Anodyne 2: Return to Dust Review

March 22, 2021
Also on: PC, PS4
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If you reach the end credits of Anodyne 2, you’ll notice that the credit roll only shows two people for every aspect of the game’s development. The game is a massive accomplishment in terms of scope, and it’s ambitious in its varying gameplay styles and graphical perspectives. It fuses the PSX-era chunky polygonal aesthetic with 2D Zelda like puzzles and Earthbound/Undertale-esque playful ambiance and boss fight segments. At its heart, it feels like a 3D exploration and adventure game with condensed elements of those aforementioned 2D puzzlers, and a somewhat grand, confounding plot reminiscent of PSX-era JRPGs. There are even primordial, Atari 2600-like portions as we keep shrinking the main character Nova into an even more lilliputian form. However, for all its ambition and heady, playful writing, Anodyne 2 too often feels like an inside joke that the player is peering in on from the outside. 

I came here to dress mannequins and clean dust, and my vacuum’s full. 

You play as Nova, a cleaner birthed and raised by The Center who is tasked with eradicating the world’s infection of dust and collecting cards, which are either hidden in hard-to-spot platforming nooks or, more commonly, inside the 2-D landscape of the interior of an NPC. Once the dust is cleaned, and the cards are collected, “The Anodyne” - which is touted as some world saving event by Nova’s bosses/parents - can be achieved. As such, Nova is equipped with a vacuum, which she can use once she dives inside of dust-ridden NPCs to clean them up and to move puzzle items around, or clear rooms by sucking up enemies and throwing them at other enemies. These rooms can get somewhat complex, with Nova having to take out enemies in a specific order or suck up different, more uniquely functioning items like a boomerang. These have to be tossed at the perfect angle and then you have to quickly find the right spot to move Nova to in the room for them to knock out enemies on their way back.

There are a smattering of different ideas at play in these rooms, and you can really feel the game flexing its muscles creatively. My favourite ideas were the split rooms where you had to lead a shadow version of yourself around, which moved in reverse to you. There’s also these gumballs which, when shot, turn into ladders that you use to progress through a room. Puzzles will often use a finite number of enemies and items, which will require you to leave and return to a room to reset it if you screw up. 

No offense taken, you bigfooted sunflower weirdo. 

There are also two bigger 2D areas later in the game, which require the use of your vacuum in tandem with a raft to get around. These more open, Zelda-inspired areas demand that the player complete more opaque, environmental puzzles which verge on rethe need to take notes on navigation, as the biggest does not have a very good map. There is one particularly infuriating puzzle that involves following stones that have hints on them written in puns, and you have to figure out the meaning of the writing while also tagging each of the stones in the proper order, which I found nary of hint of in the game. There’s another mind-boggling solution to one of the puzzles in the rafting area that, if I hadn’t been reviewing the game, would have caused me to quit before finishing it.

I feel like the developers knew that this approach wasn’t for everyone, as one of them wrote out the solutions to all of the game’s puzzles on the game’s Steam page. During the aforementioned stone puzzle, one character in the game suggests that he suspects you may use a FAQ to solve it. There’s another beautifully rendered isometric sequence in the game that has you running from a gargoyle monster in an apartment building, and the game offers you the option to skip it altogether. I decided to play through it, and while it wasn’t particularly difficult, it was repetitive, lengthy, and annoying. In each room you enter, you don’t know which direction the gargoyle monster is going to pop out of, and it can drop from above, in which case you’re pretty much screwed. The isometric perspective is odd, and it’s awfully difficult to tell where the gargoyle is in relation to your character. When you die, you have to sit through a 15-second-long loading screen - strangely the rest of the game loads quick enough, this only affects this part of it - and start the entire bit over again. When you get to the end, you must progress by hitting a correct text option, which I missed because I was speed scrolling through the text, and I had to start the entire sequence over again. There are so many points of the game that feel like they’re intentionally testing the player’s patience, and rather than being fun, you just feel like your time is being wasted.

That’s great, but I’m just trying to grab some vegetables...

Nova can also morph at will into a futurist car to travel across the game’s hills and landscapes. Traversal is probably Anodyne 2’s biggest weakness. The car handles poorly and its top speed is unsatisfyingly leisurely. You feel like you’re stuck in molasses for much of your adventuring. It clips through almost everything too, though given the rest of the game’s choices, it’s possible that’s intentional. Anodyne 2 stubbornly refuses to hand the player a fast-travel system, and even jokes about it in one of the game’s few zones - the Nexus - that has warps to other areas. 

Let me tell you what that means practically. In order to progress in Anodyne 2, you must drop cards off at The Center, which is at the bottom of the world map, and then also drop your collected dust off at a dust drop-point, which exists at the bottom of the map and also on top of the elevator which takes you down to the bottom of the map. Either can take forever to return to if you’re doing just about anything in the latter half of Anodyne 2, and you can only hold a small amount of Dust, so you have to stop whatever interesting thing you’re doing and return multiple times to these drop-off points to make these little boring exchanges, or you won’t be able to continue earning Dust, which is required to beat the game. It feels utterly pointless. Saves are manual, too, and are few and far between in the 3D landscapes. As with the tougher, more tedious puzzles, the developers are well aware of how annoying these navigation stopgaps are, and even have NPCs joking about how slow it is to get around with fast travel within the game. Almost as an insult, you receive a little fast travel system once you beat the game. 

What a delightfully large nose!

Anodyne 2 has such a variety of characters, worlds, graphical styles, and things to say, that it’s mystifying how often it seems to shoot itself in the foot, while seemingly taunting the player for choosing to play it. I understand that there’s an element of metacommentary to this, and possible a strict adherence to the systems of past games, or a philosophical stubbornness about forcing the player to get through the game in a specific, slow way, but at the end of the day, it just made me feel anxious that I was wasting my time on a game that doesn’t want people to enjoy it. On the other hand, I was head-over-heels on the game’s aesthetic. Its lo-fi PSX worlds are gorgeous, the 2D areas are crisp and colourful and each have their own little theme, and some of the more obscure, briefly rendered aesthetics are gorgeous. I also liked the game’s ending and its anti-capitalist message, though I found some of the characters’ speeches to be didactic and confusing, with some bits sounding like the same couple writers blowing off steam than coherent, fleshed-out characters. The soundtrack is consistently catchy and spans several game music styles, from aggressively syncopated Game Boy-esque chiptunes, to blissed-out synths, to Vivaldi covers.

Ah, well, I don’t know what I expected. 

It’s unfortunate, then, that so much of Anodyne 2 just doesn’t feel very fun to play. One wonders if it would have been more enjoyable as a strictly linear experience, as getting from one place to another feels less like discovery and more like a chore. During too much of the game, I’d rather actually be vacuuming the apartment.

If you have the patience for it, and you have a love of old-school videogames and the PSX-era, you will find a lot to love here. It’s a surprising jack-of-all trades, but only a master of some. It’s an uncompromising dystopian vision born out of a love for old videogames and a desire by the developers to really speak to the player through their NPCs, but it’s just too meandering to be consistently entertaining.

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Uncompromising to a fault, Anodyne 2’s sublime polygonal world and oblique writing will pull the player in, only to mire them in a slow-to-navigate open world bits and willfully opaque environmental puzzles. Feels almost too academic to fully enjoy.