When the world of men was once ravaged by the raw and untamed Anima that Mount Spark’s molten heart had showered the skies with, Golems, born from chaos, had sowed fear and devastation across the lands. It was a merciful goddess that recognised the plight of man, and, moved to pity, chose to reveal the ancient secrets of Anima, and how the world’s people could use the source of all life to create Guardians that would fight beside them. They became the first Shapers and, victorious in their war with the Golems, built a vast chain of Wonders that would soothe Mount Spark, with the sacred mountain’s molten core under the Heartshield’s protection.
That was six hundred and sixty-five years ago, and, in Masters of Anima, it is Otto and Ana that we first meet. With their wedding in two moons, law and tradition dictate that Ana, who is the Supreme Shaper and the most powerful Anima Master in the world, cannot marry an apprentice, and so Otto must first enter the Hall of Tribulations to demonstrate that he has fundamental mastery over the art of Shaping.
The oldest student that Master Jaku has ever seen undertake the trials, it doesn’t take long to realise that Otto is lazy and impatient – or a moppet, as Ana refers to him. But aside from a plot device, the trials are, of course, the way in which developer Passtech Games chooses to teach you the intricacies that underpin their strategy adventure game. You will learn that you must recover Anima Flame to refill your stock of Orbs, that these can then be used to summon a group of Guardians, that each group counts as one unit of Population, and how you can command them to hack at your enemies or shove cuboid stone slabs out of the way.
You will quickly come to value these tricks of the trade, that, coupled with the isometric viewpoint, soon results in Masters of Anima feeling like it sits somewhere between the strategic thinking that the Pikmin and Overlord series require. To make that comparison’s no bad thing, either, as you traipse around each level hunting for Life Crystals, Power Runes, and the Anima Tablets that act as the game’s bunch of collectibles, it will become apparent that the whole experience really comes alive in combat. That becomes a necessity, when, returning home after completing the trials, you witness the villainous Zahr the Banished unbind Ana’s soul and split her essence into three parts – her mind, body, and heart. These are sealed in Soul Shards that are then scattered, and it is down to you to recover them. And, to make matters worse, Zahr has broken the Heartshield.
The Guardians that you create are bound to your will and loyally march behind Otto unless given direct commands. You can press the A Button to send a Guardian to a particular location (or hold the button to send all), hit the B Button to have them return to your side, or use the X Button to, slightly clumsily in the heat of battle, create a circle to select specific Guardians to command. Enough time has been taken to make sure that everything that you need to do can be performed quickly with the button input, and the developer should pat themselves on the back for working out how to let the player juggle the game’s complexities unscathed.
While you are limited to only using Anima to create the Protector Guardians at the start, which are the axe and shield-wielding constructs that serve as the frontline troops in your conjured army, persevering on your adventure will soon reward you with the chance to summon others, such as the bow-touting deadeye Sentinels to the battlefield to pelter your enemies from afar with Anima-tipped arrows, or the Keepers, which are mystical guardians that replenish your Anima in combat. With the ability to freely destroy your Guardians whenever needed, it is, as you would expect, important to work out the right balance in each battle that you are faced with.
Those battles, especially against the mightier bosses that you need to bring to their knees, are often exhilarating. As your Guardians whittle down your enemy’s health bar you must keep an eye on the Rage Gauge beneath it which depletes over time. If emptied, their chaotic nature sees them fly into a Primal Rage and unleash far more devastating attacks that make them even harder to topple. Time is of the essence, then, but you can use Anima to unleash battle cries that will see the Guardians that surround Otto perform special attacks. This can swing everything back in your favour as they can present the chance to stun your enemy with a shield slam or to puncture them with powerful explosive shots. There’s also cover, such as bushes or long grass, to use to your advantage and help protect your Guardians.
There is a lot to consider, and, while you will often need to recall your Guardians to help them dodge an enemy attack, it is that constant push to complete battles as quickly as you can that risks upending your enthusiasm for how thrilling it all can be. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when coming face-to-face with the hardier bosses, as a single swipe suddenly knocks back most of your Protectors while a second attack slams into your Sentinels. In these situations I often found it hard to maintain my Anima as a wayward enemy attack took out my Keepers, leading to inevitable frustration as I butted heads with repeatedly attempting the trickier boss encounters. Like many games, it is a learning process, but some battles certainly drag on for longer than needed.
With the player rewarded with experience upon completing each level and after each battle based on how few Guardian casualties they suffer, how much damage Otto took, and the time that was taken to fell your enemy, you will earn skill points that can be used to strengthen either Otto or the Guardians that you summon. That can see the Guardians that you create being given a shield that will block the first attack that they are hit with, lending you the chance to summon more Guardians, speeding up their recovery time, making their attacks more potent, and more. It’s important to balance these upgrades across each category, which will make sure that everything is powered up alongside one another.
Masters of Anima has a simple but effective minimalist visual style that could have probably done with a larger splash of colour, even if there is some visual variance between the locations that you wander. But, seeing as you will soon be controlling upwards of 100 Guardians at any one time, it is impressive that the game runs without a hitch on Nintendo Switch – whether that be in Handheld or TV Mode.
There really isn’t anything quite like Masters of Anima on the Nintendo eShop at the moment, or, for that matter, on Nintendo Switch. The developer may have too much enthusiasm for throwing you into combat and could have done with exploring ways to lend a change of pace – that more often than not comes in the puzzles that momentarily boggle your mind. But, when you have a steadfast legion of Guardians at your command, it’s hard not to marvel at the thrill of it all in the thick of battle, and how the many systems that are at play are masterfully woven together.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Focus Home Interactive