Anodyne 2: Return to Dust

A young woman named Nova is brought into existence. As a being created from Dust by the Center, she has a role to fulfill. Designated as a Nano Cleaner, she has the ability to hop into people’s bodies to clean the corrupting influence of Dust to maintain order on New Theland. Collect cards to upgrade the mighty dust prism, deposit dust and work hard to create an ideal world!

Yet, is this job Nova’s only purpose?

The title screen for Anodyne 2: Return to Dust.

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is the latest game by Analgesic Productions – the duo of Sean Han Tani and Marina Ayano Kittaka – who got their start with the first Anodyne. Anodyne 2 is a sequel in the sense of Final Fantasy sequels in that they share a bunch of similar elements and there’s a bunch of references to the first game, but they don’t have an interconnecting narrative.

In recent years, the indie scene’s embraced the low-fi look of PS1 games, out of practicality and aesthetic. Marina’s crafted a mellow platformer world in the same vein and while there’s bits of architecture that still screams “I am a jumping puzzle,” it generally leans toward something more realistic. Realistic enough that there’s actually a fair bit of distance between landmarks, so the game gives Nova the ability to shapeshift into a cool car to get around places that’s thankfully available at the start.

While collecting cards is Nova’s main goal, the 3D portion of the game is hardly a collectathon. Aside from those bits of architecture I mentioned, the collectibles in the 3D world are just kinda placed around to encourage you to poke around. For the most part, the world is something to just take in and enjoy.

In fact, when a new type of collectible is introduced, it’s introduced by a caricature of a smarmy Silicon Valley guy trying to bring ~innovation~ to Nova’s exploits. With that and how haphazardly some of the collectibles are placed, it feels like a mockery of the collectathon 3D platformer.

That said, collecting this stuff gives you a bunch of behind the scenes stuff. Commentary dressed up like innovative pitches gets placed around the game’s 3D maps and you can buy access to go into beta versions of the game’s areas. While it’s probably not important to the average player, I think it’s fascinating to look at for people that try to make games.

However, this brave new 3D space does not mean that the 2D stylings of the original game is abandoned. When Nova finds someone that is heavily infected with Dust, she can shrink inside of them to do a 2D Gameboy-Zelda styled dungeon.

Nova can’t jump, but she’s got a sweet vacuum. She can suck up certain enemies and objects and shoot them to hit things at a distance, which often plays with the gimmicks of whatever level you’re in. Water slimes put out flames in the path of where you shoot them, pieces of gum explode into makeshift bridges when hit by bones (it actually makes sense in context), etc.

One of my main complaints with the first Anodyne is that while I loved the dreamlike feel of the setting, the setting did not feel cohesive. Its story and themes felt really unclear in a way that doesn’t work. I’ll be real, I honestly didn’t know what the game was about until I read a postmortem on it.

However, Anodyne 2 avoids that problem with how the dungeons are presented. In Anodyne 2, most of the levels are clearly the personal arcs of whoever Nova’s inside, with the level being themed around their personality or the struggles that necessitated Nova’s help. Bran, a construction worker suffering from anger problems, has her dungeon themed to be a high-rise construction site with flames and angry orbs making more fire. The leader of a fan club of a tree carver has an implicit narrative of a pilgrimage from an oppressive, snowy land to a beautiful tree hanging above (speaking of which, the visuals in the 2D space are no slouch either). Even the few levels that aren’t focused on a personal arc end up reflecting off of the greater story.

What I admire the most about Anodyne 2‘s levels is that even with the more cohesive narrative, it does not compromise on the surreal nature of the first game that pulled me in. While the 3D overworld is more down-to-Earth, there’s still some weirdness to see like the old woman that’s filled her home with lampshades and the part of the desert that’s eternally night with a large population residing in an orb. NPCs and flavor text still mix goofy jokes with profound ramblings – which works better here, as they contribute to a clearer central message.

The dungeons of Anodyne 2 start out feeling traditionally gamey. The first few are tutorial dungeons, which makes sense as it’s all about Nova trying to make sense of the world. Then you have the first batch of dungeons, which all ends in a boss fight against a Nano Assassin. Beyond that, however, the dungeons start changing. The boss fights are all but abandoned and the gameplay structure changes, with two of the last dungeons in the game being drastically different from everything you’ve seen up to that point.

How the dungeons change reflects off of Nova’s personal arc, as she starts encountering evidence that the world is more complicated than what she was presented with at birth.

Even with the first batch of dungeons, where everything aligned with Dust is the clearly delineated “bad guy,” there’s something off about the Center. The people living in the central hub are obsessed with pre-destined purposes given to them by their creators – and if not, Nova has to awaken them to how things should be.

One early game person that needs to be cleaned is gluttonous. Upon extracting the card from her, she reveals that before the Dust, her sense of taste was nonexistent. Then some later revelations on Nova’s health came and it had me asking: did she actually become gluttonous or was what she was feeling just normal for a person?

Everything to do with the Center reminds me of my experiences with church. I’ve been preached to that I’m actually worthless without God, that I only exist to fulfill His purpose. Do not overindulgence in pleasures, lest I become unholy in the eyes of the Lord. I am Nothing, beautiful only because I was made by God and I will work toward His purpose until the Rapture comes.

Anyway, I’m a gay thot now and don’t care for this anymore. But like, with my experiences, I felt connected with Nova. Like me, she was born in a culture of dogma, raised in a framework dictating her lot in life and how the world is and should be. In her coming of age, in being exposed to new people and experiences, she learns that there’s much more to the world, and comes to question authority and if there’s more to her life.

This coming-of-age story is accompanied by a nice soundtrack by Sean. This might be because of recency bias, but I think this is my favorite soundtrack of his that he put out. There’s a nice variety to the music tracks, especially in the late game. The music in the 3D space is relaxing and atmospheric – which reminds me of Even the Ocean – while the 2D space music is more in line with the first Anodyne, but improved because it now has years of experience behind it.

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust improves the flaws of the first game and builds off of it to make something much greater. I think that it’s the best game Analgesic Productions have put out so far and it’s easily one of the best games I’ve played so far in 2019.

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