Friday, February 14, 2014

Anodyne


     Generally, I try to rate games as experiences. It's an abstract concept to think too hard about, sure, but with every game I play, there's always this gut feeling I have that's a culmination of all the fun I had, the fear I felt, the wonderment I experienced, etc while playing the game. This 'gut feeling' usually dictates my final score. I don't devise some numerical system to rank gameplay, story, sound, and graphics separately because I think it's a oversimplification of the medium: did Ebert rate movies this way? Does Robert Christgau review music this way? Still, this presents problems, as there are times when my gut is telling me something is great, and my brain is powerless to interpret the pros and cons of the experience. Enter now: as I type this, I find myself with no idea of how to begin telling you about my recent experience with Anodyne. An A+ feels like a disservice in some way. My gut knows it's amazing, but my brain is putty. It takes a game like Anodyne to remind me what makes our medium special, and to make me question how on Earth I'm going to pitch it to you without going off on tangents and sounding like a pretentious nut. On one hand, I'm thrilled; on the other, a little terrified. Oh well, here goes.


     Anodyne is a Zelda-clone. From the retro graphics, to the hilariously cliched premise, Anodyne wears its retro-inspired feel on its sleeve like a badge of honor. In the opening exposition dialogue, you're told that The Darkness has spread across The Land to steal The Legendary Briar; by the numbers, right? Even later, when you find yourself in a creepy, rain-soaked clearing outside a temple only minutes into the game, you probably won't give it a second thought. The melancholy music, the self-aware dialogue; it's just an indie thing. They like to do this. "Hey look at me, I'm self-aware but ultimately the same!" Oh, those silly indie devs. Except they're not joking this time, and while Anodyne may indeed be laughing, it's probably laughing at you rather than itself. Sure, the dungeon designs are Zelda-tastic, and yeah, the dialogue is filled with in-jokes and references, but Evoland this is not: Evoland did it to be cute. Anodyne, on the other hand, invokes nostalgia for the same reason that Boards of Canada does: to freak you out as your childhood memories begin crumbling right before your eyes.
     But, also like Boards of Canada, Anodyne doesn't overdo it. This adventure is filled with those beautiful little moments where the total experience comes together perfectly: cute music, humorous dialogue, colorful visuals; they all combine to truly make your heart jump with joy at all the right moments. But those moments are usually chased by moments that will make your heart sink. The plot is a celebration of video games and the escapism they offer us from our sometimes painful daily lives, but it also reminds us how poisonous this escapism can be. When the darkness piles on, I'm never sure just what to think. Early on, Anodyne teaches you not to trust anything it tells you, but what any of the bizarre imagery, horrific setpieces, and the hilariously self-aware frame narrative ultimately represents is not exactly clear. If that sounds unfortunate, trust me: it's not. I wouldn't trade the feelings of horror, beauty, and ultimate confusion Anodyne left me with for anything in the world. 


     It's the kind of experience that's hardest to write about because no one thing is the star of the show: the world, the characters, the dialogue, all of it combines to create an experience that left my brain mush and my heart aflutter. Ultimately, the atmosphere that Anodyne creates is the kind that could only exist in a video game, where we the player aren't just an onlooker; we're an active participant; where we can stop moving, close our eyes, and can almost feel the wind on our face and the music echoing somewhere off in the distance. It gets dark, yes, and often, but I can't help but remember Anodyne more as a celebration than a condemnation, even if that wasn't what the developers intended. 
     If you're confused, then I've done my job at faithfully setting you up for Anodyne's bizarre world and fascinating characters. Everything here is surreal and probably nonsensical, but when the credits roll and the fun puzzles and frustrating platforming segments are but a distant memory, you'll remember the whacked-out stuff the most clearly, both the cute and the horrific, and you'll probably draw some kind of moral from the experience. As long as you don't go into Anodyne expecting a breezy, mindless retro experience, and you're willing to fill in some story gaps yourself, the experience will feel very rewarding. And that's it; that's literally all I can do to advertise Anodyne's insane plot as I'm still reeling from the shock and awe of it myself. If you like weird, you'll like Anodyne. The end.


