Anodyne’s Gorgeous Game-That-Kind-Of-Was


I’ve been playing Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka’s Anodyne for damn near a hundred hours now. I’ve collected cards, scrounged through personified nightmares in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and smacked floating demon heads with a push-broom. I have interpreted and re-interpreted themes of loss, sadness, coping with mediocrity and crushing, omnipresent loneliness. There’s a cat-man. Several of them. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what the fuck is happening most of the time. But I like it.

Anodyne is the first attempt at a complete game on the part of its two man development team, and the eerie world in a Zelda shell they’ve crafted is both puzzling and wonderful. You’ve got your keys, collectibles and weapons, lots of pixelated enemies and very little challenge if you can memorize basic movement patterns. In terms of raw gameplay elements, that’s about all you’re getting. Yet saying that Anodyne is a simple Zelda knockoff would be a mistake for a number of reasons, the most glaring of which is the substitution of a save-the-princess story for bizarre psychopomps and solipsistic explorations of the human condition. It’s not even really a story, at least not after the game drops the idea that any of it makes cohesive sense. It’s a series of blueprints that don’t build anything, a puzzle that doesn’t make the picture on the box. It’s a first attempt, but an interesting one for psychology majors or anyone invested in psychological profiling.


Behind The Curtains

That said, it still doesn’t really pull together. The games Anodyne draws from are, again, Zelda and its top-down action/explorer ilk, most, if not all, of which are polished to razor sheen owing to the genre’s natural lack of innovation. Anodyne doesn’t really innovate to begin with, following a fairly predictable path in terms of monsters and items that at no point pose even the slightest challenge. It does cover for this by lampshading most of the genre’s faults, sending players in the wrong direction or showcasing items that would fundamentally break play, were you actually able to earn them, but a healthy dose of self-awareness does not an adventure make. Though it is fun to wander around derelict science facilities and run down highway underpasses filled with subconscious fears.

AnodyneThere’s also a lot of content here for a two-man game, especially a first attempt. Counting all the tricks, all the secrets, all the items and all the dungeons, you could be playing this game for over a month before you unearth everything. That’s insane. And many of the better hidden secrets actually make the game harder to pin down, adding to the grasping interpretations I so desperately want to apply to Anodyne’s world.

But how do you classify such a protean narrative? You are Young. You are saving The World. And everything that the game should present is inverted or twisted, the hero prey to mundane fears that haunt his mind in every corner of every dungeon. You’re fighting with janitor’s tools and moving dust into the path of enemies that barely seem like they want to harm you at all. The charm means something, but it’s so hard to put my finger on what, in anything, it’s all about. That drives an analytic mind crazy, and I keep finding myself pouring over the game to see if I can finally pin it down. The ghosts? The tubes? That stupid totem thing? Is it the jokes or the anti-jokes or the cryptic dungeon bosses? The cards? What is it? Why? WHY?

I doubt I’ll ever know because Anodyne is an incomplete whole. Not enough polish, not enough cohesion, blah, blah. But I don’t dismiss it like other titles with the same problems because there’s something there, something just beyond the kin of my understanding. I find myself wanting it more than I’ve wanted anything.

But I like that.

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  • Sean Hogan

    Thank you for the honest thoughts Jared :) . I really enjoyed reading this one – we’re always interested in what sort of interpretations people may have, and I guess what we are most curious of is how well we managed to convey some themes and ideas. If you’re okay with it, I’d like to hear about some of the paths of thought that you went down while playing, even though they did not come to some definite conclusion!

  • James

    I just finished Anodyne today and this review although harsh is very relatable. The game is one big series of question marks. I had no idea I had missed any items but seeing as I only have three I’m sure I have. I think that Anodyne was extremely innovative in its choice of psychological zelda-alike which to my knowledge has not been done so well at such a vast content level. I would love to see a follow up which follows another character in the same world!

  • James

    *never been done so well

  • Richard Goodness

    About an hour in and loving it so far. My take is the team looked at Link’s Awakening and the Mother series and said, “Yeah…but what if they were *creepy*?”

    This so far feels like the game that Sword and Sworcery thinks it is.