Wot I Think: Anodyne

By Adam Smith on April 16th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

Anodyne’s blend of surreal images and retro graphics appealed to me when I saw the first trailer but I only managed to find time to play through the game this weekend. I’m glad I did. It’s an amusing, confusing, disturbing, perturbing action adventure that owes as much to Earthbound as to the Legend of Zelda, and almost as much to Silent Hill and Luis Buñuel. Here’s wot I think.

Anodyne isn’t from the same mind as Lone Survivor but the creators may well have attended the same school of thought. Both games are steeped in aesthetics that at first seem to be drawn from memory but while Jasper Byrne’s survival horror adventure defies nostalgia, Anodyne is a window onto the past. Far more than the reskinned surreal and creepy Legend of Zeld-alike that the trailers strongly imply, it’s an emotionally divergent coming of age story that takes Nintendo’s early 2d arcade RPGs as its blueprint, puzzles and all, while ignoring the common elements of fantasy questing.

Despite some preliminary guff about saving the world, which is book-ended by quips that demonstrate the writer’s awareness that the characters are parping nonsense out of their face-holes, Anodyne is a personal story rather than a fariytale or heroic epic. The player character, Young, visits temples, mystical forests and impossible cliffs, but the most fascinating moments embrace the mystery of the mundane. An abandoned hotel in an unusual location. An accident prone circus. A grayscale suburb haunted by murder and fears of an empty future.

It’s a game filled with odd sights and even odder monologues, but the story it tells is personal. It’s about life and trying to live it, and it’s also about the games it resembles. Oh crap, you might be thinking, that sounds more self-important than a Colonel at a wake, but, thankfully, Anodyne isn’t a high-minded, lofty lecture of a game and nor is it a collection of poetic scribblings with an animated backdrop. There are loads of enemies to swat and dungeons to discover. There’s an overworld to explore and enough variety in the one-room puzzles to provide satisfaction through the six or seven hours of playtime.

Leaving the moods and music to one side for a moment, the puzzles are the heart of the game. Combat is a constant, with most of the screens that make up the large, connected world containing at least one enemy. They range from blobs of slime that shuffle aimlessly, waiting to be put down, to fire-breathing circus lions and scampering acrobats with twisted bones. Although they all have their own behaviours, they are often distinguished by their appearance and the number of broom-swipes that they can take before dying rather than an underlying intelligence.

As the game progresses, the enemies cease to be obstacles in their own right and frequently become part of a room’s puzzle. At first, the goals are simple, often requiring little more than the death of every living thing before a door will unlock, but when the game introduces rats and roaches that must be chased onto or drawn toward switches in order to progress, advancing becomes more challenging. A map fills out at the top of screen, showing which rooms have possible exits and in which direction, and consulting it will generally reveal several paths to explore. If you do find yourself in a frustrating dungeon or area, the menu allows an immediate return to the entrance, or to the nexus, an in-between sort of place from which every area already visited can be accessed immediately.

While Anodyne isn’t a sixty hour epic, the world can seem sprawling, particularly when the first half is complete and the geography extends into weirder places, the connections and walkways more hazardous and tentative. It’s at this stage that I felt a deep appreciation for the nexus, the maps and the game’s simple but effective tracking of collectibles. Without those features, I’d have been lost and irritated, backtracking and killing the same respawning dogs again and again. The desire to see new places, and the horrors, sorrows and joys that they contain is such a driving force that it would have been awful to become bored by the weird. It’s always awful when the weird becomes boring, like walking around an art gallery and politely stroking your chin in front of a four hundred year old masterpiece, or shrugging as Guernica shrieks and strobes out of the canvas.

I didn’t spend a lot of time shrugging when I played Anodyne. I actually gasped once, the result of a pleasurable shock to the system as some of the shadows that creep around the borders of Anodyne’s world took centre stage. Even at its most grisly and unsettling, there’s a giggling black humour in the writing, which sometimes turns into an angry barking laughter. The details in the design of each area, particularly the more recognisable modern buildings, provide the relatively simple graphical style with a great deal of mileage. It would be remiss not to mention the superb soundtrack, which sounds as technically dated as the graphics look, but skips through genres with envious ease and summons all manner of atmospheres and emotions.

