Anodyne 2: Return to Dust Review (Switch)
Release Date: February 18, 2021
File Size: 424MB
Publisher: Ratalaika Games
Developer: Analgesic Productions
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Not long ago, I heard a podcast describe a short story as “Lynchian” in nature. This is a reference to the renowned filmmaker David Lynch, often cited as a surrealist artist whose work includes The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and more. While many might dismiss Lynch’s work as irreverent or incomprehensible, there is a very palpable thematic and emotional element to his work that cuts through the presentational fluff and resonates with his fans.
To say that something is Lynchian simply due to its more macabre, horrific, or surreal elements is something I find to be a bit disingenuous. However, there is the occasional work that manages to couple these elements with the deeply heartfelt and relatable messages Lynch tends to imbue within his works.
I guess what I’m saying is Anodyne 2 is great.
Ways That You Interact With The Game
Anodyne 2 is not an RPG.
The game has players taking on the role of Nano Cleaner Nova, an individual tasked with cleaning the corrupting influence of Nano Dust from the denizens of New Theland, who all work and exist in reverence of The Center, their creator. While all of that might sound like a bit of babble, it boils down to some simplistic gameplay mechanics. You’ll explore various 3D environments to try to find either hidden chests containing cards or various NPCs infected with Nano Dust.
The world of Anodyne 2 is impressively large, but a great deal of it is empty space. Because of this, the developers have included an alternate traversal mode where protagonist Nova transforms into a car. This mode handles a bit strangely, but it does have cruise control, which is more than I can say about my own vehicle. Each mode has its perks: Nova can double jump and float to slow her descent, but the car goes fast. Really, that’s just about all the car can do, but it’s a nice inclusion in a game where the sense of scale is vast and the main character’s running speed is a bit underwhelming.
Some areas have tightly-designed platforming challenges that suit Nova’s movement just fine, while others ask the player to stop and look at the broad details of the environment for clues, catching a glimpse at an interactive element and triggering a series of unlocks which will ultimately lead to an NPC encounter. These are by far the more engaging gameplay loops, as resonating with an NPC allows you to fire off a spark that enables Nova to shrink and enter into their body. This might sound weird, but that’s because it is weird. It’s very weird.
For most Nano Dust-infected NPCs, Nova will need to bypass a vaguely Guitar Hero-esque sequence, where drawing a shield by following certain color-coded directional cues will allow you to reach the infected NPC and finally shrink down and access what might be Anodyne 2’s most familiar element – its Nano Dungeons. These play out like the dungeons from the first title and are usually centered around a specific series of environmental puzzles.
The player must use Nova’s limited vacuum mechanics to figure out how specific elements work within the dungeons, allowing access to additional powerups and cards along the way as she gets to the root of the issue and cleans the Nano Dust at the end of each affair.
Completing these challenges and condensing Nano Dust into cards helps Nova progress further towards the main goal of the narrative, which is to collect enough Dust and Cards to build a pillar that pushes the Nano Dust away from regions further from the Center and allows for even more exploration.
The Way The Game Looks And Sounds
Anodyne switches between two artistic perspectives – its 3D overworld and 2D, top-down dungeon environments. The former is reminiscent of fifth generation titles appearing on either the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation, with characters and environments possessing simple textures and models. This gives the game a very barren and intentionally-retro look, and if one were to give me a copy of Anodyne 2 during that era of gaming, I likely wouldn’t have batted an eye.
In the modern era, these simplistic 3D polygonal models might seem a bit garish, but that is sort of the point. Characters in New Theland are vague and often grotesque shapes, leaving a great deal to the imagination and further emphasizing the alien nature of the world.
The muted colors and textures of the 3D Overworld are at odds with the more vibrant palette of the 2D sections, though there is an attempt to keep visual consistency across these two worlds. The variety present in the pixel art featured here is impressive, with a nice selection of city, sky, and indoor backdrops. The character and enemy designs featured here are simple, but effective, with each enemy type easy to identify by form and often paired with a specific function. Often, their unique features contribute to the design of specific puzzle rooms throughout, so it’s important to keep a keen eye on them and their positioning within the game world.
Adding to this is an absolutely stellar original soundtrack by Melos Han Tani, a beautiful collection of tracks that fit the ethereal fantasy world of New Theland perfectly. If I have dismissed soundtracks previously for feeling like window dressing, or non-substantive, then Anodyne 2 is the exact opposite. Not only do many narrative moments and environments have their own tracks, but each is imbued with a flavor that feels perfectly matched. The relative simplicity of the instrumentation parallels the aesthetic choices, with the end result being an absolute triumph in which each track conjures memories of specific gameplay and narrative beats, whether sweet or melancholy.
