Developed by Passtech Games, Masters of Anima is a vibrantly beautiful, cartoonish isometric strategy game in the vein of Nintendo’s Pikmin series. But instead of Captain Olimar with his command of Pikmin, you play a Shaper capable of commanding massive armies of up to 100 stone Guardians. Set in the fantasy world of Spark, where primal Anima causes stone to literally spring into life, Masters of Anima is a fast-paced, action strategy game with some light puzzle elements.
Otto is an up and coming Shaper in the land of Spark who very much just wants to marry his fiancee Ana and be done with it. But it’s not that simple for Otto: first he must pass his trials to become a Master of Anima. Unfortunately, upon completion of these trials the villain Zahr, with his army of Golems, takes Otto’s beloved for his own evil machinations, forcing Otto to fight to reclaim his beloved’s essence. Otto, as a Shaper, is a mage who can summon Guardians: magical automatons created from merging Anima with stone. These stone and Anima constructs are the units that make up your stone army, and the ones who will be doing most of the fighting and heavy lifting.
Early on, the Guardians Otto can summon are pretty straightforward: he starts with simple melee units called Protectors, and archers called Sentinels. Eventually Otto will have access to more advanced Guardians, like types that relay certain commands, or even summon their own units. Each of these Guardians have several abilities that will unlock as you play. There is also a skill system that allows you to to unlock abilities for both Otto and his minions. Despite the attempts to ease you into the gameplay, I found Masters of Anima‘s learning curve to be unforgiving. The first level felt like a breeze, whereas the second left me as a stain on the floor. Where it was enough to simply swarm the Golems in the first level, those you face from the second level onward require you to master tactics introduced in the corner of the screen at the start of the battle. Unfortunately, this is not helpful because action doesn’t stop to let you learn: the Golems do not care if you are reading or not and will attack you as soon as they please. There are other reasons for replaying old levels, too, such as finding collectibles, searching for hidden areas, or to outdo your high scores.
Since most of the action deals with commanding large groups of units, it would be important to have a way to easily manage these groups, but this is one area where I feel Masters of Anima falters a bit. There are two ways to select units: you can select units by type, or by manually selecting them. Selecting units by type is pretty quick, and useful for most scenarios. But trying to manually select units to fine tune the use of your forces is nearly impossible in battle, especially since Otto has to be stationary to do it. Once you have a group selected, you can either give a single command to the entire group, or one unit at a time. This can make battles harder than they have to be at times because it is difficult to separate your forces mid-action so you can have them attack separate targets. It would be nice to be able to permanently assign a Commander to a group of Sentinels (or Protectors, etc.) so that they can relay commands without much micromanagement, but as far as I can tell this isn’t possible.
Throughout the campaign, there is a specific rhythm to the gameplay, alternating between beats of exploration and battles throughout. Exploration was my favorite gameplay element. Each level takes advantage of the aesthetic of the location and provides obstacles and environmental hazards like deadly desert winds, corrupted lands, mystical fog and lightning storms. Each of these hazards is simple enough to find your way around with a bit of searching with the occasional puzzle or obstacle blocking your progression. In most cases, puzzle solving took a two-step approach: assign the right unit to a task, and then find out how to take it a step further. For example: Protectors are the only unit capable of pushing movable blocks, but perhaps there is an obstacle after you push the block that can only be cleared by another unit type. The puzzles do increase in frequency and complexity, but as long as you are willing to keep exploring you’ll eventually find the answer–I never found myself completely stumped.
Masters of Anima’s enemies and boss fights come in the form of variously sized Golems. Each of the boss Golems has its own move set and patterns, and weaknesses to exploit. In addition to the size of the Golem, each has a different physical design that fits into the motif of the area in which each level is set. For example: the Golems in the desert areas are more snakelike in form, and those that you find in an underground level look like massive boulders. Even their move sets seem fit with the level design.
Most of the narrative is given in voice over, or through cutscenes. These cutscenes take a motion comic approach, with a gorgeous heavy painted style with brush strokes evident in the visuals. The voice acting comes across a bit like an old Saturday morning cartoon–one that has aged well. But as a result, some serious moments lack gravitas. I thought Peter Marinker’s performance as Jaku was stand out–his voice has a wonderful texture to it that is perfect for narration. I can’t help but think of it as what Leonard Nimoy would sound like as a Scotsman and was a little disappointed by the absence of his voice in later levels of the game.
Masters of Anima is a beautiful, overall enjoyable experience with no shortage of challenges. The vibrant art style will draw you in and invite you to explore all areas in the world of Spark. Masters of Anima is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
A copy of this game was provided to us for review purposes