If the combat had been more varied, with more extensions to the broom and maybe even a suitably sweeping powered up attack, I’d probably have played more of the post-game, which cleverly reinterprets the player’s ability to explore the world. As it is, while the weapon is a fitting sword-substitute – read into it what you will – and integrates into puzzles and navigation well with its dust-gathering abilities, later enemies tend to be tougher or faster rather than trickier. That’s less of a complaint and more of an observation though, because the cleverest parts of the game use enemies as distractions and puzzle elements rather than direct opponents.

There’s a bitterness alongside the glimpses of something sweeter and the cards that Young collects on his journey, containing the thoughts and words of enemies and NPCs, cut more often than they soothe. It’s the quiet that will linger in my mind though – meeting the only friendly dog in the world, watching a sleeping city from a rooftop, failing to talk to a fisherman.

Remembering the fisherman makes me consider the whole game again. Perhaps my interpretation of Young’s journey is too benign and it’d certainly be possible to find an entirely different story in the stitched together sentences and scenarios. The ambiguity is a strength rather than a misty vagueness. And, besides, it’d also be possible to enjoy hitting bats with a broom and solving puzzles in dungeons without worrying about anything else because, for all of its diversions and narrative mazes, Anodyne is also a refreshingly well-designed top-down adventure.

Anodyne is available now, direct from the developers, for $9. That’ll secure you a Steam key too.

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34 Comments »

  1. Tamath says:

    I enjoyed Anodyne. Wrote a review myself around the time it first came out. If anyone was thinking about this or Evoland, please choose Anodyne. As mentioned in the Evoland WIT here, the random encounters are horribly annoying. So annoying that I didn’t finish Evoland.

  2. Lucas Says says:

    Glad you guys finally WIT’d it. It’s quite a thing that hit me in exactly the right places. I can understand some people getting SNES fatigue from games like this, but I can’t get enough of it.

  3. deadly.by.design says:

    This reminds me that I ought to pick up the game where I left off, which is somewhere around 23 cards.

    The apartment complex dungeon kind of fatigued me. :(

  4. PopeRatzo says:

    Again with the retro graphics. It must be great because the graphics look old, a sure sign of quality.

    • Convolvulus says:

      I don’t think anyone has ever made that argument?

    • Randomer says:

      More like, “Hey, a style of graphics that I enjoy! Much better than all those bland polygons and generic 3D landscapes that fill so many games today.”

      • PopeRatzo says:

        More like, “Hey, a style of graphics that I enjoy! Much better than all those bland polygons and generic 3D landscapes that fill so many games today.”

        Because polygons and 3D are bad? So I guess the takeaway is that if game designers would just stop using polygons and stick to two dimensions, games would be better.

        Nostalgia is like fish. It doesn’t stay fresh very long. And, it’s a dead end. People trying to recreate some artifact of youth. But if you ask a kid what he thinks, you’ll hear, “Why is it so ugly?” “Oh, because retro!” and eventually it comes down to “Why?”

        If 8-bit graphics and sound are used because of a limitation on computing power, that’s one thing. If it’s an artistic statement, it has gotten stale. Don’t get me wrong, there has been some remarkably beautiful pictures in 8-bit. Unfortunately, none of them appear in the “retro” games that are all the rage. Polygons and 3D are now ubiquitous. What we have is the equivalent of using “polygons and 3D” to simulate an 8-bit “look”. It’s not even easier to work in 8-bit any more.

        I still have my Nintendo 64 and several boxes full of games for it. If I want to look at 8-bit graphics, I can go look at some of the best. My concern is that “retro” is becoming a shortcut to attention used by lazy game developers. Since so many members of the game media are of a certain age, making a game look like something from their childhood is a cheap way to get good press.

        • Tukuturi says:

          Which N64 games had 8-bit graphics?

        • tobecooper says:

          What I don’t like, and maybe I am wrong about this, is that you seem to suggest that it’s all about graphics. Retro graphics = good press? Why do you feel that way? Have you played Anodyne? It’s got very keen gameplay and nice atmosphere. Adam wrote a couple thousand of words about it just above us. Provide some context. Which games do you feel get such good press because of nostalgia?

        • killias2 says:

          ” My concern is that “retro” is becoming a shortcut to attention used by lazy game developers. ”

          I think it’s more in the zone of “affordable yet still aesthetically pleasing for at least some portion of the target audience.” Cost is absolutely a central reason here, yet “retro-fied” graphics are just one possible response to the high cost of modern graphics. I don’t see it as the next “evolution” of games or an amazing “statement” or anything, but I certainly think it has a role to play in indie and, to some extent, even mainstream gaming.