The Stuff That Happens In The Game
Thematic writing can sometimes frustrate with its ambiguity, and when first confronted with the gobbledegook jargon that exists and is tossed at the player character, some might feel immediately turned off. Yes, Anodyne 2’s narrative is obscure, but the game does have the added benefit of having references towards, but not necessarily requiring, a playthrough of the first title. Because of this, it’s best to let your brain reprogram itself for this world, as ideas, rules, and the language used to communicate them will come at you quickly and without much justification.
Getting to the heart of each scenario you witness as Nova is much more important, meaning the emotional core of the game feels extremely universal. Throughout New Theland, you’ll encounter at least one scenario to which you can personally relate, and although most of these revolve around emotions like uncertainty, despair, and conflict, the writing is honest and raw and communicates these ideas extremely well.
New Theland may not follow many of the rules of our own world, but its most familiar concept is the pursuit of analgesic bliss, a cure for pain from the complications that tend to ail us. The game’s message is not necessarily hopeful in regards to this pursuit, but maybe that is okay. There aren’t necessarily two sides to emotions, and it’s hard to claim that comforting feelings belong exclusively within the realm of positive or negative experiences. We are more whole and human because we grapple with these experiences, and yes, also because we attempt to avoid negative emotions and scenarios.
If this is the sort of flavor that you don’t prefer to confront within the realm of video games, then I might recommend another product. If this sort of discussion and introspection is something you might enjoy in a game narrative, then I wholeheartedly recommend giving Anodyne 2 a try. The story does take you in directions that you might not expect, but save for one specific instance, it never supplants gameplay and is almost always complimentary.
Final Thoughts About This Game
For a long while, I was stuck in a rut regarding my feelings of this medium. I think a well-written narrative is one that a player or reader or listener can connect with immediately, or at least features many resonant moments within it, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I haven’t seen that in a video game for some time. Many games are built for a sense of discovery and adventure, and while that keeps the dopamine running, it often causes us to ignore or skip over the period of decompression and introspection that is needed for strong emotional intelligence and stability. Or maybe this is all just mindfulness buzzword soup, and much of this means very little to you.
But in terms of what Anodyne 2 offers, it means very much to me. Because of its empty, alien world and poignant, obscure writing, it gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable and to get in touch with what had been bothering me, not in regards to life in general, but more with myself. That’s not to say that the experience wasn’t satisfying from a gameplay perspective, however, because for as many moments of quiet decompression I experienced while listening to, traveling throughout, and reading Anodyne 2, there are just as many engaging gameplay surprises.
I won’t say that the game is necessarily difficult save for one or two sequences, and some of its more obtuse puzzle designs – particularly those that are dialogue-focused – can be a bit frustrating. But when Anodyne does require tight movement and precise resource management in a few sparing moments, it is very enjoyable. Though these moments are few and far between, the game’s lack of gameplay challenge is coupled with its difficult narrative that does balance itself out, somewhat.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of any video game is feeling as if you have gamed the system somewhat, and this is subverted multiple times throughout Anodyne 2. In fact, when the game feels the most exploitable is often when the developers have intentionally led you astray. There are some incredible meta moments to be found here, including a section that plays out similarly – but still doesn’t quite fit the bill – to an RPG, a PC-adventure horror-styled sequence, and a strange wrestling segment, as well as one of the most mind-boggling extensions of a core gameplay mechanic I’ve seen in a game, introduced about halfway into your adventure.
But I’d be lying if I said gameplay was my favorite part of Anodyne 2. Its thematic concepts are much stronger, its atmosphere so much more palpable, that gameplay feels more like something to do in-between the lovely aesthetic wonderland.
One last note to make is the game’s metaclean mechanic, which is unlocked in its second half. While metacoins are simply another fold meant to get you to explore more of the world, they can be used to purchase a variety of tools that might prove helpful for those struggling with the endgame content. Their most intriguing implementation is the purchase of developer commentary, concept art, and even test environments that are freely explorable through a sub-menu. The game is very forward in offering you access to all of its alternate endings and secrets, and nothing truly feels obscured, save for the solutions to some puzzles that truly only require a keen eye for inspection.
Anodyne 2 is made with passion, and the efforts of its two-developer team are felt long after the credits roll. These credits, by the way, further emphasize the astounding amount of effort contributed by the developers in general, and I do think that is something worth celebrating. While it doesn’t offer much challenge in its gameplay, it is an immensely heartfelt and original concept that is worth enjoying. To say that I enjoyed this title would be an understatement, and I would say that, despite the number of strong titles releasing later this year, it will be an experience difficult to top. Please play this game. Thank you.