Review: Anodyne

By Phil Scuderi 12 Jul 2013 0
I don't think that's how it's spelled, Phil. What'd that dude say? "Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho." Hmm.

The overhead action-adventure game died a death so complete we seemed to forget it existed at all--as though the reigning emperor had ordered all monuments to the prior regime carved over. From the mid '80s to the mid '90s, it was a mainstay genre with AAA appeal, led of course by Nintendo's flagship Zelda franchise. But when the N64, Playstation and 3DFX Voodoo chipsets caused a collective obsession with accelerating polygons, 2D sprite-based games became anathema. Poor action-adventures had it extra bad since they were doubly 2D: flat graphics combined with a flat gamespace. In the wake of Diablo, those few action-adventures that survived the 3D revolution jettisoned their core mechanics of exploration and puzzle-solving in order to compete as loot-dropping slot-machines.

And that pretty much catches us up to the present day. I don't think I've played a true, new top-down action-adventure since 1997's Yoda Stories. And unlike for other maligned genres such as adventure games and flight sims, for the last 15-odd years nobody has been publicly agonizing over the death of the classic action-adventure. We all just sort of accepted its demise. Somehow we learned to reconcile our belief on the one hand that the classic Zelda titles are among the best games ever made, and our implicit expectation on the other that such games can't succeed ever again.

Unto this, enter Anodyne, a two-man labor of love from Analgesic Productions and a joyous resurrection of the best genre that ever lived and died. It's got appealing sprites, challenging dungeon puzzles, and a variety of items to gather and enemies to fight. Its NPCs offer enigmatic clues to help you chase the game's MacGuffin (a strange force dubbed The Briar). Along the way you have to suss out each new enemy's quirky vulnerability: some can only be damaged from one direction; others move or attack in a predictable and thus exploitable pattern. And in-between dungeons, you get to explore a large, open world replete with rewarding puzzles. If you're over 25, all this should make you feel giddy as a kid again.

Android emulation heads excepted. You've played games very much like this, but I bet not recently.

Anodyne's muted color palette, eerie music and Lynch-esque characters all contribute to a gnawing sense of disquiet. The game vacillates from irreverent puns and self-deprecating satire to solemn, even apocalyptic themes, and its continual juxtapositions of tone prevent it from ever coalescing thematically. (To be clear, this is the good kind of thematic confusion.) Its environments vary similarly from cratered roads and run-down hotels to high-fantasy wilderness. All this variety contributes further to the player's unease--for we gamers have grown accustomed to titles that declare from the outset everything they hope to be and accomplish. Anodyne is more standoffish, more demanding than most.

This all sounds great, so why the disappointing 2/5 score? It comes down to control. Anodyne plays beautifully on its native PC and Mac platforms, whether with the arrow keys or, even better, with a gamepad. The touchscreen surfaces of the iPad and iPhone, though, present no tactile feedback, and the resultant imprecision is nearly enough to undo this game. My thumb will never stray unintentionally from a physical D-pad, but on the flat touchscreen I frequently lose track of the virtual D-pad facsimile, with fatal consequences. Worse still, the ersatz D-pad is glitchy. About one in every sixty presses (I counted), it doesn't register when I remove or recenter my thumb, so my character goes bolting off toward the edge of the screen like a madman. The effect is quite like the occasional stuck key on a USB keyboard, except here it happens more than occasionally.

The developers released a patch just this week that introduced a new but equally problematic control scheme. Now you can touch and hold anywhere on the screen and your character will make a beeline for that point. This helps a great deal in navigating static obstacles and moving about the landscape, but it doesn't make the game's combat any easier; in fact it makes it worse, since now your hand is obscuring the action rather than resting off to the side. And when your character arrives at whatever point you've selected, instead of remaining facing the same way he spazzes out and pirouettes in all directions. Try to move up close to an enemy to attack it, and by the time you swing you'll likely be facing away from it!

Erm.. Let's trade mom stories. You first.

To give you an idea of the extent of the problem, I played through the first dungeon on my PC with my trusty old Logitech Precision gamepad. I didn't die a single time. On my iPad, I died fifteen times. The rate of attrition only grew worse in subsequent dungeons, some of which require carefully timed jumps and other precision movements.

I'd like to be a bit more constructive in my criticism, but I fear there is a fundamental problem at play here. Games like Anodyne that require fast, precision movements and twitch responses just don't belong on touchscreens. The closest thing to Anodyne on iOS that actually works well is Solomon's Keep. It's getting a bit long in the tooth, but its contrast with Anodyne is instructive. First, in SK all combat occurs wisely at range, not in melee. And second, each ranged shot is guided by auto-aim. Without these cushions to compensate for the format's inherent limitations, the game would play like--well, like Anodyne. And we would be robbed of one more enjoyable game.

Anodyne for iOS thus places me in the uncomfortable position of being able to recommend it wholeheartedly… but not for iOS. It's cheap enough on the developers' site, or on the digital platform of your choice, that you should absolutely buy there first. Once you master the game, you can look at the iOS version as a hardcore “drunk mode” challenge--though at that point, why not just get drunk for real and replay the PC version? I really wish I could say.

Review: Anodyne

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