        • MadMatty says:

          As ive started many a failed game project myself, i can tell you the OTHER main reason why they do retro graphics instead of poly´s. Its because the graphics style harkens back to the 1-man teams of the 8-bit era, 2d bitmaps are way way faster to draw, hence a couple of guys could make the game. If you had to do it in 3D, youd have to have like a 5-7 man team on graphics alone, at the very least. Making it much more expensive, and then you´d have to get a publisher, who will demand DudeBro in the script, and explosions every 25 seconds. Not Indie

        • P7uen says:

          Fish are a dead end?

        • scatterlogical says:

          Opinions and assholes. Everyone has them. Some people are them.

          Personally I happen to like ‘retro’ or pixel art – it is one particular aesthetic style of many. Whether it invokes nostalgia in you or not in a matter of your own personal associations. I also like bleeding edge 3D graphics too. Don’t be so damn closed-minded – and if you don’t like low-res graphics because you think it’s a stale artistic statement over technological limitations, perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that the more advanced graphics get, the bigger a budget is required – and most indie devs just don’t have that kind of dosh floating around.

          Also, you could JUST NOT PLAY THE FREAKING GAME.

        • FecesOfDeath says:

          It’s easier to abstract realism from retro graphics than having to tolerate the uncanny valley of modern graphics that aim for realism. Perhaps that’s why many recent AAA games are going for either the 3D comic book look or cel-shaded style, such as Bioshock Infinite, Dishonored, The Darkness II and Borderlands.

    • Dominic White says:

      I think you’ll find that it’s more of a case of retro sprite art being cheap and easy to make even without extensive artistic talent. Prettier art requires exponentially more time and effort to produce. There’s a reason why the Skullgirls developers seriously budgeted a single character as costing about $150,000.

      HD 2D art is phenomenally expensive to produce, especially if you want it well animated. Professional artists and animators tend to demand more than chicken feed.

      • Sparkasaurusmex says:

        Yeah a lot of games try to do different things. Some games try to woo with graphics. I don’t think that’s the case with Anodyne. It’s certainly pleasant in its art direction, but the fidelity of its graphics is merely sufficient. Sufficient enough to support a great game.

    • seagaia says:

      Jon (he did the art, among many other things, for Anodyne) wrote a bit about his thoughts on pixel art. Worth reading ! http://seagaia.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/pixels-in-the-present-by-jonathan-kittaka/

  5. webwielder says:

    I really enjoyed this game, up to getting frustrated with the platforming and quitting. But it was a fun, sad, surreal ride while it lasted. I think my favorite element was how many areas were completely haphazardly laid out, with pointless dead ends and sloppy asymmetry. This is not sarcasm, it felt like a deliberate design choice, adding to the unreal atmosphere, and a subversion of Zelda tropes, where every inch of every dungeon has been painstakingly crafted to work as a piece of a puzzle.

    • seagaia says:

      *poof*

      It was indeed deliberate!

      *unpoof*

      (What’s this? A Steam key?
      IJDCT-HH4R6-GRZV2 )

      (On a side note you can get the music for $3 if you use the code “steamparty” at seagaia.bandcamp.com . )

      • Llewyn says:

        (Also on a side note, to anyone who uses keys posted here on RPS, it’s generally considered good form to come back, post that you’ve used them and thank the provider.)

        No idea how this game escaped my notice, it looks and sounds fascinating.

      • webwielder says:

        Hail, masked stranger! Hope you make another game! I mean, why I am talking to empty space?

  6. kalidanthepalidan says:

    Thanks for the write up. Now I really want to play this. Perhaps I will be purchasing shortly…

  7. sk0pe says:

    as far as i can see the best deal you can get is via gog.com
    drm free game +3 wallpapers +soundtrack +8 avatars +10 concept arts +3 design documents
    gonna put it on my wishlist for now.

  8. wuwul says:

    It’s kind of decent but it mostly fails to live up to the somewhat related Zelda series, Earthbound and Bastion.

    Although of course those games had much larger teams and budgets.

  9. ScorpionWasp says:

    I didn’t like this at all. I think I must’ve played about 50% of it. Plot-wise, it seems to follow one particular trend in games nowadays, which is to throw a bunch of random, vague, unrelated shit together that sounds “symbolical” and “evocative” of… well, something, and let the over-analyzing fucktards do the rest. Shit like this would never fly in a movie or book, but gamers… the poor sods are so incredibly starved for anything remotely, maybe, perhaps resembling meaningful story-telling that they lap it up like starving kittens on milk.

