I’ve been following Analgesic Productions—a two person team, consisting of Sean Han Tani and Marina Kittaka—since the outfit existed. Anodyne, its 2013 debut, is a game near and dear to my heart, a personal, pointed, and often funny take on the Link’s Awakening formula. As I mentioned on the podcast last week, it was actually my very first game as a full-time reviewer, and it’s stuck with me long, long after I played it. I was astounded to learn later on that it started life as a student project (as a sometimes game design instructor, I know what most student work—understandably—looks like).
It’s bright, beautiful, and weird, with well-designed dungeons and an adventure that has ideas about the nature of fantasy and wish fulfillment and the place games have in their fan’s lives. And it started this team’s run of always ambitious, sometimes experimental games that have whimsical sensibilities and humanist themes at their core. That is an aesthetic that feels appropriately even more pronounced in Anodyne 2, which is out today on PC, Mac and Linux.
Anodyne 2 is partly a 3D platformer that looks like it was released on the Saturn in 1996, with wildly colorful textures and chunky, almost voxel-like landscapes and characters. That’s the overworld, anyway (so far! I’m about two thirds in as of this writing), since your main character, Nova, frequently shrinks down and enters 2D Zelda-style dungeons whenever she encounters a person that needs, well, cleaning. It’s a little bit like Psychonauts in terms of its structure: Each dungeon represents a person who has been overcome by nano dust, a pretty easy metaphor for decay and disease, and you were born to clean it, to solve problems, to care about the world around you.
So, we have three easily identifiable elements here, the 2D Zelda-style gameplay, which has you exploring, solving puzzles, and combating creatures in tightly designed Link’s Awakening style stages. That’s very much the original Anodyne. Then we have the more experimental, 32-bit 3D environments, very much in the style of Han Tani’s All Our Asias last year, which used that early 3D aesthetic to tell a deeply personal story about the Asian-American experience, framed as an exploration of a dying man’s memories. We also have this interplay between retro gameplay and a whimsical, fiercely humanist story: Nova is here to help other people. She is frequently chatted up by her handlers/mommies (C-Psalmist and Palisade), who tell her to take breaks and even physically cradle her when the world gets to be too much. In this way, the game is reminiscent of my 2016 game of the year, Even the Ocean, where Aliph, a rad nonbinary character, was tasked with helping to clean up pollution elements in communities around a whimsical world, balancing 2D platforming with a more freeform overworld.
I’m enjoying my time with Anodyne 2, particularly it’s dreamy tone and big, surreal world dotted with pint-sized dungeons, a little like a super-indie (two people made it) Breath of the Wild. It’s an impressively-sized overworld, with varied terrain types: a gorgeous seashore, an other-wordly desert, a weird blue forest, etc, with secret items and characters and little quests. I adore the Saturn aesthetic and the talent this team has for building games that feel good to play and connect emotionally. This game—like Analgesic’s previous work—cares about the human condition and the strange ways we relate to one another, to the point of radical earnestness. Best of all, it does this through through inventive tweaks to Link to the Past’s 2D dungeon formula.
In one sequence, I found a creature named Geof—a sort of Rock-dude—digging at the bottom of a massive tower. Once I entered his mind/body construct and started playing in the 2D plane, his dungeon offered dual presentations of a once prosperous farming town that started to get choked on the nano dust. Geof was the mayor, and he took it upon himself to dig the rot away, but he ignored the pleas of his family and friends to just abandon the place and start somewhere new. I played in the tower as it stands now, a sort of dusty graveyard, and how it looked in the past, with lush vines and flowers and happier music, with increasingly dire messages from the people within. This takes place largely in the 2D world, with some short jumping puzzles in 3D that showcase the sheer height of the structure in the world.
In another, I explored the mind of a scientist robot, where most of the puzzles involved split-screen affairs with my character on one side and a doppleganger on the other, and I had to guide both through various obstacles and puzzles to get to the core and clean up the dust. In still another, I encountered a gorgeous sunset-hued 2D city tower, where I was tasked with making fashion choices for residents, running up and down stairs to collect “orders” and put together cute outfits, using my dust-cleaner to subvert the usual combat mechanics I used in other dungeons.
Every stage has that sort of twist on tone or mechanics to suit the interior life of its host character. At its heart, Anodyne 2 is about understanding and helping others, even though there’s some ambiguity about the nature of the mysterious “center” that you come from.
I personally enjoy the mixture of 3D exploration and 2D spelunking, but there’s also a danger of incongruity that none of the team’s previous games have had to contend with. I think that some folks will have a favorite mode, and that’s likely to be the dungeons. I love the 3D world and lo-fi aesthetic, and it gets much bigger and more impressive as the game goes on, but the opening city environment wasn’t my favorite. It looks simplistic in a way that was less appealing than the later environments, and given the impressive 2D tower/city stage I encountered later, I know this team can do cities well. The chunky, blocky aesthetic simply works better when it’s used to evoke massive spaces that are a pleasure to get lost in and lose time to.
But there’s a certain joy in enjoying both modes side by side, the tightness of the puzzle boxes next to the floatiness and abstraction of the 3D spaces, which evoke both the 3D platformers of the 32-and-64-bit era as well as much less cheery work, such as the haunting landscapes of Connor Sherlock and Kitty Horrorshow’s works. There’s a push and pull here that is aesthetically interesting and fairly bold, especially as the game goes on, as the world opens up and limits and boundaries start to crack and fade a bit more. Like the first Anodyne, this game’s imagination and range is impressive, as is its creative use of space and place.
I’m not done with Anodyne 2. I have a lot of terrain to explore, both in the lonely exteriors and twisty interiors of its characters’ minds. I have some mysteries to uncover and a bunch of dust to clean up. But I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey, both in the game and in whatever this team puts together next. They haven't let me down yet, and if their latest project is any indication, they really are just getting started.