There must be a unique, exploratory freedom to the design of indie games. Indie games often plumb the depths of the human experience and push the boundaries of the medium, despite their graphical or budgetary limits. I find myself often impressed by indie games constructed or designed by extraordinarily small teams, such as the one that crafted Anodyne 2. Analgesic’s members are Melos Han-Tani and Marina Kittaka, a pair of designers who pride themselves on “specializing in single-player, narrative-heavy adventure games with experimental flair and twists on traditional gameplay.”
On this, Anodyne 2 profoundly delivers.
No Man is an Island
The presentation of its core mechanics is fairly simple: it is a game of three-dimensional exploration and two-dimensional action, a tale of a young girl on a quest to save her island from a menace. Of this note, we have seen its type before; Anodyne 2 feels something akin to Psychonauts meets The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, with enough NieR: Gestalt thrown in for narrative flavor. Where Anodyne 2 departs is in the unique presentation of its features and how the adventure of Dust Cleaner Nova is more than a simple platformer.
The gameplay is efficient. In 3D, Nova controls easily enough and has access to jumping, gliding, shooting beams, and transforming into a car. She can be directed across the dimensional landscape of New Theland as she searches for residents to free from the Dust, and when found uses her spark beam in order to enter their consciousnesses, where the game transitions into a 2D Zelda-like. The controls are tight and responsive, and I enjoyed how the actual gameplay took a backseat to the delivery of the narrative.
Anodyne 2 feels like playing a dream. I don’t know a better way to describe it. It bends genres at will, guiding the player along a path that feels both familiar and mysterious. The island of New Theland is infected with Dust, a nefarious and consuming energy that is distorting the islanders both physically and emotionally. Nova, born of the dubious Center and tasked by her created mothers to dispel the Dust and return it to the Center’s Prism tower, is an adventurer who learns along with the player. New Theland’s surreal, dreamlike qualities extend beyond its Nintendo 64 visuals and haunting music — the island is inhabited by curious residents who would feel more at home in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth than anywhere else.
Shrink Forth, Nano Cleaner Nova!
As Nova treks across the island — freeing corrupted residents from the influence of the Dust and returning the materials to the Center — the scope of the game begins to bloom beyond what can be expected of a typical platformer. There is a weighted emotional depth to Anodyne 2, and its creators want desperately for you to be aware of that. Through its various narrative styles and genre transitions, the game explores the connective tissue of sentient emotion and decides bravely that severing the fourth wall is a small price to pay in order to forge a true connection between the player and the characters of New Theland. Nova is a charming but sad protagonist whose humanity is carefully exhumed over the course of her interactions with citizens both corrupt and clean, and her journey across the island brings her face to face with its nefarious purposes.
What I found most enjoyable in Anodyne 2’s narrative was its simple but powerful nods to real world problems; the game is a meme-laden wonderland that touches on unfair labor practices, government corruption, depression, mental illness, and the meaning of life. Its existentialism doesn’t feel forced or cliched, and this is no garden-variety RPG of overblown, heavy handed storytelling devices. Anodyne 2 is clever and poetic and gentle with its deliveries.
I do not wish to spoil too much of this game’s brilliance — its second half is nothing short of a narrative masterpiece, a tour de force of both design and storytelling. Anodyne’s 2 almost painful awareness of genre allows it to push past gaming conventions and deliver heartened, wholesome content without any loss to the player’s suspension of disbelief. Even when the game fully allows you to explore beyond the scope of what would regularly be considered a game’s four walls, Anodyne 2’s storytelling reaches incredible, sometimes overwhelming highs (the gargoyle segment, in particular, will stay with you). By the end of the game, the cornucopia of strangeness will no longer feel weird but instead becomes endearing — I was ready to live on New Theland forever, if I had to.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is available on Steam and recently released for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.
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