    The gameplay… it’s choppy, awkward and just doesn’t “feel” right. I even went back and rebooted my old SNES with Zelda, a Link to the Past to be able to put my finger on it. This kind of gameplay has been made fluid, tight and perfect some 20 years ago; to have something as flawed as this today is unjustifiable.

    • Portly says:

      1. Are you living in the same world I am? It seems like the state of aesthetics in video games is entirely the opposite of what you describe. In most game reviews I read, abstraction is at worst distrusted, and at best vaguely mentioned as part of the game but almost never analyzed or interpreted. Barely anyone analyzes, let alone “over-analyzes.” Contrast this with film and literature, in which abstraction (from minute to extreme) has a long and rich history, and where serious critics aren’t afraid to do some interpretation rather than just expect the artwork to spoon-feed them the meaning.

      2. Just because you didn’t understand the meaning behind the game (or most likely didn’t want to or weren’t capable of trying to interpret the meaning) doesn’t mean the game’s content is random or vacuous or pretentious. Stop mistaking your own philistine incompetence for flaws in the game.

      • ScorpionWasp says:

        1 – It’s true, barely anyone analyzes the extremely rare stuff that deserves to be analyzed (say, a Silent Hill, a The Void, a Vampire Bloodlines), and yet there are people writing 2 digit page documents, without exaggeration, covering the “plot significance” of the second Metal Gear Solid having a russian rifle that wasn’t present in the first or some such drivel. Indie games seem particularly prone to the phenomenon. Authors don’t bother to make sense anymore because, you know, crafting a believable, consistent, plot-hole free tale that happens to tug at the right emotional strings is *hard*. Creating surrealism isn’t. Humans are already prone to see meaning in complete randomness, it’s called the “Face on Mars” phenomenon. Just like game designers eventually learned to use “Skinner Boxes” to exploit players with minimum effort on their part, they are now learning to use the “Face on Mars”, and I think this is a troubling development.

        2 – Ok fanboy, so how do we go about determining if the game’s content IS indeed random, vacuous or pretentious? Because that is a possibility, yes? How about you stop mistaking flaws in your favorite game for the supposed cognitive short-comings of a person you never even met before and know nothing about?

        • Iamerror says:

          1 – “it seems to follow one particular trend in games nowadays, which is to throw a bunch of random, vague, unrelated shit together that sounds “symbolical” and “evocative” of… well, something, and let the over-analyzing fucktards do the rest.”

          “The Void”

          The Void? As much as I enjoy it, I view that as a classic definition of the above…

          2 – Surely you’re both correct on the topic? One sees a complex thematic narrative [if they can actually explain how of course], the other sees a vacuous / pretentious narrative [and likewise]. The themes of a product will often be determined by the viewpoint of the user, so merely arguing one is most definitely vacuous [or the alternative] is both childish and foolish.

          I do agree with the Portly overall though, a game isn’t ‘flawed’ just because you can’t see the ideas it attempts to create; it just means those themes or concepts didn’t work for you, so you, personally, view it as 1.

        • Portly says:

          You seem to think only games that subscribe to realism (which is one of many styles in art) can be good. The game has to be “believable and consistent” and have some sort of linear plot for you to like it. There are games (and novels, and films, and paintings, etc…) that fall into this style, and can either do well or poorly within the guidelines set up by the style. But there are other styles out there, other way of making art and communicating meaning. Just because an artwork uses a disrupted narrative, or abstract imagery, or symbolism (God forbid!) doesn’t automatically mean that the developers are throwing random shit into the game and hoping that the players don’t know better. Again, you can do either well or poorly within the style you set up for yourself. Simply choosing to use abstraction doesn’t mean that you’re using the “Face on Mars” method. You’re not going to get very far claiming that any game that requires some interpretation is a sham. That position would be laughable in literature, film, and visual art, and it’s equally as laughable in game design.

          The bottom line is: I and others have played the game. Many of us have perceived the themes and symbolisms in the game while playing and thinking about it. To me, this signals that the developers did well in designing a game using abstraction. Just because *you* didn’t perceive these meanings doesn’t mean they failed. Perhaps if no one could make heads or tails of it, you’d be right. That is clearly not the case.