Anodyne

After starting and abandoning Anodyne a few times on various platforms, I downloaded it onto my Nintendo Switch. Being able to play this retro-styled adventure game on a handheld console turned out to be just what I needed in order to appreciate the experience, and I got completely sucked into its world. Because of its horror elements, I’m not sure Anodyne is for everyone, but I had a great time working my way through the game while eagerly anticipating what sort of strange and grotesque imagery I would encounter next.

The game has Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire style Game Boy Advance era graphics. The pixel art is by turns allusive and unique, and it’s occasionally genuinely gorgeous or horrifying.

The screen-by-screen dungeon and overworld layouts remind me a lot of the two Legend of Zelda Oracle games, and the gameplay is like what those games could have been if they had focused on their core strengths instead of distracting the player with extraneous marginalia. If you’re willing to explore a bit, you can learn to jump fairly in the game, and it’s a neat ability to incorporate into the Zelda-style gameplay.

Anodyne also gives off strong Yume Nikki vibes. You start off on a fairly generic quest, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re exploring a manifestation of the subconscious mind of the protagonist, who is not doing okay. There are clear references to addition, depression, and suicidal ideation, and each of the dungeons is themed after a specific fear. The first dungeon is about the fear of not being able to see, the second dungeon is about the fear of being born from the bloody entrails of your mother’s body, the third dungeon is about the fear of being generic and unnecessary, and so on.

Anodyne also reminds me of the original The Legend of Zelda in that there’s zero guidance – the game has no interest in telling you where to go or what to do. This is why I abandoned it the first few times I tried to play it, as I arrived at its open field area and became overwhelmed. Once I decided to stick with it and finally figured out the small environmental clues meant to lead the player forward, it was a lot of fun to be able to go anywhere and do anything while unearthing a few secrets along the way.

Anodyne’s structure is balanced between the overworld areas and the dungeons, and each of the dungeons is a perfect puzzle box. Despite the gameplay mechanics being deliberately limited and basic, some of the puzzles are very clever. The controls are a little loose, but it’s not really a combat-heavy game. There’s no real penalty for dying, and I died a good three dozen times out of sheer laziness but didn’t feel frustrated even once.

It took me about six hours to finish Anodyne, and I enjoyed every minute. It seems there’s a lot of postgame content that involves revisiting various locations, talking to important characters again, and using a new ability to access a bonus dungeon. This game is subtly but undeniably disturbing, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how weird it can get after the first “quest” has been completed. Or maybe the player-character finally works through his trauma and gets better? That would be good too. I guess.

To summarize: Anodyne is a 16-bit nightmare adventure for a mature audience, sort of like a re-imagining of Majora’s Mask in which characters are allowed to say fuck. Putting the edginess aside, it’s super fun to play, and the dungeons are ghoulishly creative.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a 16-bit Zelda-style adventure game with cute graphics and meme-heavy writing that takes about two and a half hours to play from start to finish with 100% completion.

Along with a bright and colorful overworld, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion features three formal inside dungeons and two less formal outside dungeons, as well as the usual variety of “go fetch me this thing” sidequests. The game is meant to be accessible to a diversity of players but still presents a range of entertaining challenges. The gameplay isn’t engineered for precision mechanics, which makes the boss fights somewhat more difficult than they perhaps need to be, but you can turn on “god mode” at any time from the menu. Around the middle of the game, Turnip Boy discovers a device that generates portals, and this tool enables are some fun puzzles involving getting bombs and blocks to where they need to be on the map in order to move forward.

Your main goal, as Turnip Boy, is to destroy every single piece of horrible paper you get your (non-existent) hands on. Tax documents? Rip them up. Leases? Rip them up. Receipts? Rip them up. A love letter that the girl you like wants you to deliver to someone who isn’t you, even though she knows you like her? Rip it up right in front of her face. Someone’s uwu anime drawing? Rip that mess up.

It’s very cathartic.

The exploration and puzzles are fun, but what I really enjoyed about Turnip Boy is the dialog, as well as the way your adorable yet feral protagonist’s silence is used for comedic effect. This game uses one of my favorite Earthbound-inspired tropes ever, which is to populate dungeons with people who talk to you, making them feel like towns that happen to be temporarily overrun with monsters. There are also diaries and other documents (that you can rip up!) scattered about in the dungeons that provide lowkey Fallout-style worldbuilding.

So I suppose you could say that Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a comedy story game that’s set up as a 16-bit Zelda adventure quest. Thankfully, the 16-bit graphics and Zelda-style gameplay elements work really well. The music is super-catchy too.

Is Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion worth $15? To me, it definitely was. A team of fifteen people developed this game, and I’m happy to give each of them a dollar. If you’re in the “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” camp, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is the game for you, especially if you’re in the mood to take an afternoon off and enjoy yourself by exploring a colorful fantasy garden while gleefully smashing capitalism.

