The choice of the name “anodyne” alone would have made this game quite noteworthy, because it is hardly anything like the Greek analgesic of yore. Of course, coincidentally, Anodyne is made by Analgesic Productions, which is an indie team that may have been scrabbling for a title to name their game with.
Awkward naming aside, Anodyne appears to be inspired by the first Legend of Zelda game. It has very similar gameplay, which has the player character spelunking through caves and ruins when he is not exploring the outdoors.
More importantly, Anodyne has some amusing takes on the tropes that go into the gameplay designs of Zelda-inspired games and their story-writing. These, and Anodyne’s great music, are pretty much its main points of value, because it does nothing else that is remarkable.
Young is the young man that is the protagonist of the game, and whose naming may have been a deliberate pun by the game’s creators.
Anyway, he appears to be in some kind of vivid dream or alternate reality. He has been summoned to be the hero of an ancient prophecy. He has to explore different lands in order to access more lands, eventually becoming strong enough to defeat the darkness that threatens the lands.
Indeed, the game’s premise is typically campy and cliché-filled. However, some time into the game, an observant player may notice that it has quite a few allegories to tropes in the designs of Zelda-inspired games, as well as allusions to real-life.
MOVEMENT & HITBOXES:
The player has to move Young about with the directional arrows on the keyboard (which is the default control peripheral). He moves about at a generally fast clip, if his speed is to be compared with the screen size. Speaking of the screen, it is a grid of squares, as is to be expected of a dungeon-crawling game akin to Legend of Zelda.
However, there may be some issues in how differently the game handles hitboxes for movement and for taking damage.
For movement purposes, the game appears to be plenty generous: the points where collisions occur between single-square sprites are generally measured from their centres of geometry. This means that the player can have Young snuggle up to another similarly-sized character. For collisions with larger sprites and the environment, this is measured from the smaller sprite’s centre of geometry. This should be satisfactory for most players.
However, the same rules are not used for collisions with characters that are hostile to Young. The square that Young’s sprite is contained in is used for the purposes of damaging collisions instead. Learning about this deliberate discrepancy the first time around can be displeasing.
This collision is also used for ranged and melee attacks. It can be aggravating to learn that a small projectile that should have merely brushed by Young’s hair would hurt him anyway.
If there is any up-side to this design, the same rule is also applied to enemies, most of whom have sprites that occupy more than just one square.
The map system would be familiar to people who are fans of the original Legend of Zelda games. The map of any particular “land” is displayed via a simple network of adjacent squares. A link between a pair of squares show whether one can move between these two squares; a square may have links to more than one square.
Unfortunately, a link does not necessarily show that player can move from one square to an adjacent one in the direction of that link. The player’s intended path may be blocked by some obstacles that cannot be surmounted. This can lead to the impression that the link is a misleading visual indicator.
As the player explores more squares within the map system for any particular land, more squares will appear in the display for the map. Eventually, the player will figure out the borders of the lands, when there are no more links that would lead to more squares within the same land.
However, the player will have to discover on his/her own that not every part of the map for a land can be accessed from within that land itself. He/She may have to access certain other regions of a map from other lands. This happens early on; more experienced players would know that this is foreshadowing, but other players who do not realize this may be frustrated.
The map system also shows which squares have exits/entrances that lead to other maps. However, it does not show which entrance goes to which land. This can be a problem.
Perhaps one can argue that the game is trying to emulate the games of yore, when the technology needed for present-day user-friendly features was not available. However, this would be a very apologetic argument.
Fortunately, a certain land allows the player to circumvent issues with the map system. At almost any location within the game except the Nexus itself, the player can have Young teleporting back to the Nexus. The Nexus is practically a network of walkways that lead to portals that connect to teleportation pads on the various lands.
Almost every land in the game has one of these. The portals do not come with any text labels, but they do include an image of the terrain in their associated lands. It so happens that each land has significantly different visual designs for its terrain, so the lack of text labels should not be too much of an issue to people who have reasonably decent visual cognitive capabilities.
The portals also have a user-friendly feature. At the top of every arch that represents a portal, there is a slot for a scarlet gem. The gem appears when the player has obtained every official collectible in the land.
Within most lands, there is at least one tile in the squares that is a checkpoint icon; the huge capital “C” should make which square is such an icon quite obvious.
As its name suggests, a checkpoint allows the player character to respawn there if he “dies”. A restart at a checkpoint does not mean that the player loses his/her progress in a land though; enemies, with the exception of bosses, do respawn, but if the player has overcome any physical obstacles, they generally stay that way (with the exception of a few glitch-ridden ones).
Therefore, the player may be able to utilize and thus appreciate any land’s system of shortcuts, which will be described shortly.
Some checkpoints also happen to be next to teleportation pads, which is convenient.
