Recent history in the WiiWare platform hasn’t seen an over-abundance of must-have, exciting releases. There is little surprise, then, that the release of ANIMA: Ark of Sinners was met with some optimism. With trailers giving an impression of an old-school Castlevania style of gameplay, a lot of gamers’ interests were piqued. The question to answer is whether this is a blockbuster to renew faith in WiiWare, or a sinful let-down.
It is clear, immediately after launching the title, that Anima Game Studio has placed a great deal of emphasis on storytelling. From the stylish opening screen to details of the game’s lore being visible in unlockable ‘monolith’ records, the plot and environment were obviously key focuses for the developers. Based on the world of the Anima: Beyond Fantasy RPG, the storyline itself is reasonably interesting though not groundbreaking, with a moody, gothic tone that will appeal to fans of the genre. The plot tells the tale of the scantily clad Celia, and is told through well-drawn pictures and accompanying text, though we did notice quite a few spelling and grammatical errors. The developers may be based in Spain, but it is a shame that the English translation has these errors, as it does detract from the otherwise positive impression of the story-telling.
The positives continue with the general presentation. Graphically, this game is one of the better looking efforts on WiiWare — although Celia looks a little blurry, there are some attractive enemy designs and well-constructed background landscapes. The variety of locations is a bonus, while they all maintain an interesting palette of a city taken over by evil. The sound is reasonable, with music perfectly suited to the storyline and environment. The music does loop a fair bit, however, and Celia’s yelps and grunts can be annoying after a while.
What really counts, though, is the gameplay and controls. In terms of the controls, these are simple and easy to pick up. You’re given the choice of playing with the Wii Remote held sideways or the Classic Controller. Moving with D-Pad, there are only three buttons used; on the Wii Remote you use 2 to jump, 1 to attack, and A to initiate ‘Neokinesis’, a mode that uses accumulated energy to give Celia greater strength and power. On the Classic Controller you use A, B and Y respectively for these commands, and either control method is simple to pick up. The game is at pains to tell you that attacking with your sword is not simply a case of manically tapping the button, but provides a long list of combo moves that can be achieved. In the levels themselves, you simply slice statues with your sword to pick up health and Neokinesis energy orbs to help you progress. On paper it is well structured and looks promising, but then you actually play the game.
The problem with the gameplay is simple: the controls and movements of Celia lack refinement and precision. An important part of any 2D sidescroller involving combat is tight, reactive and reliable gameplay mechanics, but Anima: Ark of Sinners falls drastically short of delivering these requirements. It is difficult to express to those who have not experienced the game, but the control of Celia is exceptionally difficult to master. For one thing, her movements, attacks and jumps are all sluggish and suffer from a slight lag from command to action; jumps in particular making it seem that the setting is actually the moon, not the mysterious city of Ark. The awkward jump is exacerbated by tricky platform sections, some of which require precision timing. Falling into pits is a regular occurrence as a result.
The actual combat, which makes up the bulk of the experience, is the worst part of the gameplay. While the idea of combos and different moves is nice, executing them is something else altogether. Whereas Celia’s attacks are slow, enemies often seem to be quicker to the draw, inflicting painful combos that you are incapable of escaping. Considering that most enemies take a lot of hits, combat sections can be a war of attrition. If, for an inexplicable reason, the last blow of your combo fails to land, you are left helpless against retaliation; there is no block move, and the only dodge mechanic involves crouching, facing the opposite direction and hitting jump. As enemies become stronger and faster the level of challenge becomes unfair, cruel and cheap. One section demands that you fight enemies and dodge deadly rays of light at once, and the unsatisfactory controls means that sections like this require many, many attempts.
Considering the genre of this title, the problems with the controls drag the whole experience down. We spent many hours playing this game, and the number of cheap deaths and falls caused a lot of frustration, with the air often turning blue. We started to develop a style of play that allowed us to progress, slowly, by finding a way to beat the controls and overcome its shortcomings; it isn’t supposed to be that way.
The bad controls and unfair design are exacerbated by the general difficulty as a whole. The developers have included four difficulty modes, including an unlockable ‘Hardest’ mode, but we found ‘Normal’ excruciatingly difficult — anyone who unlocks and defeats this game in the hardest setting deserves a medal. Even on the ‘Easy’ setting we died many, many times. In fact, the only difference we could see in easy was that you could hit multiple enemies at once; in harder difficulties you can only hit one enemy at a time, so two enemies close together will always get a hit in.
We’re not suggesting challenge is a bad thing — far from it — but difficulty should be based on clever game design and dangerous enemies, whereas the difficulty in this title comes from poor controls and unfair enemy AI. Even though death merely puts you back to the start of the current area, it becomes common to play the same section over and over again, becoming more and more frustrated. Even worse, if you enter a new area with low health, when you start again it doesn’t regenerate, making troublesome sections even worse. Even with the insurance policy of six save files, some sections will haunt you and block progress.
Anima: Ark of Sinners is a game full of good intentions. It is clear that the developers wanted to utilise storyline, lore and artistic flourishes to draw gamers into the Anima world. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself is fatally flawed: laggy, slow animations make the poor controls unreliable, while cruel enemy AI and level design make matters worse. Even on easy difficulty, progressing through this game is a long, laborious process. The principles of this game are sound, but the execution makes the game a disappointment, and enough to drive any gamer to the confessional.