats, but as you progress through the game the interweaving of enemy behaviour and the uses of your broom (in particular the way dust is used) make for clever puzzle design. The difficulty of the puzzles builds on itself steadily over the course of play - that alongside the short play time ensures that the game never overstays its welcome. 

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For a little indie game created by 2 people, Anodyne pops with personality and delighted at almost every turn. The environments explored go well passed what’s typically expected, and the music stuck in my mind long after I put the game down for the final time. I very much look forward to seeing what’s next for Sean and Joni, and checking out the work they’ve done since Anodyne’s original release; they’ve proven themselves to be worthy young game designers with an interesting future ahead.