I haven’t seen sunsets like this since, oh, 1996. Explicitly modelled on the look and feel of 3D PS1 and N64 games, the island setting of Anodyne 2 is like a version of Hyrule Field engulfed by the coral reefs of Square Enix’s Chrono Cross. It’s an exquisite recreation of a lost period in videogame landscaping, from the aliasing on the waterfalls to the smudgy paintings of distant environments that serve as portals to other areas. For all its pristine historical specificity, however, this realm is host to a creeping decay – the Nano Dust, an enigmatic force that infests the minds and bodies of New Theland’s residents, giving rise to (or at least, revealing) strange anxieties and desires.
Which is where you come in. You play Nova, a silver-clad, spiky-limbed agent of recovery hatched from an egg by the Center, the island’s unseen creator and overseer. Using your ability to shrink to microscopic size (which involves a faintly mystifying, but pleasing, rhythm-matching minigame), you must teleport into each New Thelander’s soul and clear the blight from their inner workings with your vacuum gun, vanquishing odd fancies let loose by accumulated Dust. You’ll then offload this Dust at a containment facility in the game’s one city, Cenote, where it can be used as energy to push back the island’s Dust Storms and expose new areas. It’s in the act of shrinking that Anodyne 2 plays its ace: curled up inside each character’s psyche is another, older kind of game, a beautifully wrought 2D mosaic dungeon in the spirit of Link to the Past.
This is industry history defined not as the heedless march of technological progress, but as the rings of a tree – hardware constraints, design conventions and aesthetics traditions wrapped around one another. Except that’s far too static a metaphor: Anodyne 2’s achievement lies with how it goes beyond even the brilliance of its generation-switching conceit to embrace a universe of shortform experiments. In the process, it also creates scepticism for the ethic of symmetry and authorial control represented by the Center, as Nova learns to perceive the Dust in a less fearful light. The game’s overarching fable is quite straightforward, for all the mildly terrifying theoretical flair and self-reflexivity of its writing. It is a coming-of-age tale, about learning to live with life’s ugliness and uncertainty for the sake of life’s beauty and surprise.