The Last Campfire

The Last Campfire is a puzzle-centric exploration game with no combat or danger that should take most players between three to five hours to finish.

If we can posit that there are three main genres of video games – shooting, it’s about depression, and Nintendo – The Last Campfire is definitely about depression. You play as a childlike little creature called an “ember” (who are like the red-robed creatures in Journey, but baby) that is either dying or already dead, and your goal is to move on to the afterlife. Along the way, you’re tasked with helping other embers that have gotten psychologically stuck and are unable to complete the journey on their own.

There are four main areas of the game – forest, swamp, marsh, and cave – and you have to help four embers from each area before you can progress to the next. To help an ember, you must first locate it in the overworld before entering its inner world, which consists of a single puzzle or short series of puzzles, all of which are spatial in nature and generally involve moving blocks or floor tiles. None of the puzzles are timed or involve physical dexterity, and you can reset each puzzle by leaving the headspace of the ember and returning. There’s no penalty for this, and loading times are super short, thankfully.

The game has an easy mode that simplifies the puzzles, but all of the puzzles are already so simple and self-explanatory (even for a dumb-dumb like myself) that this isn’t necessary. In fact, I’m going to say that playing on easy mode might actually be more difficult, as it removes some of the discrete steps intended to teach you how the game wants you to solve each puzzle. Either way, nothing important is actively hidden from the player, so you can solve most puzzles just by fooling around with them for long enough.

The difficult thing about The Last Campfire is locating the lost embers in the first place. Like a Zelda game, the overworld has its own share of puzzles, and it’s rarely self-evident where you’re supposed to go. There is zero signposting, and all of the screens that comprise an area have multiple entrances and exits (some of which are one-way), meaning that it’s easy to get lost. It’s also not immediately clear what you can and can’t interact with, and I have to admit that I had to consult a walkthrough very early on to learn that the player is expected to find and physically touch the ossified bodies of the lost embers in order to solve their puzzles and progress through the game.

Unlike the individual ember puzzles, it’s easy to get stuck in the overworld and not know what the game wants you to do. Although it’s fun to explore the beautiful environments, I think The Last Campfire would have greatly benefited from some sort of map. For me, this was the difference between the game taking three hours (which I think is supposed to be an optimal playtime) and taking almost six hours, which I mainly spent getting lost and having to consult various YouTube videos to figure out where I was supposed to go and what specific object I was supposed to interact with.  

I think that the game could also have benefited from giving you the option to turn off the voice acting. The English version of the game is narrated by a woman with the exact accent and vocal pitch and timbre of Björk. While this narration was cool at first, it gradually began to grate on me, especially when I would get frustrated. The actress sometimes puts a heavy “w” sound in some of her lines (as in, “the ember had mispwaced a memowy”), which can get a little too close to Elmer Fudd territory if you’re listening to the same line being repeated for the fifth time while re-entering an area or restarting a puzzle.

(I should say that I don’t mean to hate on Icelandic accents, which are lovely. Still, I think creating a Pavlovian association between frustration and someone’s voice has the potential to generate annoyance at anyone’s accent and vocal patterns.)

The Last Campfire isn’t as chill and relaxing as it seems to want to be, and most people are probably going to have to play it at least partially with a walkthrough; not because it’s actually difficult, but rather because of what I think it’s fair to call a certain immaturity of game design. Still, it’s an interesting little game, especially during the periods when it’s better about subtly guiding the player forward.

In a lot of ways, The Last Campfire reminds me of a 1992 Super Nintendo game called Soul Blazer, which was a very simple and sweet game about freeing the souls of a cursed world’s inhabitants by entering the dungeonlike spaces of their minds. It’s a neat concept, especially in the visual contrast both games display between the lush natural spaces of the outer world and the barren and overly complicated spaces of the inner worlds of individual minds. I also appreciate that both games acknowledge and respect the fact that not everyone wants to be “saved” by a hero. As one ember in The Last Campfire puts it: Not every problem is a puzzle to be solved.

More than anything, it’s the visual landscape of The Last Campfire that appealed to me, especially in combination with the atmospheric ambient music and the crisp sound design. I think that, if you enjoy this sort of game, the merits of The Last Campfire outweigh its flaws. I also think it has a decent replay value, if only in the sense that it may be more enjoyable to play for the second time once you know where everything is and what you’re supposed to do.   

Almost everyone who’s written about The Last Campfire has mentioned encountering a few glitches and frame rate issues. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch Lite and had no problems with that sort of thing at all. The game can easily be divided into short sessions (and its autosave feature is completely unobtrusive and stress-free), so I think it may be better suited to a small-screen portable experience.