Anodyne review: pixel logic

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher Analgesic Productions
Developer Analgesic Productions
Release Date 02/04/2013

Anodyne is a beautifully designed indie action-adventure that works just as well as commentary as it does as a game.

Created by two-person developer Analgesic Productions, it presents a haunting narrative about disconnection and game addiction, using the language of genre classics mixed with a hefty dose of modern ennui. Anodyne mostly succeeds at its lofty goals, failing only where the simple control scheme can’t keep up with the game’s ambitious platforming segments.

You play as Young (that’s it, just “Young"), a silent protagonist with white hair, Coke Bottle glasses and a trusty broom in place of a sword. You are given a quest by a mysterious sage figure to search “the land," collecting cards and defeating foes as you go, in order to prepare yourself to meet the mystical briar. It’s all hokum, and Anodyne knows it, literally signposting your journey with sarcastic signs that poke fun at the pretentious questline.

The various lands are a mix of the familiar and the uncanny. Fields and forests and castles are joined by a deranged black-and-white vision of suburbia and a rat-infested hotel. Fantasy and reality exist adjacent to one another, highlighting the central theme of disconnection nicely.

Presented in top-down 2D with an isometric tilt, Anodyne consists of a steady mix of combat, puzzle solving, and exploration, with a reliance on platforming that grows steadily throughout the journey. The controls are simple, and so are most of the mechanics.

Anodyne_wide

Anodyne's combat is designed around its mechanical simplicity: you hop around to avoid attacks and whack bad guys with your broom. Success is based entirely on your ability to read enemy patterns and dispatch the baddies accordingly. The boss fights are particularly enjoyable, offering beefed up pattern-based encounters that are challenging but not frustrating.

Anodyne's intricate world also hides puzzles at every turn. Anodyne’s puzzles are old-school in the best way, requiring NES-era logic and reasoning skills – you’ll lure enemies towards switches, play with 2D block puzzles and suss out the perfect tile to stand on while you swipe at the environment with your broom.

The puzzles are cleverly-designed but generous, yielding “aha" moments at a brisk pace.

The platforming sections are old-school in a very different way, with a punishing difficulty curve and an insistence on pixel-perfect accuracy that the control scheme simply isn’t up to.

The result is a string of absolutely maddening jumping puzzles that drove my death counter past 200 over the course of my playthrough.

Diagonal jumping puzzles are the worst culprit, and late-game dungeons are teeming with them. All of the jumps are possible, but the gap between figuring out what to do and finally being able (or lucky enough) to execute is far too wide. This reliance on finicky platforming sucks the fun out of the experience. It's an odd oversight, considering how well-tuned the other mechanics are.

The stirring, thoughtful narrative saves the experience. At its core, Anodyne is about alienation from the real world, particularly for gamers. Though there are missteps (a too-obvious Zelda reference that is cute but cloying), the presentation is emotionally honest and well done.

One section in particular will stay with me long after the whole experience is in the rearview. A black and white suburb section is one big reflection on violence, interpersonal disconnection and the artificiality of suburban life that rings disturbingly true – in tone, if not in reality. It feels like playing someone else’s nightmare.

Even the less overtly serious sections contain references to darker subject matter. A dungeon in the red sea world is littered with posted signs that allude to childbirth and parental death. An 8-bit maze decked out in bright colors is patrolled by ghouls and littered with dead bodies. There are lighter moments throughout, but everything supports the central theme of disconnection from and fear of reality.

Wrap Up:

Anodyne offers a beautifully realized game world and intriguing story if you can overlook its faulty platforming.

Anodyne is a brilliantly designed adventure that translates well-worn mechanics into a package that feels genuinely new and exciting. While an over-reliance on frustrating jumping puzzles keeps it from greatness, it's a remarkable achievement for its tiny team – a freaky, fascinating exploration of the darker side of gamer psychology.

Anodyne was reviewed using a PC code provided by the developer. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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