Indie Shorter-Than-Usual-By-Necessity-Land: Masters of Anima

I’ve made bad memory jokes on here before, right? Right. I make these on here every so often, mostly because my own absentmindedness is a never-ending source of hilarity for me, and I always worry whenever I do this that my stories seem to far-off. Too made-up. Like I’m just telling tales to entertain, instead of relaying the way my brain is fundamentally pointless.

Remember that Steam even that ran a month or so ago? The one with the checklists with games that you might enjoy? On a whim, I looked at the list of ‘games you should give a second chance’, and was surprised to find Passtech Games‘ and Focus Home Interactive‘s Masters of Anima. This was surprising mostly because I didn’t remember ever giving that game a first chance. But then I did some digging (of both the memory and email varieties), and sure enough, it turns out that I thought this game looked really neat and I got it for review purposes. In April, when it launched.

I worry that stories like ‘I bought a game because I thought it was cool, but misclicked the Steam install link and as a result almost instantaneously forgot about it for several months’ are too far out. Sometimes I’d really like them to be.

(N.B. This review will be a little shorter than you’re used to for previously documented reasons of tomfoolery. You didn’t miss much, honestly: The opening page would have included a whole bit about me not being able to tell Scottish and Irish accents apart, which — listen, I know, okay.)

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high.)

(Game source: Bought it myself.)

Opening

There’s a word that gets too little play and a bad rap in games writing, and that word is fine. I sometimes feel like there’s only room for extremes: Games are either transcendental experiences or incredibly smart and innovative, or they’re not really worth our time and effort. I’m guilty of this myself. But sometimes a game is just fine. It doesn’t necessarily push any boundaries, and it doesn’t contain any world-shattering writing or ideas, but it’s ‘fun’ to play and presents itself without any glaring faults or omissions. It’s a competent piece of art-entertainment. It’s fine.

Masters of Anima is fine. It’s a game I enjoyed playing for a week, that I don’t regret pushing through in order to see everything, and I would probably recommend to anyone interested in this particular sub-genre. And I’ll probably never play it again after this.

I got what I wanted from it, which was mostly exactly this screenshot.

Mechanically, Masters of Anima is an entry into the limited genre of ‘games where you command a mob of units around yourself in real time’. It reminds me in equal parts of Pikmin and Overlord: It’s like Pikmin in the sense that you walk through a large world in a top-down isometric perspective, using your minions to solve puzzles and fight monsters many times their size. And it’s like Overlord in the sense that each class of minion has a unique, immediately identifiable combat role, and in the sense that you yourself are an active player in combat scenarios, swinging a sharp heavy stick around whenever it suits you.

The five people in the audience who still remember Overlord nod approvingly at this deep, yet accurate cut.

Masters of Anima works like this: You play your way through eleven varied levels. Most levels are some variation of ‘get from point A to point B’, where point A is the spot your character enters the map, and point B is whatever narrative justification you have right now to keep moving. We’ll get to that later. In order to get to the exit you have to clear obstacles, solve puzzles, and fight giant Golems as you traverse the map. Maps generally take the form of ‘straight line with branches’: There’s one ‘correct’ path to get to the exit, with dozens of smaller or larger side paths that lead to powerups, lore items, and optional fights. It’s possible to burn through many of them in a handful of minutes, if you know what you’re doing and you’re only focused on getting to the end. But the first time you’re playing, you won’t know what you’re doing and you won’t be laser-focused; most levels I played clocked somewhere in the 30-60 minute range, making one or two of them in a row feel like a solid chunk of play time.

Note that not all levels follow this formula. Exceptions include a mostly-open desert map where you have to return twenty pearls to the starting position, or the forest maze that sees you branch off in three different directions to open a magical portal in the center. And then there are the boss fights, which all involve some form of running a deadly gauntlet before getting where you need to go. And even within the actual ‘linear’ levels, there’s plenty of variation in puzzles, fights, and even general aesthetic to make the actual experience much more interesting than I made it sound just now.

I’m not too proud to admit I *messed up* the Icy Fortress gauntlet more than once.

The way you address all these puzzles and fights and challenges is, well, initially, by hitting it with a stick. You don’t have any fancy magical powers in first half of the first level. But over the course of the first six levels, you’ll learn to summon five kinds of ‘Guardians’: Roughly man-sized golems with a variety of weapons and special powers. But not to be confused with ‘Golems’, which is the game’s term for your colossal enemies — listen, I didn’t write things this way. You’ll start out with only Protectors in the first level, simple axe-and-shield melee combat units, but before long you’ll be juggling bow-wielding Sentinels, hulking Commanders, and a bunch more different types that I’ll try to not immediately give away.

