A flooded hotel. A crimson marsh. A never-ending spire. You wander across these incongruent planes, seamlessly connected, but entirely unexplained. Thus is the world of “Anodyne,” an action-adventure RPG recently released for the Mac, PC and Linux, priced at $10.
Part homage and part clone, “Anodyne” plays in the style of a retro Legend of Zelda title, presenting an open world of oversized pixels and labyrinthine secrets from an overhead perspective. The developers make no effort to hide their inspiration, serving up a love letter to the series from the insanity ward.
The player is tasked with controlling Young, a nondescript “Chosen One” being herded around by a pompous sage and dozens of vague instructional signs and stones. After the satiric introduction to the land of “Anodyne,” players are set free to explore the intersecting dimensions, earning access to greater levels as you master the mechanics and collect items in the tried and true fashion.
The controls are lovably simple: one button is attack, talk or interact, and the other is jump. You can also pause. Because of this lack of item-specific interaction that’s integral to the genre, combat can get a bit simple too quickly and solutions always have a linear path, but complex mechanics are not what this game is known for.
The atmosphere is the true star of this game. Instead of offering a cohesive fantasy realm to traverse, Young’s world is a jarring hodgepodge of video game tropes: misty forests connecting to abstract, digital landscapes; a rundown apartment complex meeting Martian terrain. The only element truly linking these disjointed regions would be the understated tinge marking the mood. It nurtures in the tenderly joyful exploration of a new landscape, and it unhinges as you navigate the Lovecraftian dungeons of sudden Atari 2600 graphics.
Much of the atmosphere owes credit to the music. Possibly more polished than the game itself, the soundtrack haunts with beauty and draws with complexity. A good 30 seconds into a level passes before the track unfolds, adding a strange sense of involvement to your exploration.
More often than not, the game will make you feel uncomfortable. Why is the wall of dead bodies you are forced to fight deriding your video game addiction? Why do the mumbling people wandering around the cave all look alike? Why is the dog enemy so cute and so vicious? The writing and design of the game is sharp, witty and especially surreal, but the game is at its strongest when it pulls out the head games.
“Anodyne” does a good job of playing on its limitations. In my partial perspective, I found myself climbing a mountain only to realize it had no end; another time I stabbed a person leaving them bleeding on the ground, when I only meant to talk to them. But while there is a surprising amount of mileage out of the meager control set, you can notice the developers straining to innovate with the bare mechanics later in the game.
As for the level design, what it lacks in polish for one level, it makes up with creativity for the next. For every pointless dead end, you will be greeted by kooky puzzles, smooth pacing and crafty use of enemies and props. For how short the game is, its creators were able to squeeze in a lot of environmental content. The developers did a good job of concealing the simplicity within a barrage of bizarre and evocative settings.
Even within the rough edges and scant mechanics, there is a greatly rewarding experience to be found in “Anodyne.” For all my time in its land, I was never able to pull a fully resolved theme from the fractured narrative, and I’m not sure I’ll need to. I felt the yearning for the lost, the bittersweet nostalgia of adventure and the hopeless frustration of a hobby gone awry. It wouldn’t be hard to recommend “Anodyne” to anybody craving an old-school quest or seven hours of surrealist commentary.