Anodyne 2 is a Kaleidoscope of Retro Flair
Despite being the homespun passion project of a mere two developers, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust carries the air of an epic. This can be chalked up to the cult following behind the original Anodyne, the general tendency of action RPGs to strive for sweeping significance, the risky decision to transpose the isometric IP to a 3D layout (a mark of ambition that hamstrung many old school franchises), or most likely a combination of all of the above. Regardless, Anodyne 2 promises a huge leap forward for the budding franchise sans detachment from its predecessor. Despite its designation as a spiritual successor to Anodyne, Anodyne 2 distinguishes itself enough to stand alone. Although a few growing pains come about, it improves on its precursor and strikes an uncanny balance between serene and sinister that is truly its own.
You’ll be forgiven, however, for taking some time to tune in to its wavelength, as even beneath the surface of strange tree creatures and quasi-cults, Anodyne 2 is an atypical title. If you have played the original Anodyne (or for that matter the original Legend of Zelda), you will understand the core of Anodyne 2’s vibrant being. Grounded in 2D top-down exploration displayed at an isometric tilt, you gradually maneuver through quaint, pixel art environments, in search of treasures amidst various horrors. Relative to Legend of Zelda, the environments of Anodyne are distant dreamlike tangents bearing nary a resemblance to Hyrule alone. You don’t necessarily dungeon crawl so much as you waft through ethereal landscapes only contained by the screen. The persistent search for cards that expand your environment is renewed by the unforeseeable evolution of Anodyne’s world. This was a distinct strength of the original Anodyne and is realized further with the newfound balance of 2D and 3D landscapes.
With that being said, the perpetual contrast between different eras of retro forecasts a potentially disheveled experience early on. Given that the introduction to Anodyne 2 places you in a polygonal 3D landscape that looks as good as you remember the original Final Fantasy VIII looking (and better than it actually looked), the continued reliance on 2D single-screen sections for much of the more intricate gameplay is at first an odd pairing to wrangle with. You scale small ledges and talk to the public of New Theland in 3D, but solve puzzles and face enemies near exclusively in a 2D perspective. Nonetheless, the divide is rationalized by your character Nova’s divine purpose, to displace malignant dust from the mindscapes of the New Theland populace by entering them directly. Through this decision, Anodyne retains its roots and eases players into the shifts the sequel offers, but it temporarily makes the game appear like more of the same.
A Sweeping Experience by Every Definition
An early example of Anodyne 2‘s evolved mechanics, however, is one that is inherent to the 2D sections. Instead of facing your challenges with a sword (or in the original Anodyne’s case a broom), you possess a high-powered vacuum that absorbs enemies and instantly complicates navigation puzzles. With the winds of compressed air on your side, you grab enemies that often damage your character to the touch and fire them at each other relentlessly in Anodyne‘s best definition of a combo. Encounters are generally easy, but that is sort of besides the point given how playful the whole affair is. The strange Kirby/Zelda assimilation adds a faint degree of strategy to combat missing from the previous title, though it is specifically the puzzles that test players the most.
In lockstep with the winningly confounding logic Anodyne 2’s narrative is oriented around, the means of progressing through each mindscape is clever and reliant on your acquaintance with the environment. Though much of Anodyne 2 revolves around the pursuit of cards and keys, this journey is a mere testing ground for a gauntlet of surrealist errands that adhere to any overarching structure very loosely. At various points, you will grapple with the synchronized movement of an opposing character, enter the ring of a sparkling wrestling match, and briefly play urbanite fashion stylist across the many outlandish mindscapes in need of dusting. It is an artful way to present dusting off old memories and delusions and contributes to a fairly unparalleled environment variety, for a ballpark comparison, think Earthbound through the occasional lens of Warioware. Landscapes largely stem from such a nebulous origin that it is impossible to predict where you will next explore.
This elusive tendency carries over the 3D sequences in the game that though being less reliant on gameplay, quickly justify themselves as a beneficial advancement for the franchise. Much of your time spent in Anodyne 2 will be within a 3D hub world that expands outward alongside your progression in-game. It is here where the oasis that is New Theland truly takes form. Most every character you meet amongst your travels sits at an unwavering cross-section of quaint and mildly disconcerting, regularly departing abstract advice and philosophy onto you, the wandering outsider. With the exception of you and your guardians, no character makes an imprint across the entirety of the narrative, but together they establish the identity of a cryptic dystopia that can easily be misread as idyllic.
