At first glance, Anodyne jumps right out as a Zelda-clone. While it is obviously heavily inspired by early Zelda games such as Link’s Awakening, that first assessment proves to be false pretty quickly. While it is similar, calling Anodyne a clone would be a huge disservice to the game and its creators.
In Anodyne, you play as a young hero by the wonderful name of Young, having been pushed into a mysterious world to save something called “the Briar”. In order to do this, you must follow some old guy’s orders pretty blindly, the first of which sends you through a portal into your first zone. That first zone is something actually worth talking about as it’s a road. A modern road, where you find the game’s weapon: your handy broom. From that point, zones get less and less related to the real world, as well as more colorful and diverse. Done in really good pixel art, areas vary from hellish dungeons to vast mountain ranges to underground circuses. From a plot perspective, the sometimes nonsensical connection between places is justified through an implication that it might not all be real. In fact, there is heavy hinting that the entire world is located inside the subconscious of the protagonist.
The plot itself is somewhat abstract. It touches on plenty of dark themes, often related to psychology. The developers wanted to explore some of their own fears and insecurities when making the game, and doing so leads to some deeper than average dialog. There’s also some somewhat meta metaphors about video games and escapism. The story isn’t thrown in the face of the player, and is instead more subtly hinted at through most of the game. It is respectfully treated as a game, and one could go through the whole thing without reading anything or thinking about the story, and still have a blast. However, that would diminish the experience, as the characters present in Anodyne’s world are a treat and the underlying narrative is a good one, at least to begin with.
By the end, the narrative gets a little slow and out of focus, but either way, the game does a tremendous job of immersing you into its world, which not only ranges in its environments but in its mood. Sometimes the game is unsettling, sometimes it’s outright scary, and other times it’s just charming. It always makes you want to explore it some more.
I’ve gone on about the environments and narrative as they are what seem the most touching after the fact, but what about the gameplay? Well, that is where the game converges more with traditional Zelda style, at least at the start of the game. There is the hack n’ slash combat and different beasts and bosses to fight. There are also plenty of puzzles to solve: finding keys to different doors, moving blocks, and making your way through mazes. In the beginning, all there is to really differentiate the gameplay are some unique uses for your broom, able not only to kill blobs of slime but to pick up and place dust. A little while into the game, you get some boots that allow you to jump. This is pretty big, and to my surprise the late game ends up having some legitimate platforming sequences that are pretty difficult. It sure adds a lot to boss battles in particular. Plenty of game segments, both puzzle-based and more action-oriented, are quite a challenge and very satisfying to beat.
The game starts with a little on rails segment: A short tutorial, the road I’ve already mentioned, and then the first dungeon. After that, the world opens up multiple paths. There are some gated segments, requiring differing numbers of cards that you collect, but it’s a relatively open world to be explored. Explore enough and you get rewarded well. There’s more and more collection of cards, acting as a gating mechanics as the finding of items does in Zelda, as well as some special keys to find. After a certain event that will remain unnamed, the game opens up further and it just becomes about collecting the 36 total cards to unlock the finale. The pacing of all this felt pretty good, as I spent most of my Sunday playing the game. The general openness of most of the game leads to two real layers of puzzle: the micro scale puzzles and the puzzle of solving the world as a whole.
When the game isn’t making me ponder some dark thoughts, it’s making me happy. There are just a ton of moments, heartwarming and/or ridiculous, that leave me with a big grin on my face. The point is, the game brings out emotions, which can’t be a bad thing, It brings them out with a grand combination of all it’s elements, but there are a couple of things worth highlighting. The sound design for one is stellar, with good audio queues and an awesome soundtrack. The dialog may be even more so, whether it be meaningful or hilarious.
Anodyne starts off with a familiar style which instills some expectations. Not only does it go above those expectations, but it slowly twists the formula it borrows from, ending as a completely unique experience in its own right. Art, writing, music, and gameplay all come together into what can only be described as an awesome experience. You can tell there has been an incredible amount of spirit (and work) put into this by the game’s small team of two students. Anodyne comes fully recommended to fans of Zelda and people-who-like-good-games alike.