Game Review: Anodyne
What is it about pixel art graphic aesthetics that will forever draw me into a game? Many will argue that their usage is reaching a point of over-saturation, that their time has passed, and are just a cheap trick to prey on my generation of gamers nostalgia. Me, however, feels just the opposite. I will never get enough of pixel art graphics and with modern technology there is just so much more one can do with them. And while my nostalgia does play a part in why I enjoy their look, there are many other reasons why I find them pleasing to the eye, such as the adage that one’s mind will fill in the blanks with something more personal and more horrific and/or beautiful than the artist could ever create (see: Japanese horror flicks). In pixel art graphics, no matter how detailed they get, there is always room for me to fill in blanks and smooth out edges in my mind, therefore creating a delightful mix of what the artist intended and the brush of the artist in my mind.
Anodyne looks not only to explore this facet of gaming and art, but also asks the player to take a deeper step into not only different aspects of game design, but also into game playing and beyond. Why do we enjoy the medium, why the pleasure derived from an aesthetic, why do we all almost always perform certain actions, and why don’t many of us want to grow up. Many of these questions are aptly answered in the games title alone, but once you delve into the game and start exploring its surrealistic pixel world the introspects of the 2 man development team’s (Sean Hogan (audio, programming) and Jonathan Kittaka (art, writing) for Analgesic Productions LLC) very personal thoughts and feelings will really start encouraging you to ponder the same theories as they were. And when all is said and done and the games finale is reached you will realize that you discovered new things about yourself other than why you like video games or pixel art graphics. So, like the filling in the blanks of the visual art with your imagination, you will be filling in the questions and creating your own questions with the framework the game creates. Oh, and Anodyne is a lot of fun to play too!
This is a hard one to describe. Basically, you play a kid who has a mage visit him and charge him with a quest to save something called the Briar. So you, the kid, grabs a broom and sets off to fight monsters, solve light environmental puzzles, and explore a beautiful pixellated world. The delivery of this story, however, is much more interesting that the story itself. Very hard to put into worlds, the narrative plays out like a dream. There is no solid rhyme or reason as to why things happen or sense to why environments are the way they are. And like a dream, or even better put, an old-school NES game, you don’t bother to really ask why, it’s just the nature of the game. That is until the game gives you a slight (or sometimes obvious) nudge to start questioning it. You will start to learn that the narrative isn’t about what you are seeing on-screen, but a narrative into the mind of the artist, and eventually into yourself.
For me the big moment that really opened up the games speculative style of narrative delivery was when I was running around exploring searching for the next area to discover, and for the sake of being spoiler-free please forgive the vaugeness, I came across a situation where I automatically went to go do something extremely natural and non-violent and the outcome was violent and unexpected. I scratched my head, and after very little hesitation and with no provocation, I went ahead and performed the same action. The result was even more violence that hit me in a disturbing way and opened up a new self-reflection question as well as a new very dark turn and world for the game.
It’s this way of asking questions not only in the dialog box, but also through the gameplay creating questions that really make Anodyne one of the more unique and philosophical games out there. If alone just for that.
Basically, if you have played the The Legend of Zelda for the NES, SNES, or Gameboy, you will feel right at home with the gameplay of Anodyne. Top down perspective where you control a little guy who runs around stabbing stuff (in Anodyne’s case, you don’t use a sword, but a broom, yes a broom, like for sweeping the floor), solving environmental puzzles, talking to NPCs, fighting bosses at the end of dungeons that are uncovered by exploring different zones, and collecting collectables and a few power-ups. It’s all pretty basic fare, but between the solid gameplay foundation, well designed maps, and decent puzzles there’s more than enough to keep you engaged for the entirety of a playthrough (roughly 6 hours).
I do have one gripe however, and that is in controls. While playing I opted to use my Xbox controller because I really hate using the keyboard for anything that is not an RTS, FPS, or Diablo-clone based game. The analog stick felt really loose while playing and led to me falling in pits or mis-navigating jumps because it was overly responsive and the dead zone too small. It wasn’t that huge of a frustration that I would recommend not playing based just on that, but it would have been nice if the developers gave me an option to use 8-way controlling or fiddle with the dead zone attributes.
I’m sure I’ve let you know more than enough that Anodyne uses a pixel art style for its graphical aesthetic of choice. And use it well. Pretty much all of the different landscapes and dungeons look marvelous whether you are in a magical forest, climbing a mountain, fighting maids in a hotel, or contemplating the meaning of life looking at a city’s skyline from the roof of a high building. Everything has great detail, but there is enough left missing to let you fill in the blanks like any great use of pixel art should. Enemy designs range from the common bat and frogs to the more outlandish like circus acrobat towers and pest exterminators. All the sprites look great and fit wonderfully with the game’s world and various environments. One thing that really caught my eye was the great use of colors. At times they were bold and others faded and pastel. This really led to me being sucked into the atmosphere of a given environment or scene even more.
Beyond the rather stock sounding sound effects, the game’s soundtrack really stands out and really works to amplify the contemplative style of the game. Being very proggy and very mellow, the anodyne electronic soundscapes (you see what I did there ‘pats self on back for sub-par wordplay’) help lull your mind into a more relaxed state as you soak in all the different aspects of the game. I particularly liked how during a couple of boss battles the chill music would play and instead of being used to relax the calmness of it really made the hectic battle more sinister.
While flawed in some technical areas, the scope and scheme of Anodyne is well worth playing by anyone enjoys philosophy, psychiatry, video games, and especially those who dig on the pixel art graphic style. If you take the time to not only play the game, but also indulge yourself into the mind behind it you will come out of it with more questions than you went in and in turn trying to answer or question those questions will open up a world of more questions and answers for you to question or answer. Enjoy and share your thoughts! Peace Love and Metal!!!!
4.5 out of 5