It Takes All Kinds of Critters to Make a World
The developers of Anodyne 2 have successfully tapped into a dichotomy of forsaken beauty through the composed design of New Theland. The bustling yet withdrawn city at the center is a melting pot for bizarre characters, all of which have a strange observation to disclose to you, if not a mission to assign. Higher ground offers an ever unfurling backdrop, host to a shorefront that seems to overlook the end of the world, veiled forests concealing peculiar colonies, and two highways that run through the divergent landscape together. The unorthodox ability for Nova to transform into a high speed vehicle at any moment makes the world a breeze to travel through and worthwhile to linger in. It is however, a missed opportunity to have made the card locations so orderly. Once you have unlocked a new area of New Theland, there is very little chance you will return to past zones for the sake of progression. This especially impacts the core city whose diversions elapse after the 90 minute mark. This does not take away the player’s freedom to cruise back down to settled areas, but it hinders the New Theland’s status as an interconnected open world. I had a great time strolling through every clearly defined landmark of New Theland, barely impacted by interstitial loading screens, but it never quite came together as a living, breathing town.
With that being said, it must not be undersold how charming and idiosyncratic much of New Theland can be. A faint psychedelic veneer enhances the collage of idiosyncratic architecture and colorful residents. New Theland is only slightly less unhinged than the mindscapes you voyage through, but balances vivid oddities with childlike wonder to build a misshapen paradise. A common thread through Anodyne 2’s enigmatic narrative is the allure of escapism, particularly with the introduction of an unexpected perspective at the halfway point of the game that is one of the most ambitious turns I have seen in a game this year.
There is a finely drawn line between relaxation and complacency, and though New Theland’s population embodies the latter, Anodyne 2 provides a tranquil ambience that still manages to challenge cerebrally. The puzzles infusing Anodyne 2 with greater depth are never entirely obtuse (though traversal through late-game mindscape New Theeland relies on such specific patterns of input that it approaches becoming a nuisance) but they fold into the pensive atmosphere of the narrative perfectly. The methodical pace at which you open up and rejuvenate the land of New Theland is not a trajectory receptive to clattering setpieces, but it still articulates a vastness of your journey that is impressive given its mere 10 hour length and professed budget limitations.
Additionally, the game also drowns any capacity for pretense in absurdist humor, alternating between character quirks and what feels like a running developer commentary on the game’s creation. Comments about what the developers “could not afford” to put in the game do abound, but never exhibit contempt for players nor do they attempt to justify faulty mechanics. It instead feels like a very personable ongoing interaction between developer and player, the mere cherry on top for a game whose quality speaks for itself. On rare occasions, Anodyne 2 is not afraid to demake itself further, offering miniature mindscapes within mindscapes that downgrade from SNES to Commodore 64. It not only doubles down on the affection the developers have for retro culture, but does so without sacrificing gameplay utility.
The small issues that do come about in the game are technical foibles rather than a lack of creative fuel. Though not quite as esoteric as the high-water marks provided by Earthbound, the score of Anodyne 2 (prone to interpolating holiday music compared to The Beatles and Beach Boys samples in the former) is commendably warm and immersive. Unfortunately, in 2D sections the transitions between music cues are often jagged and abrupt, somewhat impairing the harmonious sound palette. The 3D map afforded to you also reduces your movement to a stationary blip on a respective landscape making it useful to determine which broad area to go to, but not where to move within it. This is strangely not an issue in the 2D sections, likely attributed to them being smaller travel areas, but it still makes your personal instinct and eventual card reader markedly superior.
Anodyne 2’s irreplaceable charms and occasional flaws stem from its intimate creation, but it also manages to transcend cursory resemblances to a mere fan project and spin its own contemplative, lasting narrative. It successfully dusts off RPG aesthetics of yesteryear and grafts them onto an action-puzzler experience that engrosses throughout.
This review of Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided.
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