Wow, “Anodyne” sure took me by surprise. In fact, surprise is the word that I keep coming back to when I think about “Anodyne.”
It’s surprising I hadn’t heard more about this. It’s surprising that the developers of the game haven’t done anything notable before this. It’s ... well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anodyne can be described as an homage to “The Legend of Zelda,” especially the older games in the series. It specifically takes the dream motif of “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening” and runs with it. This is an overhead-view, 2-D adventure game that requires you, as the protagonist, Young, to explore a world where you seek out holes in the ground filled with monsters to smash and puzzles to solve.
Unlike many of the games it’s inspired by, there are only a few different items and abilities that you can use in the game. This focus means that every single dynamic of the few things you can do is explored in great depth.
Monster design is based around your ability set, making a fight a dance of attack, and retreat feel fluid and engrossing.
The basic enemy types are juxtaposed with environmental hazards like spiked rollers and swamps that you can get bogged down in. These create a feeling of textures in the environment that really draw you into the situation, no matter how strange they might seem on the surface.
The dungeons are all contextualized by being placed in a larger environment to explore. The land is small in terms of overall size, but it feels big and expansive through clever use of the combination of traps and environmental features that the dungeons have. For the most part, the game lets you explore the world at your leisure, with only a few roadblocks that spur you to figure out how to overcome them, rather than blocking you entirely.
But what makes this game sing is that it’s all a dream. This premise is usually a copout, an excuse to say “Ha, you silly person, you thought the story mattered? IT WAS ALL A DREAM!”
From the outset, “Anodyne” doesn’t pretend it’s not a dream. The central question becomes “Why is this part of his dream?”, which gives the game a level of depth that elevates the already excellent design to new levels. Even the in-joke references to “Legend of Zelda” hint at more sinister subtexts that are up for you to puzzle out on your own.
I believe you’ll get more out of this game if you’ve played a few of the old “Legend of Zelda” games, specifically “A Link to the Past” and “Link’s Awakening.” There’s a lot here even if you haven’t, but the game’s brilliantly intentional use of the “Zelda” icons and mechanical trademarks goes beyond merely reference to become something genuinely thought-provoking.
Why do people connect with games? What perhaps, do we see of ourselves in them? “Anodyne” might not answer these questions, but it might make you come up with some answers of your own. And that’s a powerful thing.
Anodyne is a game for PC, Mac, and Linux computers developed by Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka. It can be purchased for $9 at www.anodynegame.com, or $13 if you want the excellent soundtrack.
Noah Hinz is an art and game design enthusiast living in Walla Walla. Contact him with questions, game and playing suggestions or anything else related to games at firstname.lastname@example.org.