Gamers typically have a soft spot for the video games of their youth. This nostalgia oftentimes factors into our modern gaming consumption. I for one am definitely biased towards retro pixel art games that harken back to the glorious 8-bit and 16-bit games I played as a child. The developers at Analgesic Productions appear to share this love of 80s and 90s pixel art games. Their first two published games on the Xbox One (Anodyne and Even The Ocean) both have the retro pixel aesthetics of the past combined with more modern mechanics and fresh narratives. Their newest game, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (published by Ratalaika Games) takes the nostalgia a few steps further. In addition to multiple pixel art styles, they also created a 3D world that immediately reminded me of the polygon-filled games on PS1 and N64. An endearing, self-referencing, meta-laden tale that’s also filled with humor awaits anyone who plays the game. Analgesic has incorporated multiple genres into Anodyne 2 that are matched up with different graphical styles. The different genres allow for a variety of game mechanics. All of this together in one package really made me curious and eager to experience and explore the game, but at the same time it made me wonder if the game could really pull it off.
The first thing you might be wondering is whether the Anodyne series needs to be played in order. Very early in the game, the developers make it clear that this isn’t necessary, yet they also point out that there are a few shared themes and overlapping aspects between the two games. The next thing you might be wondering is, Ratalaika Games published this? Don’t they usually publish short, cheap, super easy games for people that like unlocking achievements? The answer to both of those questions is Yes, but fortunately, it seems as if Ratalika had zero input into the achievement list for this game. It is a relatively easy list but it will take the entire 6-10 hour length of the game to unlock them all.
The narrative contained in Anodyne 2 is one of its main draws. You watch as the playable character Nova is created at the beginning of the game; to complete this process you are tasked with completing some easy objectives which act as a sort of tutorial. Nova is the latest Nano Cleaner – created for the sole purpose of saving the island of New Theland from the plague of dust that contaminates and distorts the mind of anyone it infects. After you are created you meet Palisade and C-Psalmist who act as your caretakers and guides throughout your journey. They each have a different approach but both seem to truly care about Nova. Palisade has the deepest impact, helping Nova learn about her mission, but also helps her discover more about herself and her feelings and emotions. These themes continue as you meet new, unique and interesting characters. To stop the dust plague you must repair the dust storage machine, located in the central city of Cenote. For some strange reason, the process to repair the machine requires Nova to collect Anodyne branded trading cards throughout the world. With each set of four cards that are collected and returned to the city centre the dust storing capacity increases and you get closer to being able to activate the Anodyne which will save New Theland.
On the surface Anodyne 2 is a sci-fi story-focused platformer that encourages exploration and discovery, taking place in the surreal, futuristic, other-worldly land of New Theland. Strange creatures inhabit this land; some are familiar like dogs or a skeleton, but most are more alien-looking. Nova can speak to all the inhabitants she encounters, and some are more helpful than others. There’s a fair amount of self-referential and self-aware dialogue that can be found by talking to everyone you meet. One character comments how he makes gameplay videos and complains that “people only like watching videos of big world games”. There’s a lot of written dialogue in the game, but if you get tired of reading through it there are options in the menu to speed up the text speed as well as skip it entirely (which was implemented for speedruns).
Overall the gameplay and look of the first Anodyne is comparable to the top-down entries in the Legend of Zelda series. At first glance, just based on appearance, Anodyne 2 looks like it could be a lost entry in the Final Fantasy series from the PS1 era. The world is a beautiful low poly design with pleasing color palettes made up of pastels and earthy tones and hues. Despite the low resolution, the 3D world contains sweeping vistas and enchanting landscapes that greatly add to the surreal experience the game creates. While in the 3D areas the gameplay mainly encompasses exploration, with some light platforming sections acting as the only resistance the character faces. At any point in the 3D world when you aren’t inside a building or structure you can morph, Transformers-style, into a futuristic car which eases traversal by saving you lots of time while also acting as a more interesting way to move. When first learning about the ability, the developers break the fourth wall by commenting that having instant access to a car is much better than whistling for your horse and having to wait for it to show up and then chasing it down to mount it.
Nova accomplishes her job as a Nano Cleaner by shrinking down to the Nano level and entering an infected host. This is where the game mechanics start to open up. The first time you enter someone you have to play a quick-time mini-game. You start at one end of what looks like an elevated highway in a futuristic city and must reach your target at the other end by pressing the correct corresponding buttons which are timed to a techno-sounding beat. If you mess up you just slow down a bit, and overall it isn’t very hard. Once you reach the infected being you automatically jump up into the air, shrink down, and enter inside them; this is visualized as you shooting through a tube that I couldn’t help but think of as an intestine since the first few I entered had the color and texture that I imagine an intestine having.