Another game design that is worth noting is that if the player switches from a checkpoint to another so that the latter becomes the actively used one, Young’s health is refilled. This design – which is not told to the player - can be exploited, though not to game-breaking extents, fortunately.
Within each land, there are obstacles that prevent the player from simply accessing every square within the land from the start, even if there are links and clear paths between them. These obstacles come in the form of gates that bar the aforementioned paths. The gates can only be opened by having buttons stepped on (either by Young or someone/something else), or by killing every critter in the screen.
(Incidentally, the same system of puzzles or pseudo-arena fights is also used to stall the player’s progress through the map towards the other exits/entrances.)
Some shortcuts are only one-way. These are usually short falls that Young can perform. Some others are, amusingly enough, one-way jumps, performed using brightly-colored jump-pads that may or may not be a reference to 16-bit era games.
Despite being inspired by Legend of Zelda, the creators of Anodyne are not above injecting their own sense of humour into the game. This should be clear within the first ten minutes, when Young picks up his only weapon – a broom.
This apparent quirkiness is perhaps the iconic representation of the game. (It has to be noted here though that Anodyne is not the first game to use a domestic tool as an unlikely weapon.)
Being a broom in Anodyne’s surreal world lets it be somehow effective as a weapon anyway. Young merely sticks it out in front of him and retracts, and any enemy that happens to be in front is hit.
Of course, such a design is not exactly any different from the designs of weapons in games that inspired Anodyne, such as Link’s sword in Legend of Zelda. This perhaps has been deliberate too.
Throughout the game, the player would find upgrades for the broom, which generally make the broom better. They are also needed to overcome obstacles in the game, of ten in clever ways.
One of the most important abilities of the broom is to sweep up dust. As silly as it is, this is needed to solve puzzles in the game and even for moving around. This will be elaborated later.
Anyway, the broom can suck up a pall of dust and deposit it elsewhere as desired by the player – as long as this is within the same screen. Moving to another square within the map resets the broom.
The game does not mention this to the player, which can be aggravating to learn the first time around. Furthermore, there is not any visual indicator that the broom is holding some dust.
PALLS OF DUST:
In the surreal world of Anodyne, there are palls of dust lying here and there. They may have a metaphorical meaning to their being there, but this is really up to the player’s perception.
Anyway, in-game, palls of dust are impervious things that can somehow block energy waves and float on water. The first property is shown outright to the player in one area that the player must go through, so the average player should be able to observe this and learn. The latter is not so obvious, and can only be seen the first time around after an unlikely character automatically generates a pall of dust at its feet to walk over water.
The latter property is probably even more outrageous, but then, this is a video game. Using palls of dust to walk over water is an important activity in the game anyway, due to reasons that will be described shortly. It is therefore fortunate that the game lets the player retain any pall of dust that the player character is riding on when the player transits from one screen to the next.
LIQUIDS & CHASMS:
There are several regions within certain maps that have bodies of liquids. They may be of different colours, but they appear to generally behave in the same way.
The first time when the player encounters a body of liquid, he/she may realize quite quickly that Young cannot swim. He simply sinks into it. However, oddly enough, he still can walk through it, albeit he will sink anyway. Yet, if the player can have him walking onto hard ground, he simply pops back up. Therefore, the player can still have Young walking short distances through/on bodies of liquid before he sinks (which inflicts damage on him and resets him at the entrance of the square).
Different liquids may have different resistances to Young’s attempt at walking through/on them. For example, the liquid that apparently looks like water has the least resistance, but the black oily liquid that will be encountered later certainly will not let Young move far. Interestingly though, movement via walking on a pall of dust is not affected by different liquids.
For most maps, the game prevents Young from walking off edges and such. However, in some maps, especially indoors ones, there are chasms that have no such invisible walls. Learning this discrepancy the first time around can be aggravating.
Anyway, the player could have Young falling off into indoor chasms, after which he loses one health point and then reappears at the entrance through which the player had him entering the current square from.
This is at first understandable, but perhaps not so once the player encounters the jumping puzzles – some of which can be obnoxious.
Some time into the game, Young obtains the ability to jump. How he gets to do so can seem cheesy, which is perhaps a poke at 16-bit games that are inspired by Legend of Zelda. (Specifically, Anodyne may be poking at the latter game’s tradition of having old men hand things to the player character.)
Anyway, jumping may seem like a heaven-sent gift at first. Prior to this even, there are holes in the ground that make exploration difficult, and the player may be excited about returning to these places and jumping over them to reach chests that were previously out of reach.
Unfortunately, the player will soon be forced into performing obnoxious jumping puzzles. The top-down view does not always make for good gauges of distances, especially when performing jumps in the north/south directions. One of them occurs rather early on in the game, which can be very challenging for players that are trying to familiarize themselves with Young’s jumping.
