Y’know what, we need more meta games.
I’m not talking about games where the writers will act like smug jackasses by breaking the fourth wall once every two or three lines, but ones that address the player in a more confronting tone. Stuff like Spec Ops: The Line, Desert Bus, parts of Pony Island, that sort of stuff. Here comes Anodyne to try and quench my supposed thirst.
This is the debut title from one Analgesic Productions, with the Xbox One and PS4 versions being ported over by Epiphany Games, and it’s a miracle we even got the bloody thing. Anodyne was made in Adobe Flash, which doesn’t run natively on either console, so bless Epiphany Games’ whiz-kids for working some dark magic. As for Analgesic, the two-person team— Sean Han Tani and Marina Ayano Kittaka— Recently announced the sequel to Anodyne, and before that came Even The Ocean, a title I have to check out now.
You play as Young, and rather, you are young, for you’re in a dream. You’re in your sub-concious, and because you’re an untainted innocent mind, of course you’re the hero in your own fantasy. A Sage comes to you and tells you that you must protect and save The Briar. Armed with, umm… a broom, you set off to destroy the evil and save your world.
Can I jump right into something real quick? No? Well I’m doing it anyway; The soundtrack to Anodyne is perfect, so unbelievably brilliant, so unabashedly gorgeous, so amazingly creepy, it’s just incredible how many great tracks are on the OST. Back-to-back gorgeous ethereal instrumentals that don’t stop coming, and it begins right from the get-go.
In the objective of making a moody, dream-like soundtrack, Analgesic have created something special, and there are various highlights that are either soothing, majestic or the right kind of uncomfortable. Every area is punctuated by the right soundscapes, from the Cliffs, to the Fields, to the weirdly contrasting smooth jazz of the Hotel, it’s all great, but what ruins it is the sound design.
That might sound like a contradicting statement, but what I mean is that the tracks themselves are short, so they tend to loop a lot. The problem with that is that the looping is extremely apparent, as the track will skip once or twice before hand. I’m going to give Analgesic the benefit of the doubt however, as this might be a problem that stemmed from the porting itself.
Not to dampen Epiphany Games’ thunder, as porting any game is a hassle, let alone a game made with something Xbox doesn’t even support, but there’s a lot of jittery problems with the sound, it screens tears like nobodies business during boss fights, and there’s a really bad screen flickering problem whenever you go into the pause menu. As a port, it’s a bit of an undeniable mess, but the game itself? Mmm, quality.
Gameplay is in your top-down Zelda-like affair, but not nearly as robust, or as polished. Young’s only attack is with the broom, which can be upgraded slowly as the game goes on. That’s pretty much it in terms of how effective you are in combat, with the only other difference coming halfway through the game, in the form of being able to jump.
There’s a lot of platforming, and when reading up on the game, I was led to believe that the platforming was really wank. The answer? It isn’t, and the problem that might come to some players is that the perspective is wonky. In reality, there’s only two or three areas that the platforming becomes terrible, where the games mixes the puzzles with platforming, and the controls begin to get unbelievably annoying.
The enemy variety is surprisingly good, with a lot of enemies providing different ways you’re supposed to interact with them, and dispose of them. The only place this gets finicky is within the boss fights, and not to spoil anything, but the final boss fight attempts to remedy this with gimmicky combat, and it has the same problem Minit‘s final boss had. Since combat isn’t Anodyne’s main focus, it comes off as brutish, and contrasts heavily with the rest of the game.
The puzzle design is smart, mostly revolving around timing and placement of dust piles with your broom, or slamming enemies onto switches. It’s not a total brain tax, but what Analgesic have come up with isn’t something you can dwell on, nor is it anything you can breeze through. The level layouts do sabotage it somewhat, with it being stupidly maze-like, with puzzles sometimes connecting to rooms nowhere near the solution in question. The Hotel shows these flaws the most, and it was a pain in the arse to trawl through.
That being said, the levels weren’t absolutely miserable to sit through, and one could say I was immediately absorbed with how Anodyne presented itself to the player. However, Anodyne isn’t here to give you brain training, or not training in the puzzle sense, they’re here to make you think with a fairly abstract narrative.
A lot of the story and characters presented to you in Anodyne are up for interpretation, and I’ll apologize to Analgesic before I unfairly compare it to other games in order to give you a rough idea of what we’re dealing with. Story-wise, you’ve got a little bit of LISA, a small dash of the ideas present in Undertale, a hearty mix of Silent Hill, the obligatory NES Zelda comparisons, and the juvenile innocence of Earthbound. Truth be told, it’s been mixed together well.
On the LISA/Undertale/Earthbound side, you’ve got the unforeseen tonal shifts, the foreboding feeling like you’re not even the hero of your own story. Anodyne’s execution of sudden tonal shifts is perfect, they’re never immersion-breaking juxtapositions, it always feels like they were meant to be a part of the story. Even though I know I didn’t go the correct way a lot, the pacing of the narrative still felt brilliant.
Story-wise, there are various highlights that I will not spoil. Some characters that Young interacts with offer brilliant lay-awake-at-night conundrums, and along the way, you’ll come across diary entries and other people;s problems. It’s these diary entries here that provide theories that question your own humanity, tried-and-tested arguments that make you wonder just how free minds are.
As time goes on, Briar becomes less of an objective because you realize that you don’t know who Briar is. Was Briar ever a part of the story to begin with, or was it something made up to cloud something else in the long run? Themes of motherhood, adolescence and loss start to be thrown in the mix, and it truly becomes something you can’t judge at face value. Again, not to spoil anything, but what happens isn’t what you’d expect, nor is it what you’d want, but we’ll get to that.
There’s a fair bit of visual variety, and at first, I didn’t think much of it, especially when you find yourself in a labyrinth reminiscent of crap Commodore 64 games from back in the day. After putting two and two together, however, the mind snapped and I thought “Ohhhhhhh! Shit, that’s really clever!” The biggest issue? This doesn’t happen enough.
A lot of the time, it feels like Analgesic are scared to be creepier, scared to be more different than their counterparts, and by the end of your five-to-six hour long journey, you’ll be wanting more. I’m also fairly certain I interpreted it the wrong way as well, as the ending didn’t fall in line what I thought would happen, or indeed, what didn’t happen.
See, it’s like finding out the twist in Bioshock for the first time, but instead of continuing, you just turn off the console because “Well, it’s peaked!”. Of course it’s peaked, but what about the rest of the characters, you’re just going to leave them in the dark like that? Regardless, this is what Anodyne feels like, except it’s the developers that gave out halfway through. Those characters you’ve grown to love and tolerate don’t feel fleshed out enough to be a part of the ending, and that’s a shame. Not to say it wasn’t a bad ending, just fairly lacking.
However! There’s some post-game content to look through as well, which I didn’t feel added anything further to the story. To go back to the Bioshock comparison again, it’s like you just fought Atlas for the first time and you realized how much of a wasted final moment it was. Anodyne doesn’t have a completely awful final boss however, and the story of Anodyne still felt just as meaningful by the end of it.
In the end, Anodyne is truly a one of a kind experience, with the complaints of it being a crap port put aside as Epiphany Games did try, and it might just be the Xbox One version that has these problems. Regardless, the ideas, the imagery, the things you’ll see and hear, it’s all up to the best standard the duo behind Analgesic can provide. It’s a perfectly priced short experience into the surreal, and that’s fine by me. Sleep well.
This review of Anodyne is based on the Xbox One version of the game. A review copy was provided.
A botched port doesn't change the fact that Anodyne is worth a shot, with it being a really well done surrealist title.
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