I say ‘juggling’ because, as these games do, you’ll very quickly end up with a lot of minions. You summon Guardians in ‘population units’, of which you initially have something like 6, but that number can go up to 20 over time. And the initial Protectors and Sentinels summon to four minions per population unit. So even from the word go, you can have like 24 axe-handed stone robots running around.

Quite the phalanx.

Your control over units is limited in the expected style. By default, all your different Guardians follow you around like imprinted ducklings. You can directly command one ‘class’ of units at any time, switching between them with number keys / mouse wheel / your gamepad buttons of choice. You can command your entire group of units to move somewhere or engage with something, or you can send them one-by-one until a desired number is reached. With another button you can recall all units to you, or you can select a subset of sent-out units and only recall those. If you’ve never played any of these games this might sound a little bit like a hassle, but you’ll get used to it.

Masters of Anima makes a very strict distinction in whether you are In Combat or Not In Combat. If you’re Not In Combat, you’re essentially free to roam the world as you’ve explored it. You can travel along the available paths, and break pots and plants to gain the titular Anima, the magical resource you need to summon Guardians. You can also unsummon and resummon Guardians at will, though doing so at higher difficulty levels is a bit of an Anima loss — still, you can mess with your troop composition all you want.

Some basic things you might encounter while traveling include: Environmental hazards, which must be carefully traversed lest they hurt or kill you, or destroy some of your precious Guardians.

Oh no, corrupted death winds!

Or environmental puzzle objects, which require a certain number of a certain Guardian type to interact with.

Eight Protector-class Guardians can push this heavy block.

Or locked doors or chests, which generally require some puzzling to even get to. These need Anima to open, occasionally making you wonder whether you should invest that Anima now or save it for later — though generally this won’t be as much of an issue, as Anima is pretty plentiful. Chests can contain partial health or Anima upgrades, or Lore tablets, or sometimes just experience.

Pictured: The result of pushing that heavy block.

And then there’s the final thing you can expect to find, which is a thin passageway into a larger, open space with darker-than-average colouring. This is… You know how back in the heydays days of cover-based shooters, sometimes you could tell when you were about to get into a combat scenario because you’d turn a corner and suddenly there’d be a room with inexplicable chest-high boxes everywhere?

What I’m saying is, whenever you see spaces like these, make sure your Guardians are in proper shape.

Masters of Anima has a very arena-based approach to combat. Combat isn’t woven organically into the gameworld: You’ll walk into one of these clearly-marked zone and the camera zooms out, walls go up, high-energy music starts playing, and one or more Golems fall down or pop up. And now you’re In Combat.

You can tell Golems are *bad* stone robots because their power cores are red, whereas mine are green.

Control in combat works mostly the same as control out of combat, except now you’re trying to kill enemy Golems as quickly and efficiently as you can. The basic structure is fairly self-evident: You send your Guardians to attack a Golem by selecting the group and then clicking on the Golem. Protectors will close into melee, Sentinels will start firing, and so forth. Golems, in turn, generally attack targets in melee, but each type of Golem also has their own special abilities. Maybe this one throws a giant rock, marking a large area on the field before destroying all Guardians still there. Maybe that one indicates that it’s going to charge in a line. Maybe this one shoots directly at you, or that one empowers other Golems. And so on, and so forth.

Even in a simple combat scenario, you’re going to be active a lot. Protectors are great for tying enemy Golems down, but they die by the bushel, so you’ll want to keep resummoning them. But that costs Anima, which means you’ll need to run around collecting that. Anima is also used to activate your Battlecry, which is a combat-only ability that empowers nearby Guardians — oh, damnit, did you just forget to move those Sentinels out of the way of the rock throw? Now half of them are dead. Good job.

And that’s just a simple combat scenario. In practice, you’ll often be contending with more complicated, interesting setups. Maybe you’ll fight two wildly different Golems at once. Maybe you beat one Golem, only to have two more appear, that buff each other. And when you beat one of those, the other grows more powerful — and two more appear as well! Maybe you’ll have to fight your way across a bridge gauntlet, or occasionally summon a titanic Guardian to fight off a boss monster, or deal with environmental hazards. Masters of Anima is well aware that its combat is the main adrenaline selling point, and the resulting care put into designing the encounters is telling.

Pictured: My life about to get more complicated.

Battles are graded on a Platinum Games-style system, as seen in the very first screenshot: You get grades for time, health, and number of Guardians destroyed — the fancier the Guardian, the more it weighs against you — which forms an overall score. Higher scores get you bragging rights, and also more experience (I think). Experience means you level up, and leveling up means you earn skill points, which can be assigned in a simple tiered system to either yourself or any of your unlocked Guardians.

