words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Analgesic Productions for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2013.
Anodyne is action-adventure game starring a white-haired bespectacled boy named Young who must save his dream world from a great evil called The Darkness. The game’s presentation and gameplay are inspired by The Legend of Zelda, featuring interconnected single-screen environments that pan into view as you move from one to the next, and the world is divided into overworld and dungeon-based environments (although the acquisition of equipment for completing dungeons plays almost no part here). A fitting retro-themed soundtrack accompanies the simple yet well-designed visuals.

Rather than a sword, our hero wields a rather unlikely weapon: a broom. One of the snarky statues you encounter along the way even comments about Young’s chosen weapon, joking that this was just as was foretold in The Legend. The game’s humor falls along the lines of Earthbound or Working Designs-localized RPG’s like Lunar. It’s not afraid to poke fun at itself and laugh about some of the innate silliness involved in the overall setup, but it has some serious moments here and there, offering a few dark vignettes before heading back into the otherwise lighthearted world.

The world is large but a map helps the player keep track of previously explored areas and as yet inaccessible locales. The 160x160 pixel screens offer up a great deal of variety, with beaches, caves, cliffside trails, pastoral plains, strange red landscapes with walking trees, and no shortage of rivers and lakes. There are also a number of less fantasy-inspired areas, including paved roads, towns, and a hotel.

The controls are simple. You can move up, down, left, and right through the isometrically displayed world, and you can move in diagonals as well, even though you can only attack in 4 directions. Your broom juts forward and causes damage to anything it touches, killing most enemies in a couple of hits. Minor upgrades include the ability to send puffs of dust out to either side to widen your attack, or to send them forward to lengthen it. In a few rare instances, you need to manually switch between attack types, but it is otherwise left to the player’s preference.

The game starts out slow, placing you on a lonely road with a number of paths set before you. Since you start the game without your trusty broom, you are not equipped to deal with a room full of enemies. However, you are able to dodge enemies and flip switches, eventually leading you to your broom. In this introductory area, you learn that doors may be opened by flipping switches or destroying all of the enemies in the area, and one-time-use keys can be used to open silver doors. These basic mechanics remain throughout the game.

About a third of the way into the game, you earn the ability to jump, which allows you to access new areas and complete the game’s many jump-based environmental challenges. Unfortunately, the performance of precision jumps is a bit challenging, and it’s easy to misjudge things by a pixel or two and find yourself falling into a pit, costing you one unit of life. Levels in the back half of the game require multiple jumps in succession, as well as some diagonal jumps, and even speed-based jumps (by hitting special arrow tiles on the ground), which can lead to some frustrating moments and a quick loss of health.

Fortunately, the checkpoint and warping system make the game quite forgiving. When you activate a new checkpoint, your health is fully restored, and you are free to warp back to the dungeon’s entrance or the hub area (called The Nexus) at any time. From the hub, you can instantly travel to any previously discovered warp point. Even if you do lose a life, any progress you made to that point is saved, so your map remains marked, switches remain flipped, and treasure chests remain opened. The only progress you truly lose is the time it takes you to walk back to the room where you failed, hopefully equipped with the knowledge you need to pass it. Checkpoints are frequent, so you’re never too far away from a full health restoration and a place to pick up where you left off if you wish to quit the game and return later.

Many of the game’s dungeons – and even some of the overworld areas – offer level design that is more complex than that of The Legend of Zelda. Rather than simply moving from one screen to the next via a gateway to the north, south, east, or west, there are often multiple pathways out of an area, many of which dead-end on the adjacent screen. This makes environmental navigation a bit more complex, but this is also used for gameplay purposes: sometimes this allows the player to view an adjacent room and see how a puzzle needs to be solved (which also adds it to your map); sometimes switches are only accessible via adjacent rooms; and sometimes the player encounters a complex maze that subverts the map system that he would otherwise rely on.

The map is typical of the action-adventure genre, showing a number of interconnected rooms and the directions of the doorways. A mini-map also appears at the top of the screen, showing your immediate surroundings. Thorough dungeon exploration is absolutely required, so the player will eventually find himself exploring every available room, passing through each doorway, and finding each of the keys to open the dungeon’s locked doors.

