The Legend of Zelda is without any shred of doubt one of the most important and influential games ever made. Nintendo’s landmark release has inspired hundreds of games and mechanics within them, and you can't take two steps without hearing a developer site it as one of their biggest inspirations when developing their own games. Indie game Anodyne is one such example of a very close replication of LoZ's core gameplay, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but unfortunately fails to bring anything new to a very crowded table that results in but another poor attempt to recapture the magic of a classic.
You take control of Young, a man who wakes up in an unknown realm called the Nexus. You are told that you must protect Briar from the darkness, but first must prove your worth by scouring the land for cards. And, that’s pretty much all you need to know. The story unravels in a nonlinear way, leaving much for you to deduce for yourself and numerous questions without straight answers. Unfortunately this initial air of mystery falls apart after you've progressed further into the game and come to realize the developers have no intention of ever answering or even elaborating on the many threads making up its haphazard plot.
You run into a lot of characters during your travels, but none of them have anything relevant or useful to say. One of my biggest issues I had is that the dialog aspires to far more lofty and philosophical heights than it has any hope of reaching, ending up feeling pointless and pretentious, while at the same time completely throwing off the tone of the game. A lot of heavy subjects are brought up, from antisocial paranoia, to self worth and parental neglect, but they are never expanded upon or even discussed beyond a cursory overview (which comes across as forced and in poor taste).
It’s clear this was a very personal experience for the writer behind the dialog, but putting all of your problems and insecurities into your game is a sure fire way to lose your audience. Adding to the disjointed tone is a bundle of worthless profanity that was unneeded and serves absolutely no purpose. I'm not sure why the developer felt the need to include random four letter words, as it doesn’t jell at all with the rest of the game, and even as someone not typically bothered by profanity felt a tad disgusted when presented with it in this context. The ending is the final nail in the coffin, coming completely out of left field and not giving even a remote sense of resolution. I will be the first person to advocate artistic expression, but the story fails on so many levels it had me wishing it hadn’t been included at all.
From a gameplay perspective Anodyne fairs a bit better, but on the whole still fails to do enough with what it attempts. You spend your time split between exploring an overworld, collecting cards and filling out your map, and then dipping into dungeons which comprise some basic puzzles and the occasional boss fight.
It's a formula that works, but in this case quickly becomes repetitive as you neither gain any new abilities, nor encounter consistently interesting puzzles to solve. So much of the game is comprised of nothing but wandering, that many areas feel like nothing but filler, featuring no purpose but to elongate your adventure and keep you away from the handful of smartly designed dungeons that could have made for a much tighter experience on their own.
The extensive backtracking also contributes to much of your time feeling like a grind, occasionally even breaking the game as paths close and you become forced to retread even more ground taking the long way to wherever you were headed. Simply put, it's poor design that frustrates and belittles the player, dragging the experience on longer than it needed to be and making the enjoyable sections a lot farther apart. It's a shame because at times I really felt Anodyne was onto something, but each time my hopes were shot down as I cursed the many aggravating design decisions the developers made.
Truth be told, there were moments when I actually did enjoy my time with the game. The true problem is, to reiterate, the fact that Anodyne does absolutely nothing we haven’t already seen and not well enough to compensate for its lack of innovation. It has it’s moments, but by and large feels all too familiar, and ultimately had me wondering why I was playing it instead of so many other games. I never felt compelled to continue, and I doubt it will be finished by most.
If Anodyne does anything right, it’s the game’s music and art. The graphics wholly envelope the 16-bit era, with a wonderful pixel style that is both beautiful and varied. Each dungeon has it’s own look, from a noir inspired town, to a neon maze it is constantly evolving and giving you something new to look at. It may not all flow together, but it was the one thing that made me want to search out new dungeons.
The other half of the presentation is the music, which does a great job of selling the somber, lonely tone of the story, even when the dialog can’t. From gentle piano melodies, to a pounding jungle beat, it is just a great set of songs, and some I could actually see myself listening to outside the game. They are that good, and easily the best part of the game.
In the end though Anodyne left me wanting. Wanting for better levels, a better story, a better ending, but mostly, a better game. When I first began, I had little idea what to expect and was actually enjoying myself more than I would have expected. But as time went on, the gameplay never evolved, and the story only strayed farther and farther off course making me want to jump ship before it had completely sunk (which by the end it had definitely done.
By the time the credits had rolled, I was all too happy to be able to wash myself of the experience. I don't say that lightly, and hate to have to be so critical, but I simply cannot advise anyone to play what was one of the most disappointing games I've experienced in a long time.