Review: Anodyne 2: Return to Dust

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Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect

It’s not easy to bake mysteries into your big game. I mean, it’s easy to hide stuff, but it’s not really a mystery if no one cares to find it. The original Anodyne was crammed full of compelling secrets because its setting lent so well to them, a feverish, almost-familiar dreamscape of very human fears and comforts. Anodyne 2 is a bold departure from the 2D roaming and contextual storytelling of the first, but builds an entirely new framework of exploration and wonder in a 3D space. By the time you start seeing the links between the old and the new, there will be more than enough mystery waiting in the cracks to keep you hooked.

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You are Nova, and you have been born with a purpose. The vast, fanciful world of New Theland is beset by Dust, which corrupts its inhabitants and causes the land to decay. Nova was created by the Center, the ruling authority of New Theland, to venture forth and clear the Dust wherever it is found. The representatives of the Center give Nova several powerful tools for this purpose, including a vacuum, a spark that allows her to shrink down and enter Dust-corrupted beings, and the ability to transform into a car. As she travels New Theland she begins to learn more about the world than what the Center tells her, and faces challenges to truths she has taken for granted since birth. In the end, Nova will find herself at a crossroads, with the fate of the world in her hands and a tangle of mysteries to inform that decision.

If you’re coming straight here from the first Anodyne, that’s going to be a boatload more plot than what you got there. Indeed, Anodyne 2 is way, way, way more focused on narrative than its predecessor. Anodyne 1 certainly had a story, but it was told more through feel and context than anything. In stark contrast, the sequel is full of dialogues, cutscenes, narration, and text-only segments that advance the many looming threads of the plot. New Theland is a complicated place, and Nova is a complicated character, which means a lot more drama and subtext and symbolism than even the first game offered up. The writing is absolutely up to the challenge, though, with some fantastic lines and imagery alongside the bizarre almost-non-sequitur observations you get from the supporting cast.

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The other big difference from the first Anodyne is the structure of the game. Anodyne 2 is mainly set in a sprawling 3D world of low-poly models and PS1-era textures, which are both a bit muddy and also completely appropriate for the strange characters and landscapes you’ll find. Among the stilt villages and macrocellular forests you’ll meet nonsense beings suffering from Dust afflictions, whom you can travel inside (after a short rhythm-ish minigame) and explore in a more traditional 2D format. These are the game’s dungeons, and while they start off small and simple they eventually become their own worlds to explore, with some surprising secrets hidden beneath. Their similarity to the original Anodyne isn’t a coincidence either, as you’ll make a few discoveries that re-contextualize the first game here.

I really want to stress that there’s a lot going on here, and it’s going to take a little while to see the full scope of it. This might be Anodyne 2’s biggest misstep, because it plays a lot of its best cards close to the chest until you get a few hours in. The intro island and first open area, the city surrounding the Center, are fairly limited and feature some very small, repetitive 2D worlds. There’s a discovery you make around the 3-hour mark that shakes up the narrative significantly, and then right after that an entirely new game system is introduced that does a lot to make the 3D world more engaging. The surprises keep coming as you reach the furthest edges of New Theland and find areas that break hard with the established order that you might have feared being stuck with in the first few hours.

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Everything in Anodyne 2 means something, and the further in you get the more meta those somethings become. Creation and purpose are central to the themes of this adventure, even to the point of discussing Anodyne 2’s own creation and purpose within the context of itself. Along with the conspicuous seams in the world and the occasional characters aware of them, this game introduces developer commentary and behind-the-scenes exploration in a parallel to gameplay that I’ve never seen before. The looks behind the curtain start to become part of the core experience, and it gives Anodyne 2 a feel of wonder and mystery that’s wholly unique. And those mysteries will persist to the very end and beyond, which should relieve folks compelled by the secrets of the first.

Despite a bit of a slow start and a shadow of uncertainty about dense plot and samey dungeons, I found myself thoroughly immersed in this one. Once the twists began to appear, that plot took hold and demanded resolution, which you can get in two very, very different ways after upwards of 10 hours. There’s meaning to divine throughout, from addled tree-beings and talking egg yolks but also from symbolism and subtext you won’t want to gloss over. The shift to 3D without completely abandoning 2D proved to be a good one, even if done in a rougher style than some might want. In the end it’s every bit the great adventure the original was with a vastly different feel, and it stands as proof that these developers have mastered the art of creating compelling experiences.

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