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Masters of Anima

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Passtech Games
Release Date: April 10, 2018

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Switch Review - 'Masters of Anima'

by Andreas Salmen on July 6, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Masters of Anima is an original adventure game that takes you deep into a world rocked by magic.

Buy Masters of Anima

Strategy-heavy games have been a rarity on home consoles, but that doesn't mean that they're inherently impossible to pull off. Games like Halo Wars on Xbox, Pikmin on Nintendo consoles, and Overlord have shown that strategically inspired gameplay experiences can work, even when it entails managing countless minions on-screen. Masters of Anima  melds its influences into a single title that requires players to keep track of and manage a diverse range of up to 100 on-screen minions. While the game is enjoyable and challenging, it trips up where similar games have failed before: its controls and management of a large number of units at once.

Let's take it from the top. The game is set in the fantastical world of Spark, which used to suffer under a volcano-like mountain that "erupted" Anima golems that tormented its inhabitants. All of this was fueled by Anima, a mana-like substance that humanity subsequently gained control of by building artifacts to keep the volcano and its golems at bay. Those who are able to control the flow of Anima are called shapers, like our protagonist Otto and his fiancée Anna. While we're taking our final exam to become a recognized shaper, all hell breaks loose. Fellow shaper Zahr runs wild, destroys the artifacts that hold the volcano at bay, and traps Anna in three separate crystals for his evil plans. We need to free Anna from the crystals while learning new skills to become a true master of Anima.

In both puzzle segments and combat, shapers use Anima in two different ways: to restore destroyed artifacts and to create guardians to do our bidding. Guardians are color-coded units, much like Pikmin, with their own special abilities and use in combat encounters. The basic blue units are shielded swordsmen that do the grunt work. They keep attacking golems or push around large blocks to free pathways. Later on, we receive additional units like red bowmen, green units that recover additional Anima from golems and provide a shield to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, and heavy support units that relay commands and can take and deal more damage.

As our powers are bound to Anima, collecting and managing it is paramount for our survival. When collecting the magical substance, we reload our Anima supply, which is shown in units in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. We have to make do with a certain amount of Anima and guardian units; we can create or destroy the latter at our leisure. The most basic units spawn several guardians at once, while other units may consist of fewer guardians, so they're even more fragile.

Anima is found around the game world or dropped when fighting enemy golems, and when it runs out during a fight, you may have a problem recovering. As long as you have Anima at your disposal, you can continue to fight, but the design decision to make all enemy encounters a closed-off arena fight can lead to some frustrating moments. The fight is over if our protagonist Otto falls in battle, and that can happen rather quickly. While we can directly attack enemies, we can't take a lot of damage or deal enough to make us a threat to enemies beyond the initial encounter.

It isn't a strategy game in the original sense, but Masters of Anima requires players to approach each enemy fresh and figure out how it moves and attacks in order to beat them. It requires a fair amount of tactical thinking to beat any enemy. The blue grunts keep enemies occupied with minor but consistent melee damage. The bowmen are good damage dealers but vulnerable to any attack and die quickly, and they may have to be moved around the battlefield for bonus damage. Anima-sourcing units are also very fragile but are needed to sustain the battle. From the beginning of the game, every battle is set up like a miniboss fight followed by occasionally even larger foes.

There are no throwaway enemies, and we seldom face more than a handful of golems at once, so each battle is significant and more about acknowledging an enemy's strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, enemy design is not the best, since the golems look rather similar, and the later stages don't feature visually distinct encounters. Thankfully, the challenge of different golems is emphasized in a way that furthers the experience and forces us to change up tactics to avoid being slaughtered. Masters of Anima won't have you beating your head against a wall if you apply the correct tactics.

The most important part of a unit management game, especially when each encounter is its own boss fight, are the controls. They need to be spot-on, which isn't always the case on consoles. Masters of Anima arguably does all it can to make fights manageable, but it's still not an entirely enjoyable and tight experience. We use the upper shoulder buttons to circle through our guardian types, and we can use the lower shoulder buttons in combination with the face buttons to lock on to a target and create and destroy units. Otto also has a small selection circle in front of him, which we can use as a point of reference for the controls. All we really need is two basic commands:  the A button to move or attack and the B button to have them follow us. We can also select certain units with the cursor by using the X button. Almost all of these commands can either be pressed once to only select/use one of the guardians or kept pressed to select/use all of them.

It's as simple as it can be, while still being confusing with a significant learning curve to actually do well. It won't make the game impossible to play, but guardian reaction time and button input can make it difficult to have your units organized and responsive. You get the hang of it within a few hours, but the controls never feel like a completely satisfying or ingenious solution. Later parts of the game are much smoother once we're accustomed to the control scheme, but be prepared to still lose some battles due to unintended commands in the heat of battle.

The controls are further hindered by the guardian AI, which isn't as good as it could be. They follow you blindly with every command and won't recognize or avoid threats on their own. Sometimes, you'll need to micromanage larger groups of guardians in tight spaces with imprecise controls with guardians that won't make an effort to give you a hand. They walk around most obstacles but not around threats, so if you call them remotely, they will take the shortest path — even if it means certain death. We also encountered a few instances during puzzle segments where units placed themselves in tight spots and were unable to find a way back to us, prompting us to reset to the last checkpoint. It's not a horrible experience, but it's an issue that isn't new to this type of game on a home console platform.

Speaking of puzzles, we have to solve quite a few environmental puzzles that require using the abilities of multiple guardians. We may be tasked with clearing the way, learning new powers by activating shrines, or solving side-quests. None of them are mindbenders, but they serve as a welcome change of pace after tough enemy encounters.

For everything we do in the world, we earn XP and find artifacts and other improvements for Otto. Some of the collectibles enhance our health and Anima bar or provide background info about Spark. XP is used to level up and provides skill points that we can strategically invest to increase Otto's abilities and those of our guardians. Otto can acquire 15 improved skills in total, and the five guardian types add five more improvement slots to the mix for a total of 40 skills. We only scratched the 10-skill mark after playing half of the game, so if you want to go deep, you can always replay levels.

Our shaper skills (especially in controlling our guardians) have vastly improved during our time with the game. Similar to more action-oriented games like Bayonetta, every battle encounter is ranked and can be improved upon, and you can replay previous stages to pick up missed collectibles. The whole game can be completed in about 10 hours, depending on one's skill level and ability to adapt. If you're a completionist, there is plenty of ground to cover after you complete the main story.

Masters of Anima uses a low-poly art style that isn't new or incredibly exciting to look at, but it works and runs smoothly on the Switch, both docked and in handheld mode. When playing away from the TV, the resolutions seems a bit lower with blurrier edges, but it's not too noticeable given the visual style. The main draw is the fun gameplay and blend of tactical elements, not necessarily the visuals. Given this epic fantasy setting on paper, the game does feel underwhelming both in its visual representation and the rather bland story. This could have been much grander and more refined, but the gameplay is fun enough to deliver a memorable experience.

Masters of Anima mostly succeeds in implementing an inherently troubled concept: a strategy title on a console. It provides some frustrating and subpar moments, but it always comes up ahead with a fun, demanding, and good blend of gameplay styles to pull you through its 10-hour campaign. You'll want to see it through to the last fiercely fought battle.

Score: 7.0/10

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