Sometimes Guns Decide Not To Fire
HIGH Dustbound Beatdown!!!!
LOW A couple of cards are stupidly difficult to find.
WTF The moment a character decides that Anodyne 2 isn’t ‘videogamey’ enough and floods the world with collectibles.
When games are more concerned with theme than plot and character it can get alienating, and for a good amount of its running time, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust toes the edge of that line. So much of its time is spent inside character’s heads, listening to their philosophies and seeing their fears manifested, that by the halfway point I found myself more able to explain what the game meant, rather than what it was about. Once I crossed the halfway point, however…
A thematic sequel rather than a direct follow-up, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust takes players through the entire life of Nova, its main character. Beginning inside the egg from which she’s hatched, the game sets up its premise with startling efficiency. Nova is a Dust Cleaner, created by The Center, to fight ‘Dust’ — microscopic particles of entropy destined to destroy everything The Center has crafted. Nova accomplishes this by shrinking down to microscopic size and manually vacuuming up dust particles from within The Center’s creations.
Nova’s work is accomplished using pointedly retro graphics and gameplay mechanics. The main world is presented in an approximation of Nintendo 64 graphics from 1996. Boxy 3D shapes, slightly blurry textures and garish colours abound. It feels contrived and artificial because it is — this is a world built by The Center for its own purposes, and the uncomfortable oddness of the environment is designed to keep the player on edge at all times. Gameplay in this world is 3D platforming, with Nova jumping around while talking to people and looking for clues about who is suffering from dust infection. In a fantastic design decision, Nova can also transform into a car whenever she wants, allowing her to traverse large distances incredibly quickly.
When Nova finds a person who needs to be ‘dusted’, she shrinks inside of them and finds herself in a 2D world. Gone is the N64 affectation, replaced by a perfect recreation of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance (2001) aesthetic, complete with a square screen and cleverly-designed borders that fill the rest of the frame. In 2D, Nova uses her vacuum cleaner to suck up monsters and clouds of Dust, gradually learning how to use her limited set of powers to evade obstacles and defeat enemies.
It’s quite an accomplishment just how varied these experiences wind up being. While the 3D world is about exploring nooks and crannies until the right character has been tracked down, each 2D world offers its own complications. There’s a constant flood of new enemy types and traps to avoid, with each subsequent challenge becoming more and more in-depth until players are essentially find themselves playing a bite-sized JRPG all within the depths of this microverse.
While the gameplay is never anything less than fantastic, story is Anodyne 2‘s most powerful tool. Players start in a world that’s puzzling and bizarre, but which fundamentally makes sense. The Center has built a place where everything has a purpose. Sometimes those purposes are important — like how Nova exists to prevent entropy from destroying everything — and sometimes it’s seemingly ludicrous, like the character who exists only to catalog every type of lampshade in existence. In The Center’s world, every being knows exactly why they exist, and what purpose they serve, but this isn’t always a comfort. As the world is plagued by Dust, their psyches are infected with doubt about the way the world has been ordered, and their place in it. In her own way, Nova is as much their therapist as she is their physician.
Anodyne 2‘s pacing is spectacular. It moves from an egg, to a city, to a small open-world area, to a strange microscopic world. Every times the location shifts, the story gets larger in scope and digs deeper into Nova’s character. As she learns more about the world, she’s also forced to question her role in it — what begins as a simple story about repairing something that’s broken gradually transforms into an investigation into what being ‘broken’ means, and whether the systems Nova is defending really have a right to exist in the first place.
There’s startlingly little to criticize about Anodyne 2, other than its sometimes too-oblique puzzle design. Every time Nova cleans out a person’s dust infection she’s given a trading card commemorating the moment, but the game can’t be completed without grabbing all of them, and a few are well hidden.
The developers were also obviously concerned about balancing the challenge level — the internal 2D puzzle levels get increasingly tricky, but players have the option to turn on bonus health (or even invincibility!) should they want to avoid getting knocked back to a checkpoint. The main menu even offers a link to a walkthrough the developers put on its Steam page, and the text of the game suggests players should consult a FAQ if a puzzle proves too difficult. While I appreciate them going the extra mile to be accommodating, some of that effort should have been put towards signposting in-game objectives more clearly.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is a deeply affecting game, one that impresses with its ability to make the ‘big questions’ it wants to address an integral part of the worldbuilding, rather than something that characters ponder about in monologues. At its core, Anodyne 2 is about how the essence of life is change, and how trying to stop that change, as scary as it might be, is a fool’s errand.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Analgesic Productions. It is currently available on PS4/5, PC, XBO/S and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Alcohol. As in the first game, drinking comes up in a largely negative context, and the suggestive themes are more playful than lascivious. This should be safe for even younger teens!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. All vital information is given through text. Fonts cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.