This part of the game changes the visual style to pixel art that would be at home on the SNES or GBA and makes the game look much more similar to its predecessor. You can only enter specific creatures, but each one you enter has its own art style. Once I realized this I became curious how each new Nano level would look. Most of these areas are on the smaller end, usually with around a dozen rooms, but later in the game you’ll enter some that are only a couple of rooms and others that are huge and seem like their own little game world. For the most part, the gameplay in the Nano areas revolves around the use of your dust vacuum that can be used to suck up things like rocks and most enemies. Once you’ve sucked something into the vacuum it can then be shot back out to hit enemies or other objects. You can also suck up dust clouds as well as the red dust crystals that enemies randomly drop; these fill up your dust tank and the crystals also heal one health.
There’s some light puzzle solving in the earlier levels which usually encompasses killing some or all of the enemies in a room and the complexity slowly ramps up as you progress through the game. New level mechanics are introduced in each Nano level; a lot of the times it’s just a new variety of enemy that must be dealt with differently, but other times it’s something more interesting, like one level that lets you suck up and shoot out these creatures that turn into ladder bridges which must be placed in the correct position so you can traverse the screen. Later in that same level the key you find, which would normally float beside you until you use it in a lock, will periodically stop and ponder out loud requiring you to use the ladders to reacquire the key. In addition to the art and gameplay variety in the Nano levels another thing that I liked was the top-notch interface design only found in this mode. A futuristic high-tech looking piece of equipment takes up most of the screen with health and dust bars on one side and a square screen in the middle where the game is displayed. These combined with the other elements really make the interface stand out.
At the end of the first few Nano levels you have to fight a little mini-boss and each time it was the same boss sprite and basically the same fight, which kind of worried me, but after the third time he didn’t make another appearance. You almost always get a card as a reward for clearing the dust from the creature you entered and sometimes you can find extra cards hidden in both the 2D levels and 3D overworld. Sometimes finding the fourth card for a set was a little difficult and turning in each of the first few sets is what progresses the story.
Fortunately, there are two solutions if you’re having difficulty finding the cards. Option one: the game was actually released on Steam last year so there are guides already available, the developer actually posted one on Steam that tries to limit spoilers, which I used a few times. The second option is built into the game. At about the halfway point you unlock the new mechanic/feature combination of metacoins and the metashop. After that point, you can find large rotating metacoins in all the 3D areas. These coins can be spent in the meta shop, where perhaps the most useful thing you can buy is the card detector – this will tell you if there’s a card in your current area if you go into the menu and click on it. The map also illustrates if there’s a card in your area but it isn’t very specific so they can still be difficult to find. In one area the map seems to indicate that the card is in the water but when you enter the water you respawn at the shore each time – that card ended up being on the other side of that area. The metashop also has an item you can unlock called MetaInfo Points. Once purchased, a number of info points appear in the 3D world, and you can interact with any of them to learn about Analgesic Productions’ game development process. Investigating all these points could definitely be a reason to start this game up again, but overall the game doesn’t have much replayability. It is speedrunner friendly with some options in the menu to speed things up, so perhaps that community will embrace it.
The audio design really stands out in Anodyne 2. When I first started the game and listened to the main menu music it instantly reminded me of Angelo Badalamenti’s title track for Twin Peaks. Both have a comforting, peaceful sound, one that also emanates a sense of longing. The title screen depicts Nova in a cocoon-like transparent orange egg looking peaceful and serene, and the music amplifies this feeling. The game features a 50+ song soundtrack that ranges from the orchestral numbers that reminded me of classic JRPGs (and Twin Peaks), to techno-sounding tracks that fit nicely with the futuristic settings. Each 2D level also sounded like it had its own unique track.
When playing Anodyne 2: Return to Dust you can tell the developers love making video games and want to share that love with anyone interested. Thanks to an ever-expanding world and the introduction of new mechanics and ideas as the game progresses the game certainly stands out from the pack. There are some slow-paced parts and a few of the later puzzles and card locations might require a guide, but overall Anodyne 2 should be played by anyone who is interested in indie game design or anyone that wants to enjoy a multi-genre nostalgia-fueled adventure with an endearingly entertaining story about self-discovery.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.