None of this is particularly earth-shattering, but I do like that you can focus on the aspects of gameplay that you like. And you can redistribute points fairly easily too, meaning the system doesn’t feel punishing — you’re not forced to make decisions you’ll later understand are sub-optimal.

Here’s the thing about playing Masters of Anima: It’s fine. I enjoyed it! It’s a fairly competent minion-commander, or whatever the hell we want to call this genre. I was impressed with the energy and the challenge in a lot of the fights, all of which I managed to win on my first try while constantly being worried about losing — a good balance of challenge, at least on the Shaper difficulty level. Parading around the world is less interesting, though: While the graphics and audio are enjoyable, the overtly linear nature of most of the levels makes traversing them feel like a done deal from the outset. Don’t expect any Pikmin-esque exploration. In fact, I wonder if Masters of Anima wouldn’t work better as a primarily arena-driven game… It’s likely just chaining fights back-to-back would dull the experience by not having energy lows to contrast the highs, so maybe this is just a necessary evil. All in all, I’d say it’s fine.

Narratively, Masters of Anima tells a story about… On the most basic level it’s the story of Otto, Apprentice Shaper, which is what we call people who can summon Guardians. Otto is forced into heroics when an evil wizard sort-of-kidnaps his fiancĂ©e, Ana, who just happens to be the Supreme Shaper. You might wonder what an apprentice Shaper could do against a wizard who just easily defeated the most powerful Shaper in the land, and so does the game. But don’t worry! There’s sort of an answer to that, if you read between the lines.

It’s meaningful that *this* is what the final, most difficult challenge looks like.

In the larger sense, Masters of Anima is a good example of a game that tries to do cool, low-key world building, but doesn’t quite stick the landing. The animated intro sets up an interesting scene: A magical volcano that spews forth Golems, an order of Shapers that fought back against the Golems, a network of Wonders that keep the volcano chained. I hope you enjoy that animated intro, by the way, because it’s part of the game’s loading process.

And it its good moments, Masters of Anima manages to explore this setting well and pose interesting situations. There’s a whole section of text-between-text about the effect that chaining the volcano has on a nearby desert, for instance, and what knock-on effects this would have on the relation between the desert dwellers and the Shapers.

Like, this first-level intro sets up an interesting conflict of viewpoints: Ana believes that the Guardians are good as-is, while Otto believes different times call for a different approach.

It’s just that for every bit of exposition that’s cool and well-handled, we get one bit like this:

This is what we in the game criticism biz refer to as a ‘poor exposition dump’.

What’s particularly egregious is that the literal next scene conveys the same information much more organically. Adjust the previous lines a little bit and you’ve got a good scene flow.

There’s a lot of interesting potential here, but not a lot of interesting payoff. We’re told of a world of Guardians, Golems, and the raw magic of creation, but then never shown that world. There are, count ’em, six human characters in this game: Otto, Ana, master what’s-his-face, Zahr, Hakim the merchant, and the forest princess. And the adventures only ever take place in wildernesses, deserts, and ruins. The game hints at a world that’s trying to pretend it’s not dying, that the solution to the magical volcano problem is fine and in no way having terrible side effects, and that sounds like a super interesting setup to explore. But the closest we ever get is to that is the literal outskirts of the desert city, which is hand-waived as being abandoned. We never see what it means for a society to have free access to ethically justified slave labor, or how that’s shaped their habits and beliefs over the years, or what kinds of architecture a society like that would come up with. There’s the one line about ‘old laws and traditions’, but beyond that, the focus of the storytelling is singularly on ‘chasing the bad guy and rescuing the damsel’.

Which, again, is not *bad*, per se. It’s functional, it’s fine. I just would have liked more like… well, like this.

I have less to say about the narrative than about the mechanics, because ultimately, the narrative in Masters of Anima plays a supporting role. It’s fine, again and forever, a perfectly cromulent story that explains why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that does set up the final outcome to some degree. It’s not as good as it could be, but it’s at least good enough that I enjoyed seeing it through to the end.

And that summarizes Masters of Anima as a whole, honestly. There is the skeleton here of a truly outstanding game, one that does present new and innovative ideas and that does tell an incredible story. But that’s not what it is. What it is right now is fine: A fun, engaging, interesting little game about commanding groups of colour-coded stone robots to push rocks, lift rocks, and fight rocks, as well as do things that aren’t rock-related. I had a fun time playing through it, and I definitely don’t regret the twenty Steam dollars I paid for it — it’s an interesting concept with appropriately good production values. Don’t expect to have your world shook by this one, but as an entertainment product in an underserved genre — well, you know what I’m going to say.

Jarenth is always on the lookout for new cool games like this — the minion-commanding kind, not necessarily the stone robot kind. Cool suggestions are welcome on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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