Dreams are pretty common tropes in all sorts of media, which is unfortunate because they’re rarely used well. Too many games and movies and books use dreams as a cheap shock or an easy way to spill characterization, ignoring the unique sensations and aesthetic of the subconscious. The developers behind Anodyne didn’t take the easy way out here, because they’ve crafted an expansive dreamscape to explore that actually feels like the product of an unquiet mind. And not only that, they built a fun and engaging game on top of that hook.
Anodyne is the story of Young, a… youthful, platinum-haired fellow plumbing the depths of his own subconscious. I won’t go into anymore detail than that, but the diverse cast of characters you’ll come across in your surreal trip will happily fill in the gaps for you, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. You’ll control Young in a manner very similar to classic Legend of Zelda, from a top-down and pixellated perspective. While most of the game is exploring the strange and meaningful world, there is some combat to be had with your trusty broom and some puzzling, including some occasionally challenging platforming.
The world of Young’s mind is the big draw here, because it does a magnificent job of approximating a series of dreamscapes. I mean, it’s going to be different for everyone of course but Anodyne nails the universal logic of dreams, the seemingly inexplicable connections and non-sequiturs that do indeed represent events in the waking world. You’ll start in pleasant, wind-swept meadows and mossy ruins but soon find yourself in impossibly-sprawling apartment complexes, twisting dungeons, ghostly towns, and stranger places still. They exist as real places would in a dream but connect and change in unexpected ways, lending them that key sensation of mystery and unfamiliarity.
It’s not a horror game but the way that every location and creature is a little bit off gives a feeling of foreboding to the adventure. And there are definitely some horrifying things that happen, so that feeling is not at all unjustified. The low-key soundtrack helps a lot here too, setting the tone just right for your imagination to run wild. As you progress the environments get stranger and the creatures spout more nonsense, but it really does come together in the end to give you an idea of what it’s all speaking to.
I’ve gone on a bit much about the atmosphere, but the gameplay is plenty solid enough to keep it entertaining. Young is spry and controls well, allowing you to weave around tricky foes and pummel them with your broom. You’ll find upgrades to your weapon and mobility as well, along with collectible cards that provide additional insight on the world’s denizens. Save points are plentiful and there’s an expansive fast-travel system for the expansive world, so don’t worry about missing key items or dying at inopportune times.
There’s hardly anything to criticize here if you’re down for a journey into the surreal. The story is good, the gameplay is tight, and the environments are crafted with expert care. It’ll last you a few hours even if you don’t go hunting for every little secret, too. I love great atmosphere and I love great gameplay, so I can barely contain my excitement for any title that combines the two. Anodyne is an excellent adventure game from top to bottom, and one of the few to really do dreamscapes justice.