Zelda-Homage Anodyne's Literal and Metaphorical Descent into Madness

via - 22nd February, 2013

Anodyne revels in its weirdness, and in the general craziness of all Zelda-like games. When it’s not sending you deep into scary dungeons to retrieve keys and open chests, it’s alternating between cryptic storytelling and self-deprecation. I love it, I hate it, and I don’t know which emotion is stronger.

You control a broom-wielding “chosen one” called Young, on a mission to protect the Briar from the Evil Darkness. There’s not much to this setup, it seems at first, but you’ll soon begin to wonder if maybe you’re not being told the whole story.

Anodyne doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, frequently referencing the best RPGs of the SNES era—expect to see plenty of nods to A Link to the Past, Earthbound, and the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, among several others. But it’s not a parody. As lighthearted as it gets, there’s a dark edge to this world. The deeper you get, the more you’ll question the reality presented to you.

The game feels like a descent into madness—the madness of a man running from his reality; Young’s madness, and his desperate struggle to escape the Evil Darkness that consumes him. I won’t give away just what is going on—although it’s not really clear anyway, with a disappointing lack of closure (from what I’ve seen, at least, with plenty of side-questing to dive into).

Young, in typical fashion, is spoken to but he never speaks. Like most old-school JRPG characters, he communicates through telepathy…or so we’re left to assume. He also reads rocks and wears jumping shoes.

You navigate a seemingly endless supply of dungeons in search of keys that unlock doors that lead to treasure chests that contain cards representing one of the monsters you encounter in that area. These cards inexplicably unlock gates that bar your progress into new regions of the map, or into dungeons that are nestled within other dungeons. I guess the Anodyne devs are fans of recursion.

I get bored of dungeons quickly, but I put up with them and even enjoyed Anodyne’s grinding monster-fighting-puzzle-solving-getting-lost-even-with-a-map exploration. It’s just so darn well imagined that every area feels distinct and fresh, and—at least for the first five or six hours—it entices me to dig deeper.

I love the frequent checkpointing and the gorgeous 16-bit-style pixel art. There’s a remarkable versatility on show, from the red hues of one nightmarish area to the creepy-as-hell village of dead people to the rain-soaked highway and tower to the dusk-ravaged mountain and its dark and claustrophobic network of tunnels. Everything looks unique, and every nook and cranny oozes atmosphere.

So too does the dialogue, which unfortunately gets more inconsistent in quality and delivery as the game progresses. Random NPCs often pack more impact than big bosses and central plot elements. “I think I love every person behind every window,” says one, gazing into a city full of strangers, in a strangely-disarming moment. Nearly every person in Young Town made me shiver with a single terse line of speech.

Anodyne is heavy on text, yet it manages to be economical. Seldom do you have to struggle through pages upon pages of exposition. Dialogue pacing in the required bits impresses for how quickly it moves on, providing enough information to hint at both your next steps and the meaning of your previous ones in two or three sentences.

This has a knock-on effect that even reading every rock and talking to every NPC fails to fill in enough of the story. If you get invested in the plot—or perhaps just the themes of loss, longing, fear, forgiveness, and hope—you’ll be desperate to piece together more of the puzzle. But you’ll likely never be satisfied.

The same design trick that keeps you exploring bites itself up the ass when it never gives complete fulfillment. There’s a fine line between mysterious and incomprehensible, and Anodyne inevitably steps to the wrong side.

On the Flipside

Anodyne ultimately disappoints. Its story, which shows tremendous potential, fizzles out. Its dungeons drag on for too long. The broom-wielding mechanics feel under-developed, even with a clever late-game addition. And, crucially, it frustrates you at times that should be triumphant.

The breaking point for me didn’t arrive until deep into a dungeon toward the conclusion of the main quest. The haunted circus broke my spirit when a tricky sequence of jumps took me an hour to master, only for me to die in the next room. Sent back to the checkpoint, I had to do it again. Only I still struggled to reliably get through it.

So I thought I’d get clever—I’d do the first part, unlocking the gate, then save and come back to do the second part. That way if I died I could avoid repeating the more frustrating first part again. It didn’t work. Whereas most rooms in Anodyne remain as you left them, with gates and doors staying open if you triggered the switch once already, this one did not.

I returned after saving to find the gate closed. I hadn’t even had the chance to die again yet. I was fuming, and it took at least another half an hour to finally struggle my way through this section. I found the entire circus area annoying because it seemed to be artificially lengthening the game with petty difficulty, but this trial left me fuming.

Before this point, I loved Anodyne in spite of its faults. Suddenly I hated it. I was at war with the game, and identifying flaws became a sport. It’s a sad thing when an experience you’re enjoying turns sour. But the psychology of it is fascinating.

You feel betrayed, like nothing you were promised comes to fruition. How dare they entertain you so, and then pull the rug out from beneath your feet! Of course the reality is that they don’t owe you a sense of closure, or anything else. You paid (or didn’t, as the case may be) for an experience with certain promised qualities. Assurance that you’ll enjoy it from beginning to end isn’t one of those qualities.

But where it gets more complicated, when you step back and think about it, is in your preparedness to champion the cause. I was all ready to tell the world that Anodyne is great, and that every man (and woman) and his dog (and cat and fish and Norwegian Blue Parrot) should check it out. Then in the space of 15 minutes my enthusiasm to help it succeed all but disintegrated.

You should still check out Anodyne, because most of my issues with the game don’t emerge until the latter stages, but now I feel the need to recommend it with caveats.

It’s an excellent game, right up until the moment it stops being fun. That may be a different spot for you than it was for me, but don’t bother continuing after that—it’s just not worth it for a relatively weak final chapter.

What initially seems like a Zelda parody turns out to be a dark and mature game. But Anodyne bites off far more than it can chew, and the immaturity of its developers (this is their first released game, if I’m not mistaken) clouds the mature undertones like translation flaws, Cait Sith, and Cloud’s overwrought emo tendencies made Final Fantasy VII read like an adolescent’s wet dream.

It’s no Zelda, but I don’t think it was ever trying to be.

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