     Phew. Now that all that pretension is over, let's be a little more blunt: Anodyne has no real plot. Yeah, sure, you have a hero's quest to accomplish and there are plenty of challenges to overcome to accomplish it, but Anodyne has a story the way Zelda games have a story: there's just enough there to justify calling it a story, but really, the plot is no more than a framing device. Unlike Zelda, however, Anodyne uses its familiar frame to make you even more uncomfortable with its insane content than you would have been if this had been just another Braid. How does The Cabin in the Woods tagline go again? "You think you know the story?" Boy, do you ever.
     And that's really the magical part of Anodyne: it doesn't offer up any answers, and the plot ends just as weirdly as it began, but yet, it feels conclusive and satisfying, because this is such a familiar structure that the ending doesn't feel as abrupt as it usually does from these kind of games. As long as you know at the outset that Anodyne doesn't have some stupid plot twist to explain away its crazy Wonderland-esq world, than you'll likely feel satisfied by your time with it, especially since it lasts around eight hours, which is rather lengthy for an indie game. Overall, the experience succeeds mostly on the strength of its fascinating world, and its charming self-awareness. The closest thing I can compare it to is OFF, but with less of an easing period before the weird crap starts happening.


     But wait, Anodyne isn't all mystery and heady surrealism; no sir, Anodyne comes chock full of classic SNES-era adventuring gameplay to boot. There are several unique dungeons in the game to be conquered, and, in classic Zelda tradition, each has its own gimmick that must be mastered in order to proceed. What's truly surprising about these dungeons, though, besides the obvious horror-influenced thematic material, is that these are some masterfully designed Zelda dungeons. As someone who only just completed the recent A Link Between Worlds, let me tell you: these are every bit as good as the real thing. Anodyne stumbles a bit when it introduces the 'jumping boots' and decides platforming is as good a focus as any for a dungeon, but even through the frustration the platforming-focused dungeons caused me, it couldn't be denied that I was having fun, and that Anodyne could hold its own against even Nintendo's legendary dungeon design is something truly awe-inspiring.
     The bosses that end each dungeon are a little less refined, however, as I felt that they hardly ever made use of any specific gimmick well, and they are came off as a little on the easy side, except towards the end when they suddenly become incredibly frustrating. If there's any one part of this Zelda-clone that doesn't quite live up to its inspiration, it might be the bosses. But what the bosses lack in challenge they usually make up for in character, so I ultimately enjoyed my time dueling with them, and trying to guess what each boss would be before I got to them was a fun little game to play with myself as I conquered the puzzles within each labyrinthian dungeon.
     Unlike almost everything else, Anodyne's structure is less Zelda and more Fez. Traditional this is not. The world is vaguely Zelda-ish in that everything connects in interesting ways, and that certain parts of the world will only be accessible after you get certain items, but other than that, Anodyne's structure is every bit as bizarre as everything else in the game. You'll often find yourself in locations that seem to come out of nowhere. And dungeons appear just as suddenly: one second you're traversing some weird black and white city, and the next thing you know, you're fighting a flaming skeleton monster in his apartment. Yeah, it's that kind of world design: one with practically no logic and liberal doses of mind screw. Think Yume Nikki but with ever so much more structure and the aforementioned traditional gameplay elements.


     Presentation-wise, Anodyne is a beaut. The music is either appropriately pretty or appropriately horrific depending on the scene, and all of the tunes maintain a consistency that is impressive considering their sheer scope. The graphics are seemingly what you'd normally expect from a retro game, but the 16-bit art style still has some tricks up its sleeves, and on the whole, Anodyne looks every bit as distinctive as it should. Seriously; some parts of the world have to be seen to be appreciated. Whether you're staring out over the cliffs, or trekking carefully across a monochrome suburbia, the graphics are stunning throughout.


     The developers of Anodyne cite Link's Awakening and Yume Nikki as the project's two biggest inspirations, which is essentially the easiest way to describe the experience in as few words as possible. If Yume Nikki isn't really your thing, well, maybe the Zelda stuff will sell you instead. Not a Zelda fan? Well, perhaps you've always thought what Zelda needed was a little Yume Nikki to spice things up. Either way, it's easy to recommend Anodyne to anyone who will listen, despite or even because of its surreal leanings. While this love letter to gaming ultimately runs the risk of seeming too familiar to some and not familiar to others, Anodyne's heart shines through its retro trappings, and for someone who had no idea what to expect in the first place, I couldn't help but allow myself to be swept up in Anodyne's sometimes scary, other times beautiful world. A Link Between Worlds has nothing on this.

Verdict: A+

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