Tell someone from the 1980s that the video games industry would someday compete with the likes of Hollywood and television and they probably would have laughed you out of the arcade. Not only has technology improved, but design has changed as well. Whereas I once had notebooks filled with hand-drawn maps and reminders, I now only need to look at my quest log and every bit of information, right down to the exact location, is given to me. While this is certainly simpler and faster, I miss a time when exploration was a vital component of video games. A time when I wasn’t following a quest marker, but a river through a cave or a volcano in the distance.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is a spiritual successor to the original Anodyne, taking place in a completely different world with totally new characters so the games can be played in any order. You play as Nova, a young being capable of shrinking to microscopic size. She uses this ability in her quest to protect her home and creator, The Center, from the destructive and maddening Nano Dust. As stated by the developers, Anodyne 2 is heavily inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, but it’s completely unique in a lot of ways.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust features an ambitious combination of gameplay mechanics. Think Mario64 mixed with The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, mixed with Psychonauts. As Nova, you explore the 3D open world of New Theland as you search for citizens infected by the Dust. Once you talk to one of them, you’ll be able to shrink down into their minds, which is portrayed as a top-down 2D puzzle, so you can finally cleanse them of their madness. The objective is to collect cards from each person you successfully cleanse. The cards can then be used to repair The Center and, ultimately, defeat the Dust. If that sounds confusing then you’re only just starting to understand what it’s like to play Anodyne 2.
During the 3D open world sections, you’re tasked with searching a vast open world environment for people in need of cleaning. There are no quest markers leading you straight to your next objective. Once you’re finally thrown into the world you’re given no instruction besides find people and cleanse them of Dust. The world is vast and fairly empty, but important landmarks are easy to spot and are where you will typically find missions. Anodyne 2 does exploration very well. Each mission is found by talking to someone in need and each person is discovered organically throughout the world. There are some short platforming sections here, but they lack any real challenge. While the world is expansive, Nova’s vehicle makes travel quick and simple, if not particularly exciting.
The 2D sections of Anodyne 2 feel a lot more fleshed out. Shrinking down turns Anodyne 2 from a 3D platformer into a 2D top-down puzzle game. These levels are similar in design to dungeons in The Legend of Zelda with sprawling layouts, blocked doors, and looping pathways. Unlike Zelda, the levels in Anodyne 2 are all nearly identical. While they feature unique aesthetic design, the only real mechanical difference is with the enemies. Some might explode or have stronger shields, but overall they don’t make the levels feel any different. It would have been nice if each level introduced a unique puzzle element. This would keep things from getting too easy or too stale.
Like its mechanics, Anodyne 2 features a mish mash of aesthetic design. The 3D overworld harkens back to the days of the first PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The environments are surreal and dreamlike and the characters are mostly strange, unrecognizable creatures. The dull colors and featureless landscapes make travel easy and spotting important landscapes in the distance makes finding missions simple. The 2D art of Anodyne 2, while still surreal, is a lot easier to interpret than the pixelated, flat 3D textures. Each level is unique based on the individual’s personality and issues. You never know what to expect when entering a character’s mindscape. It could be a dusty and decrepit old attic or a beautiful snowy field. It could be populated by happy, enthusiastic workers or aggressive, dangerous monsters. The levels are not only unique, but add some insight into the characters we are trying to help.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust tries to do too much. It’s a 3D platformer, a 2D puzzle, a driving game, and even has little rhythm quick-time events. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything exceedingly well. The 2D levels are, by far, the game’s strongest aspect, but even they get old over time. The exploration during the 3D parts feels natural and satisfying, but actually traversing the world lacks any excitement. Anodyne 2 would have benefited from having a more defined direction, either as a 2D puzzle or a 3D platformer.