When Anodyne came out in 2013, all I knew was that the gameplay was inspired from classic 2D Zelda games like Link’s Awakening. The world Analgesic Productions crafted was so much more than that, though. A place that is full of beauty, but also pain and fear. I was drawn in by the fascinating world and the incredibly evocative soundtrack. Now the sequel is out, and Anodyne 2: Return to Dust revisits many of the themes from the original, and with a bit more focus.
The game opens with your character, Nova, learning the ropes of what they are being born to do, while teaching the player how this game will work. It is split between wandering a 3D space that feels torn out of early 32-bit games and diving into 2D isometric dungeons akin to the first Anodyne game. I say “diving into” because Nova’s purpose for being created is to shrink down into people (or sometimes things) to clean out the nano-dust in them. The Center created Nova for this purpose, and the followers of The Center are there to help you achieve that task. There is an epidemic of dust that serves as the decay and disease in its hosts, and Nova is the fixer.
In the 3D spaces, you run, jump, and drive around to find people or nodes where you can spark these connections. While the graphics in these sections are filled with jagged polygons and rough textures, the only place it looks bad is the opening city. Once you enter the greater outside world, these low-fi looks actually serve the game quite well. It is always easy to pick out the areas of interest and people to talk to. Not to mention the design of the beachside cliffs or the spire in the desert are quite pretty and aesthetically striking. Once you find a node, it is time to get cleaning.
This process does not include the combat-focused action one might expect from the classic Zelda archetype. Instead the 2D cleaning sections are mostly filled with puzzles and avatars of the memories or feelings from whomever you’ve shrunk into. You use your vacuum to manipulate the environment or suck up enemies and objects which can then be launched back out. I connected to one sick old lady and found myself navigating a dusty old home while trying not to defeat the young slimes. In a robotic lab assistant I found myself manipulating a shadow that mirrored my movements to activate switches, and periodically watching the shadow roleplay some moments of social anxiety. In many ways these dungeons are like the mindscapes from Psychonauts—embodiments of who these other characters are. Exploring them isn’t just about solving the problems the dust is causing, but also about understanding these people and forging connections to each other.
That is really the focus of the game; making connections and learning about who people are. It is a game that encourages and supports Humanism, just as many of Analgesic Productions’ previous games have. This game does so more clearly than ever before. At the core Nova is here to help people, and it is through understanding the choices and agency of those characters that the world and its entire nature may be questioned. While Nova explores specifics depictions of depression, fears of failure, and more, the game invites the player to engage beyond Nova’s duty.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust succeeds with flying colors in this. There were moments I felt seen in ways that can only come from deeply earnest and personal works. One particular section was actually hard for me to get through because of this. It is really well done, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Just know that I am glad that I experienced it.