Moreover, Young can only jump over holes in the floor, but not any other obstacle apparently. Learning this can seem displeasingly odd to players that had not experienced the technological limitations of 16-bit games in times past, which the game tries to emulate for better or worse.
Nominally, Young can only jump up to a distance of a little over one-and-a-half tiles. This means that the player character should not be able to jump across a hole of two tiles width.
However, a player that realizes that the centre of gravity of Young’s sprite is used for purposes of determining whether he falls into a chasm or not can cheese this game design. In fact, the developers may realize this too, but instead of fixing this exploit, they used it for an optional collectible in the game.
Throughout the game, the player would encounter switches that Young needs to interact with in order to overcome obstacles.
Some have already been mentioned earlier, such as buttons that need to be stepped on. Indeed, these are used in some clever (though not original) puzzles that require the player to direct creatures onto them. It is either this, or dumping palls of dust onto the buttons, which appear to do the same.
Then, there are switches that need to be struck with the broom. Some of these require the use of the broom upgrades. These make the upgrades seem more useful than merely being tools for combat.
There are switches that may not have been designed in entertaining ways though. These are switches that have to be activated by jumping onto them. There are two of these: one that looks like the sign for the negative terminal of a battery, and the other looking like a bullseye.
Initially, it may appear as if they are activated by stepping onto them; there are even visual changes when this happens. Yet, nothing happens, even when the inexperienced player walks on and off them repeatedly.
It is only when the player jumps onto them that they actually do something. One type of such switches is practically a movable platform, while the other is functionally a one-way shortcut, which has been mentioned earlier.
Unfortunately, what the game also does not inform the player about is that they are immediately activated by jumping onto them; there is no need to step onto them before doing so.
This is not an issue for some movable switches that can be reached by simply walking onto them, but learning about this first-hand the first time around when the player needs to jump from switch to switch can be aggravating.
To elaborate, an unsuspecting player may have Young jumping on a movable switch again after having jumped onto it already, with the expectation that the switch needs an on-the-spot jump to be activated. However, he/she may discover, to his/her chagrin, that Young would be left behind by the switch.
The only indicator for Young’s durability is a meter of hot-red bars at the top right of the screen (more on the screen later). Each bar represents a hitpoint, of course.
Every time Young takes damage, he loses a hitpoint (and ever only one), but also gains a couple of seconds of invulnerability as his sprite blinks in and out of existence. This is of course an opportunity to get out of the way. (This does not prevent Young from falling into chasms.)
Initially, he starts with only a handful of hitpoints, but he can get more through interacting with a certain creature that appears after Young has experienced a particular triumph, or after getting into some places that he was previously barred from. What the creature does may seem amusing, because it also happens to break the fourth wall.
Anyway, getting more hitpoints is very much a requirement in the game. Although regular enemies may drop items that allow the player character to regain hitpoints, bosses – with the exception of one – generally do not.
As to be expected of a Legend of Zelda-inspired game, there are enemies that appear in the same square as Young. The player will find that the square, even if it is wide-open with few obstacles, has just barely enough space to dodge enemies with.
This would perhaps amuse players who had experience with 16-bit top-down dungeon crawlers, but for anyone else who had not, they may well feel that they had been boxed-in with enemies, which is often the case for indoor squares.
Certainly, this game is not for those who do not hark from those days when video games had such complications.
Anyway, at least the enemies in the game are quite varied, though it has to be said here too that many maps happen to reuse certain creatures.
One of these oft-reused creatures may not seem boring how many times it appears though. The presence of the orange slimes is usually appreciated, if only because they tend to drop health pick-ups when they perish. However, some time into the game, the game introduces an unpleasant but amusing surprise in the form of a change in their capabilities.
Other creatures are replaced with more powerful variants. For example, the aptly-named Annoyer, which is a flying bat-like creature that can move through walls, is replaced by an even more aggravating version later.
Certain other enemies do not appear to benefit from changes as the game progresses though. The dogs happen to be one, but that is perhaps they are already troublesome in the first place.
There are other enemies in the game, but they would not be described here. It should suffice to say though that some of them pose a challenge of their own in addition to the problem of having the player character boxed in together with them.
The bosses in Anodyne can seem fun, memorable and yet creepy. Most of them are hideous-looking creatures that perhaps pay homage to disturbing-looking bosses in 16-bit games of yore (such as the Mother/Earthbound series). The things that some of them say may also seem familiar to veterans of those games.
Some of them happen to say things that imply that they are manifestations of Young’s worries within the surreal world of Anodyne. Of course, people who have a knack for metaphors and symbolism would make this observation; other people may consider what these bosses say to be bizarre, inane or even irrelevant.
