Anodyne – The Switch Island Review
Anodyne is a top down, Zelda-like adventure game in the 16bit style reminiscent of the SNES era. It initially came out in 2013 for Steam, and was later released on Switch in February 2019. The Switch has a number of games designed to give you the 2D Zelda experience, so Anodyne faces stiff competition, but with some positive buzz following the earlier releases and a distinctive look, I was keen to give it a go.
In Anodyne you play as Young, who’s exploring a moody, dreamlike world. It’s an enigmatic place, where everything is a bit bleak and off-kilter like the Dark World from A Link To The Past. The character Young doesn’t look young, with glasses and grey hair, an incongruity that felt purposeful but it’s hard to be sure. Dreamlike worlds prompt instant comparisons with the master of all dream Zeldas, Link’s Awakening, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that this was the primary inspiration for developer Analgesic Productions. Personally, I was OK with the Lynchian subconscious vibe of Anodyne, but if you have a preference for more colourful, perkier games, you may want to skip this one. That said, the world is varied with some genuinely surprising area types that I won’t spoil here.
Anodyne replicates the old-school mechanics of games like Link’s Awakening. Even including some of their anachronisms such as the screen not tracking with the hero, and instead scrolling across in one motion (up, down, left, or right) once your hero reaches the edge. This makes the game world into a series of rectangles. Anybody familiar with this mechanic will be right at home, but may turn away those unfamiliar with it. Having grown up with this mechanic, I found it wasn’t too much of an issue for me, but it doesn’t help with navigation.
Another anachronism fully in place in Anodyne is the obscurity of its objectives, and this was my biggest issue with the game. It seems the developer tried their hardest to keep things vague, to such a degree that it seriously hampers motivation. Personally I have a high threshold for being lost in games, but reflecting on other games that have the potential to ‘lose you’ there is always a myriad of enjoyable tasks to do (Breath Of The Wild) or enemies to tackle (Hollow Knight), which for the most part, isn’t the case in Anodyne. There are so many ways that Anodyne fails to help you that it almost feels a little sadistic: signs aren’t readable, characters spout gobbledegook, the map is made up of squares with no landmarks, there’s no all-knowing guide to ask, etc. Even more maddening is that there are characters, there are stone markers, there are signs; but none of them guide you, they just double-down on the vagueness.
Anodyne isn’t completely without quality of life features, and some of them do relate to navigation! There are portals that link you to a central ‘nexus’, which is an abstract realm filled with gates to the different areas of the world. Also, you can travel back to the entrance of a dungeon or to the nexus at any time from the menu, which is a nice touch. In theory, that would help diminish frustration but it doesn’t quite, because the obscurity of the objectives remains.
But when you do manage to navigate to a dungeon or new area, they are engaging for the most part. The dungeons have the classic ‘locked room’ style, with some genuinely compelling ideas, with a variety of twists on puzzle concepts and some quirky enemies to defeat. I particularly liked the weird alien cockroach puzzles. Yes, those ones. The issue of objectives also pervades the dungeons too though, as sometimes I wasn’t sure if I’d completed a dungeon or not, as there wasn’t always any clear indicators of what you’d gone in there to do had been accomplished.
Anodyne is a good game, don’t get me wrong. The puzzles, the weird atmosphere, some compelling puzzles and areas, the hero wielding a broom instead of a sword…there’s lots to appreciate. And some of it I really really loved. It just needs a little bit of an overall design polish to propel it to excellent. I hear Analgesic are working on a sequel, so there’s hope they’ll iron out some of these wrinkles. Mostly I’d like them to focus on rewarding and guiding the player a little bit more.