Large keys can be found in dungeons as well, but these are used to open new areas on the overworld map. Other gates remain locked depending on the number of cards in your inventory. The card system is unique in that essentially acts as an experience system – or more precisely, it acts as proof of your exploration of the world – and certain areas remain inaccessible until you have enough of these cards in your possession. Throughout most of your adventure, having the requisite number of cards simply limits your access to optional side-areas where you can increase your maximum health by one unit. However, by the end of the game, you will reach an area where your card collection determines your ability to continue.

If you have been thorough, then this will pose little issue; otherwise, you will find yourself backtracking into previous areas to seek out any treasure chests that you may have overlooked. To help you in your card collecting quest, each doorway in the hub area has a gem above it. If the gem is lit, then you know that all of the cards in that area have been found. Each of the cards represents a character or enemy in the game, and most offer up humorous quips if you examine them in your inventory.

Gameplay remains fairly uncomplicated for the duration of the game, as your broom remains your only means of attack throughout your adventure. Aside from the “wide” or “long” attack, there is nothing else to manage in your inventory: no sub-weapons, no items, and no restoratives. Everything is done with your broom. Certain enemies may drop health restoratives when killed, with smaller enemies sometimes dropping items that provide one unit of restoration and larger enemies dropping shields that restore three units. Still, if you don’t dodge their attacks, it’s easy to lose more health than this while attempting to take them down. Most killed enemies remain killed when you re-enter a room, making exploration a bit easier, but also reducing the number of potential health restoratives.

The broom is more than a simple sword replacement; it plays into the game’s core mechanics as well. In addition to swatting enemies, the broom can be used to pick up dust and deposit elsewhere on the screen. This may not seem like much of an ability, but it is the crux of many of the game’s environmental puzzles. Dust can be used to block laser blasts and air gusts, as well as activate switches, and you can even drop a pile of dust into the water and ride it around like a raft (you otherwise drown in deep water after a few seconds).

Some more advanced puzzles involve luring enemies to trip buttons for you, and dust can be used to block laser blasts that would otherwise kill them. Since dust cannot be carried from screen to screen, many of the environments center on its proper use within the local confines.

You meet a number of interesting and odd NPC’s along the way. Early on, you meet a colorful girl named Mitra who crashes her bike in front of you before proclaiming that she is travelling around peddling her wares… except that she is not a merchant at all. As it turns out, “Wares” is the name of her bicycle. When you do finally meet a proper merchant, he has a number of items available for sale that seem like they might be useful to you on your quest, and he is happy to give you the details and price of each… only you have no means by which to pay for them, and no way to earn money. You also meet some anthropomorphic animals along the way, each with their own peculiar hang-ups, and each adding to the game’s overall humorous tone.

Occasionally, you enter an area where things are not so cheery, and which are not populated with charming and aloof characters. For instance, one area drops you into a staticy black and white suburb, and your broom is unexpectedly replaced with a sword, meaning that you’re likely to kill the first person you try to talk to. There are shadowy creatures haunting the area as well, which will lead to your fast demise if they manage to get a hold of you. Exploring the houses reveals some regular folks within who are able to speak with you, but their tales are not happy ones.

Dungeon and enemy designs add some variety, starting the player in traditional dungeon environments before sending him into more interesting areas like a maze with invincible creeping ghouls, a hotel populated by rats and roaches that can be used to manipulate switches, and a couple of segmented dungeons with multiple entrances. Each area has its own unique feel, with visual effects altering the landscape (and even the player character) to change the overall mood, which is further supported by the ambient musical themes.

Often, you are given very little direction as to where you need to go to continue your quest, leaving you to explore the world and discover things on your own. In some cases, progress is blocked by a gate or some other thing, but the world becomes less and less restrictive as you get further along. By the halfway point, you are essentially free to explore any location and tackle dungeons in any order you like. And once you do finish the game, there is additional content to be had for intrepid explorers, with new cards to be found, odd characters to meet, and unique objects to uncover.

Anodyne was created by Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka, under the unofficial company name Analgesic Productions (analgesic is a synonym for anodyne). Sean focused on programming, audio, and level design, while Jon focused on writing and art. Both were students during the time of the game’s development, and this was their first commercial release.

Following Anodyne, the team developed Even the Ocean, a narrative platforming adventure with a universe founded upon light and dark energy. This energy can be absorbed by Aliph, a power plant technician that serves as the game's protagonist, with light energy allowing her to jump higher, and dark energy increasing her speed and allowing her to jump farther. Aliph must keep these forces balanced, however, as too much of either type of energy will kill her. For a detailed look at the game, check our coverage here.