The experience of fighting them may, again, seem familiar to veterans of the aforementioned games in the past. They have patterned attacks that repeat in no particular order, but they have visual cues that suggest which one is coming. Each patterned attack can also be exploited. For example, there are a couple of bosses where there are almost-safe spots to cower in, just to avoid their attacks.
Bosses do not share the immortality that Young and other denizens of the surreal world in Anodyne have. They stay dead when slain, so if the player wants to fight them again, he/she may have to either restart the game or perform save-scumming to work around the game’s single save-slot.
The game has a system of hit points for enemies too, much like it has one for Young. However, their hitpoint counters are not shown to the player at all. Enemies also get a short moment of invulnerability, which means that a quick follow-up strike is useless.
Of course, once again, these are the hallmarks of 16-bit games of yore, so they would not be an issue to players who are fond of these has-been games.
A trait of games that are inspired by Legend of Zelda is that there are collectibles to be obtained. In the case of Anodyne, these are almost-plain white cards with images of characters and even objects on them.
Such designs may seem cheap, i.e. there is the impression that the developers simply reused existing art assets for the cards. If there is any amusement to be had from them, it is from their “descriptions”. The “descriptions” are either quotes by the characters that are depicted on the cards, or statements about the existence of the inanimate objects.
Most of the phrases would seem quite witty, but the significance of some of them may only be apparent to those who have a knack for metaphors. Some others would seem outright bewildering, such as references to obscure mythical creatures.
Collecting cards often require the player to have learned about Young’s capabilities and the properties of the broom upgrades, in addition to having the wit to solve puzzles in order to get to the cards. Indeed, the puzzles that bar the way to the chests that contain the cards tend to be more troublesome than those that act as obstacles in the player’s endeavour to explore the surreal world.
Initially, it may seem as if these cards are optional collectibles. However, ultimately, to reach the end-game, the player must obtain almost all of the cards that are available in the first playthrough. If there is anything optional about the cards, it is that they are requirements for opening optional gates that lead to health power-ups.
Very late into the game, the player is introduced to a certain developer tool that has been implemented in-game as an actual gameplay device. This is needed to complete the main storyline with, but it is also needed in order to obtain easter eggs that are strewn about in some maps.
However, the game does not inform the player that there are glitches to be encountered if one is not careful with the use of the device.
Some of these glitches may have been intentional too. For example, there is scrambling of the screen when the player moves too far beyond the official maps. To be precise, this would be two squares away, which suggests that this graphical mash-up is deliberate.
Engaging in the post-game activity of tile-swapping is optional, but there may be more backstory to be found, if one knows where to look. Besides, some of the easter eggs are found away from the official regions of the maps.
If one wants to play the game from start to finish and then make sense of the story, one would need to be warned that this is an act of futility. The cheesy set-up that has been mentioned in the “Premise” section is nothing more than a poke at hackneyed story-telling tropes; even a certain nearby “character” would mention this.
Indeed, the aforementioned poke is one of considerable many. The broom has already been mentioned, and one character would happen to be aghast that Young would pick such a “weapon”. Another example is a certain “character” that para-phrases the statements of another character in cynical ways, which may resemble the grumblings of a jaded gamer.
In addition to that, much of the game’s writing appears to be composed of metaphors and possibly symbolism too. The bosses and secondary characters are particular examples, though to describe any of them further is a spoiler.
As to be expected of a game that is inspired by games of the 16-bit era, Anodyne has a lot of textures and sprites that would seem pixelated to the eyes of one who is more used to modern-day games. There are also 16-bit noises that sound far from convincing of what they are supposed to portray.
Of course, one could argue that this is the charm of the game, that Anodyne is nostalgic homage to those games. This also means that one would need to have rose-tinted glasses and ears of similar yearning to appreciate the game’s visuals and audio. On the other hand, it is hard to argue that Anodyne is not being faithful to its sources of inspiration.
The chip-tune tracks may be more unanimously well-received by people who play this game though. Some of them can seem hauntingly melodic, such as the theme for the main menu. Therefore, it is indeed fortunate that the game’s soundtracks can be obtained outside of the game and for free through sources such as Bandcamp.
Although the game’s aesthetics mostly consist of 16-bit visuals and audio, there is a certain map in the game that gives homage to even older games, specifically those of the 8-bit era. The developers, or rather, Sean Hogan specifically, try to create a worthwhile track with 8-bit chip-tune, but the music for this map would only be a reminder that 8-bit audio had reached its zenith a long time ago.
At first glance, Anodyne may seem to be yet another indie title that tries to exploit nostalgia for 16-bit games that were inspired by Legend of Zelda. Yet, although it may not differ much in gameplay from those old games, Anodyne does have its own sources of charm, such as the broom. It is not exactly a game that breaks new ground, but it is still worthwhile playing.