I wondered if I was being premature by calling Anodyne a candidate for a must play of 2013 way back in February. I wasn’t. Nothing I’ve seen this year compares to the sombre, hypnotic atmosphere and enchanting, yet unsettling soundtrack of this game. With a winding but well-written plot, sickening enemies, and hard-as-nails gameplay, it’s one of the best games to have come out this year. You really screwed up if you didn’t play it. Just saying.
I love me some top-down Legend of Zelda-style gameplay, but horror games are also always calling out to me as well. Anodyne combines both of those elements, creating a top-down action game that managed to feel pretty eerie most of the time. The music is the main contributor to this effective bond, as the tunes in the game are all fantastic. They often lean toward ambient, never overpowering the gameplay or taking over your senses. They’re subtle, quiet tracks that creep into your subconscious while you play — tweaking your emotions and filling the most serene scenes with a subtle menace.
It’s not long before you see an example of this. From the screenshots, I thought I was setting out on a great adventure like in Link’s Awakening, but as soon as that initial track played in the first area, my sense of excitement withered, leaving only unease. The music really makes it feel like there’s something very wrong about the areas you travel in, but that there’s something waiting just out of sight to pounce on you. This feeling never really goes away no matter where you are in the game, but is still conveyed through a wide variety of music for each place you go to. The music sets an amazing mood for the piece, and makes me excited for more of Sean Hogan’s (The game’s composer) work in his next game, Even the Ocean.
It’s not all about the music. The gameplay is great as well, mixing fun combat and top-down platforming. Now, top-down platforming might sound like the worst thing ever, but Anodyne nails it. It isn’t easy by any stretch, but it is very well done and can be done well with practice. The game throws some challenging areas at you pretty fast once you unlock the ability to jump, but checkpoints are fairly generous so you typically get a save point right after you execute a difficult series of leaps. This means the devs weren’t afraid to put you through some cruel obstacle courses since you’ll be able to save both before and after them. Expect to need some almost Ninja Gaiden-like reflexes across multiple screens in order to get through (although no one is throwing birds at you).
When not being challenged with jumps, the combat will keep you busy. Fighting with a broom has somehow become awesome in this game, as not only is it an effective weapon, but the dirt you fling from it gets weaponized in different directions to add some strategy to combat. It can be tossed further ahead like a short beam from Link’s sword, or it can split to either side and hit enemies in multiple directions. It’s handy stuff, and especially when you get to the game’s challenging bosses. Being able to attack at range or in weird directions while dodging around multiple attacks is necessary to get through. You often have to play extremely carefully and well in order to win, although you never have to play that way for long thanks to those generous checkpoints.
Those bosses look pretty gross, too. There are many nice boss designs in the game, ones that take the limited pixel art style and create beautiful horror out of it. The levels themselves look good as well, and will take the player on journeys to places that aren’t expected. I thought I had an idea on where the game was going to go, but after you play through for a couple of hours the game seems to lose its mind, heading in directions that were impossible to predict. No matter how much I thought I knew this game, it still managed to take me to widely varied locations, all filled with wonderful background artwork and decorations. There is a wide variety of ruins and places in this world, all with their own charm and dark atmosphere, and they are consistently surprising.
The story of the game is a twisting, turning beast as well. It’s something that may take multiple playthroughs to truly understand, as I wasn’t on the simple hero’s quest I thought I was. Something dark and terrible has happened here, and there are things in the story that hint toward it but never come right out and say it. The devs played this story out very carefully, giving only the barest hints of what happened, so if you aren’t willing to think on a game’s story you won’t get much out of it. If you’ve spent hours talking with friends on the meaning of Silent Hill or the connotations of events in Majora’s Mask, you will find some real meat on the bones of this tale.
Sean Hogan and John Kittaka have pumped mystery, tension, and great gameplay into Anodyne, creating one of the best game experiences I’ve had this year. It’s satisfying to play over and over again, with a challenge that kept it consistently fun and a story that takes multiple read-throughs to truly understand. Anodyne just continues to get deeper and more interesting over my many runs with it, and it’s something you need to try if you haven’t already.
Anodyne is available for $9.99 on Steam.