The words on the review are faded...
Originally released for the PC in 2013, Anodyne fittingly makes its way to the Switch. At its core, Anodyne is a game that wears its inspiration from series like The Legend of Zelda on its sleeve, building itself around the screen-by-screen exploration of a large world map. The game bills itself as a trip through the main character’s subconscious that allows the player to experience an adventure in a surreal and abstract world. While it is successful on the surreal end in a lot of ways, it unfortunately does not manage to deliver on the aforementioned adventure.
In Anodyne, you play as Young, a man who has found himself within the realm of his own subconscious armed with only his trusty broom. A hooded figure tells Young that he is the chosen one summoned to protect The Briar from The Darkness, and he is sent on his way to travel The Land in search of ways to become stronger. Throughout the journey, it will become increasingly apparent to the player that something is very wrong with the world around them, and if they want to figure out what that is they must push forward to collect the cards and keys that will lead them to the answer.
As Young travels the world, he’ll meet and interact with various characters such as Mitra and her bike Wares or Hews the lobster, and it’s in these interactions where the initial cracks in the game’s design really start to show. One of the very first things the player is told is that speaking to characters multiple times is the only way to read all dialogue they have to offer, but the game makes no indication about whether or not you’ve seen all of the dialogue from that specific character until they repeat a line of dialogue you’ve already seen. Some of these exchanges can be lengthy and pressing the A or B buttons does nothing to speed them up, leading to situations such as when I went to talk to a character calling himself the Thorax one too many times and had to spend far too long re-experiencing his bad poem about how the bees were dying. This is made even worse by the fact that no character ever seems to actually have anything useful to say, simply spouting pop culture references or jokes about other games instead of clues or hints as to where the player should be headed next.
The act of exploring The Land is itself dull and confusing, with a map that’s minimalist and less than helpful. Areas look very good from an aesthetic standpoint and are easy enough to navigate, but they’re not really all that fun to navigate. More often than not any path you take will result in a gate or wall, but unlike Zelda where the gate is meant to be something to overcome using a new item or ability, most gates in Anodyne are built for you to go around. More often than not, one gate will just lead to another. Even the signs you would think were meant to help players find their way are purposely unhelpful, with a majority of them simply reading something along the lines of “the text is faded” and nothing else.
Shortly after beginning the game, the player will be given shoes that allow them to jump, a mechanic that takes most areas in the game from dull to frustrating. Young’s jump feels stiff and distances can sometimes be extremely hard to judge due to the nature of the top down camera. Many of the dungeon rooms that require this ability become obstacle courses incompatible with Young’s movement ability. Three other abilities are obtained throughout the course of the game, two that change how your attacks function and one that changes how you interact with the environment. The environmental ability is very interesting and genuinely changes the game for the better, but it’s buried under so much monotony that in the end it’s not really worth playing far enough to get it.
In the end, Anodyne feels as though it was made to have a subversive mechanic functioning as a late game surprise for the player, but if there isn’t an interesting game on the path to said mechanic, most players will not have the motivation to get to that surprise. It’s a game that proudly displays its action-adventure roots, but it has not seemed to take note of any lessons those past titles could teach it. A clunky jump mechanic meant to be used in poorly designed platforming sections; a crowded HUD made so simply for the sake of looking more “16-bit;” enemies that are either easier to fight standing still or are designed purposely to be annoying, unkillable obstacles; and a map made entirely of dead ends and corridors all come together to make a boring and fractured slog largely not worth playing. If the final mechanic had been the core mechanic the entire way through, perhaps Anodyne would be worth the time investment it asks of you. Hopefully some of the lessons learned making it will be applied for its upcoming sequel, and the small bits of potential it does have can shine.