It’s no secret or surprise that Nintendo fans are longing for the next instalment in the Pikmin series. Hey! Pikmin on 3DS was met with outspoken, lukewarm reactions from fans as Nintendo unexpectedly steered it down the 2D platformer path last year. Masters Of Anima, however, might be the game to scratch the micro-minion, micromanagement itch (if you can get past its sickly love story, that is).
As the game opens, you take control of an inexperienced, but awkwardly jolly Shaper called Otto. Shapers are humans who have the power to channel Anima and can use it for good – or evil. Otto is destined to use the sacred magic power of the former and we find ourselves introduced to his wife-to-be, Ana. A leisurely stroll through the colourful and ambient forest and your first quest of collecting flowers for your fiancé soon turns ghastly.
Within just a few moments, you're handed a magic staff by a respectable village elder and, after a quick tutorial on how to control some miniature sword-wielding skeletons called Guardians, you're sent on your merry way to save Ana from the evil Zahr and his menacing army of unforgiving Golems.
Sadly, this is where the game first trips up. Masters Of Anima is hell-bent on drawing attention to the small group of characters that are encountered and there is an awkward and overwhelming emphasis on voice acting. It wouldn’t be so bad if we don't find ourselves physically cringing at most of the lines being read – the more we progress, the worse it gets – it's more like watching a children’s pantomime than playing a fantasy adventure game.
Masters Of Anima is set in a world that is ruled by magic with everything based on the use of ‘Anima’. It’s easily obtainable throughout the levels, but it’s the one thing that you'll constantly want to search high and low for. Anima is found by smashing pots, cutting grass, and defeating enemies, and without it you're met with a terrible fate and will be pushed back to a checkpoint.
The prime use of Anima is to control hordes of Guardians. Your number of Guardians quickly grows, and with a few level ups, the variety changes too. The five classes of Guardian all bring different abilities to the table, and being able to effectively split the Anima to gain a well-balanced army is not an easy art to master. There are no smaller enemies to battle here, which leaves you to build your precious Guardian army, only for it to get instantly crushed by Golems that lurk underground almost everywhere you turn.
Thankfully, checkpoints are in abundance and you're able to confront the same Golem over and over (and over...) until you find the right mix of Guardians to turn them to dust. It’s a frustrating exercise to perform - especially as all the enemies feel more like boss battles – but it's a necessary one. There’s enough assortment of Golems to keep things interesting, however, they often feel overpowering.
Smaller, easier-to-defeat Golems for grinding EXP would've gone down a treat and helped to break up the strict flow of gameplay, but sadly there's no option for that. Using Guardians to drain enemies of Anima to replenish your small reserve, while ensuring that your archer Guardians aren’t being downed with a flick of a Golem’s finger, quickly becomes tiresome and the option to jump back to the last checkpoint is far too frequently used.
There is some welcome respite from these frequent encounters in the form of simple puzzle solving. Guardians have a use outside of Golem battles and you can utilise their skills to shift stone blocks to clear pathways, raise barriers to block electrical storms and other Guardian-specific tasks. The downtime in between gathering more Anima and EXP is far more pleasant and tranquil. This puzzle solving isn't difficult by any means and you'll pass through these sections fairly quickly. Going off the beaten track to shift a few blocks for Anima is equally effortless, but finding your way back to the route is frustrating and not helped by the lack of a map.
Using the different Guardians in different ways can be fun, and with some of the puzzles and fetch quests acting as a platform for character development, Masters Of Anima becomes vaguely engrossing as you progress. Although we never feel fully invested in the story, the developer should be commended for creating a unique world that’s home to some interesting Golem and Guardian designs.
The environments in which you control Otto are varied and, for the most part, look great. There are the expected elemental backdrops to gawk at with the music suited to each one. Passtech Games has gone for a geometric treatment; think along the same lines as indie titles such as Fe or Mulaka. The layouts look crisp in both handheld and TV mode and we rarely encounter performance issues during our playthrough. As we’re free (with enough EXP) to bolster our army to the big 100, the playing field quickly gets crowded, but thanks to the unique designs of our Guardians, distinguishing who’s who in the middle of a chaotic battle is a piece of cake.
From the outset, Masters Of Anima, tries its utmost to engage with a different world that’s ruled by a unique magic, bare-bones lore and a bunch of awkwardly portrayed and forgettable characters. The floundering voice acting and clunky script, coupled with a cringe-worthy story that’s more embarrassing than your drunk uncle dancing at a wedding, grates quickly. The title certainly won’t hold your hand when it comes to defeating the only enemy in the game, which could prove to be tedious for some. Masters Of Anima is no Pikmin, but if you’re looking for a fantasy land filled with tough enemy encounters and a game that's relatively straightforward, then this one is for you.