The titular Anima is not a person, place, or thing, but rather a mystical energy found deep underground. By channelling this power, Shapers – as they’re known – can summon creatures forged from ancient stone, as well as reverse damage on objects made of said sacred material.
Plucky protagonist Otto isn’t quite a master of Anima yet though, introduced as a scholar still in learning. Forever humble, he also believes the summonable stone creatures should be used to create huge cities and other wonders, instead of merely being used as guardians during conflicts.
But after his hometown is raided and his fiancée snatched by a sinister elder Shaper known as Zahr – dressed in obligatory red garb – the floppy-haired hero has no choice but to create legions of stone protectors to defeat Zahr’s army of gargantuan golems.
The tutorial is cleverly disguised as Otto’s graduation day at the Shaper academy, focusing on how to summon and command guardians. Those familiar with Nintendo’s Pikmin (or Codemasters’ Overlord, if you prefer) will feel right at home as the control scheme is uncannily similar, allowing groups to be separated and given orders with minimal effort. Huge blocks need shoving, switches flicked, and path blocking rubble piles reduced to smaller piles of rubble. All in a day’s work for lower ranking guardians.
It’s here the Pikmin comparisons end. Masters of Anima is far more combat focused, and the guardians have vastly different skill sets to Nintendo’s colour-coded critters. Ingeniously, each of the five guardian types has unique skills to employ outside of combat, shifting the focus to exploration and puzzle solving when not engaged in battle.
RPG elements feature too, including an XP system and unlockable skills such as damage boosts and the ability to roll out of harm’s way. It’s clear a degree of thought has gone into upgrades as the benefits are immediately noticeable, enhancing chances of acquiring an elusive ‘S rank’ at the end of each battle. In fact, Masters of Anima doesn’t fall short in any area – every aspect feels polished, refined, and substantial. This is one trim package, with no flab or filler. Even the fixed camera system works perfectly, keeping track of the action from a quasi-isometric angle.
Each mission – set across deserts, forests, ancient ruins, and snow-covered realms – has something to make it stand out, along with an optional side-quest. Most missions commence in the same way, involving a spot of exploration and scavenging to find enough Anima to summon a small army, ready to tackle the first task at hand.
Anima is most commonly found in breakable urns, and only a small amount can be carried at once, limiting the number of available troops. It flows freely outside of combat, but during battle, every drop counts. Breakable objects sometimes contain shards of life-bar and Amina-bar upgrades too, giving reason to smash everything in sight.
Battles take place in walled-off arenas. The ground becomes scorched, and darkness looms. Otto’s creations are elegant in design, while Zhar’s golems are pointy and twisted, taking a good five minutes to defeat. They’re a varied bunch with different attack patterns, ranging from boisterous boulders that split into two, to a spinning beast that can scatter and inhale troops.
Usually, there’s a secret strategy to a swift victory, with time playing a crucial part – if battles start to drag on, enemies become enraged and throw their weight around. When this happens, chances of survival worsen by the second. While this does escalate a sense of urgency, it sometimes feels that if a battle has gone on for too long you’re ultimately screwed.
As mentioned, Anima is scarce during combat. This puts the focus on syphoning it from foes via defenceless mystical harvester guardians. Anima is also required to perform the shield breaker move – a key ability that stuns golems. This move is taught early on and is essential to master. Together with new upgrades, golems that once took five minutes to defeat can eventually be beaten effortlessly, adding a welcome sense of progression.
New guardian types – drip fed during the opening stages – also make defeating already seen golems easier, with archers being the second guardian type to be discovered. The final guardian type came as a surprise, which we won’t spoil.
Over time, we developed a slight love/hate relationship with the combat system. Not that this was any fault of developer Passtech Games, we should stress. Glowing red patches indicate where an enemy’s attack is going to land, giving time to get troops out of harm’s way. A momentary lapse in concentration can cost dearly, as some heavy hitting attacks can crush a whole platoon in one fell swoop. It’s frustrating, but the only person to blame here is yourself as impending damage is always clearly indicated.
That said, when up against two (or more) enemies it can be tricky to juggle things. PC owners using a mouse/keyboard combo may have a slightly easier time here.
Initially, it appears Masters of Anima will be over before it gets going – giving justification to the modest £15.99 price tag – but later missions take place in far larger locations, which in turn are more time-consuming. A stage set in a colossal desert took us almost two hours to finish, and that was without tackling every golem – certain stages have optional battles, although you’ll miss out on valuable XP.
Publisher Focus Interactive has always had a knack of sniffing out offbeat and promising titles, but despite best intentions, they often end up being diamonds in the rough; fun but flawed games with a few rough edges. Masters of Anima, however, is an outright gem – the heavily-stylised visuals are appealing, the presentation is slick, and the combat system is refined.
It’s perhaps a little too challenging in places – an ‘easy mode’ for those just wanting to take in the story wouldn’t have gone amiss – but that’s just a minor quibble, and it’s easy to appreciate the ‘tough but fair’ difficulty that Passtech Games was going for.
Craft, crush, conquer, and savour each victory, because you never know when Masters of Anima will put you between a rock and a hard place.