Masters of Anima is a strange beast. Part RTS, part action game, it casts you as a Shaper, molding raw life force (Anima) into the form of Guardians (creepy soulless puppets who kill at your command). In gameplay terms, that means you control your avatar from a top-down perspective while also summoning and giving orders to a battalion of the aforementioned murder puppets. It’s a compelling concept that feels great when it works, but it sometimes proves too much to handle.
After an animatic intro sequence narrated by Scottish Morgan Freeman, the game bombards you with its jargon-packed, emotionally shallow narrative. You’ll learn about Shapers, Anima, and Guardians, plus Builders, Golems, the Heartshield and Spark, and eventually Sunder Lords. Basically, a lot of extraneously capitalized nonsense that gives your character motivation. It doesn’t come into play much until the very end, until it’s hilariously thrust back at you in the game’s final minutes, as if you were interested in the mumbo jumbo that it treats as a revelation.
You’re also introduced to your character, Otto, and his fiancee, Ana, both of whom are well acted if not particularly interesting. Ana is set up to be a much more powerful Shaper than Otto (the Supreme Shaper, in fact), which doesn’t turn out to mean much because she’s immediately captured by Zahr, the game’s red-eyed, black-robed, villain caricature. Zahr “Sunders” Ana, separating her into three parts, thus establishing Masters of Anima’s extremely video gamey plot. It feels like the script was sent through a time machine from 1998, both in how contrived it is, and in how gross it is to turn a supposedly competent female character into a literal object (or three) for the male hero to collect. It’s also completely irrelevant to the player’s motivation, which is of course that commanding an army of killer homunculi sounds like fun.
There are a lot of mechanics at play in Masters of Anima, and the game does a decent job of introducing them without overloading you or holding your hand too much. Within the first level, you’ll learn how to summon, command, and destroy your first type of Guardian, and learn about the resources that doing so revolves around. Summoning troops uses Anima, which you find scattered around the environment, and destroying them returns that Anima to you. Not long into the game, you also learn how to summon a type of Guardian that leeches Anima from enemies, which becomes invaluable in battle.
You quickly learn the finer points of controlling Guardians, which is mostly selecting them and clicking on enemies that you want dead or objects you want fiddled with. Issuing commands is easy; the trouble comes, oddly enough, from selecting troops. When you scroll through your troops (using shoulder buttons or your mouse wheel), you automatically select all units of whatever type you highlight. Issue a command, and they all move at once, but they’re then deselected. The options menu lets you decide whether to automatically select the next unit type in your list or to stay with the current unit type, but you have to push another button to call these troops back to you before you can give them another command. It’s a small quirk, but it left me constantly unsure of which troops I had selected.
It’s also one quirk among many. A splash screen recommends using a game pad, but I found the keyboard and mouse much easier to use. With a game pad, you use a reticle that extends a short distance from Otto in the direction he’s facing to select individual units or small groups. From there you order them to move or attack. There’s no way to move the reticle aside from repositioning your character; an especially odd choice given that the right stick, which seems perfect for this, is instead only used to perform a dodge roll. This drastically slows down your ability to give orders, and turns your character into little more than a cursor chasing down your other troops and pivoting toward enemies to issue attack orders. With a keyboard and mouse, you use your mouse exactly as you would expect, clicking and dragging to select troops, then clicking enemies to attack. Later battles that involve moving subsets of units to engage new enemy waves or avoid area of effect attacks are a complete mess if you’re using a controller, but much more manageable with a mouse.
Positioning is the key to combat, which makes this precision crucial. Combat takes place within designated arenas throughout the level, which I found disappointing, but it works well enough once you get used to it. There are really no minor enemies in the game; each time you encounter a Golem, it’s a real battle. Golems have massive health bars, along with a special bar that constantly counts down. When it hits zero, your enemy gains stronger attacks and starts to unleash area of effect damage across the battlefield. Around the midpoint of the game, combat started to feel like a slog, and I was just tossing wave after wave of Guardians at the enemies. That “strategy” works a lot of the time, but once I took a step back and committed to playing to the Guardians’ different strengths; combat became a lot more fun.
You quickly add Guardians to your repertoire throughout the first few levels, ending up with five types. Protectors, your first allies, are your front-line soldiers, absorbing blows with their shields while bashing enemies with axes. Sentinels do lots of damage with their bows. Keepers drain Anima from enemies. Commanders boost nearby Guardians’ power. And Summoners create even smaller melee drones to send at the enemy. Each also has a special ability that you can activate by using Otto’s “Battlecry” at the cost of Anima. When you use this ability, it triggers a number of Guardians near Otto, which you can increase as you level up. For instance, Protectors stun nearby enemies, Keepers give you health instead of Anima for a short time, while Commanders relay your Battlecry, triggering nearby troops to activate their abilities in turn. Clustering your Guardians and picking the right time and place to activate your Battlecry becomes extremely important later in the game.
Bosses were generally showstoppers, calling on you to use your Guardians’ strengths to the fullest to guide your enemy’s attention while attacking objectives elsewhere or finding safe spots from which to rain down damage on them. One late-game boss in particular tests your coordination by unleashing devastating area of effect attacks while summoning resilient Golems, demanding that you pay attention to a dozen parts of the battle lest you lose your entire army in one swoop.
Unfortunately, your troops don’t always want to cooperate. Protectors, in particular, often seemed like lost lambs. Being melee fighters, they’re prone to getting tossed around, and can’t attack at range. I often found them standing motionless on some far-flung part of the battlefield waiting for me to tell them what to do next. It wasn’t uncommon to hit the recall button and eventually be swarmed by stragglers whom I’d apparently abandoned much earlier in the level.
When you’re not ordering hundreds of automatons to their deaths, you’ll use them to solve puzzles. I kind of hesitate to even call them that, as you’re mainly just using your Guardians to traverse the environment. You’ll have Protectors push blocks and Keepers create shields that protect you from environments that have been corrupted by Zahr’s nefarious and poorly developed scheme. Given the extremely low challenge that these obstacles present, I often found them to be little more than irritating ways to slow down progress.
Masters of Anima’s graphics and sound are nothing to get excited about, but they’re perfectly serviceable. The Guardian’s designs are varied and pretty interesting, and everything is rendered in a nice storybook style. I honestly can’t remember a single song from the game, but the voice acting lent the characters a lot of charm, despite them having about as depth as the cast of G.I. Joe.
All in all, Masters of Anima is built around the strength of one great idea that it executes with mixed success. At its best, when you’re deftly maneuvering your troops to avoid attacks, using Protectors to tie up melee attackers while bombarding high-damage foes from afar with Sentinels and Summoners, playing the game felt the way that I always wanted Diablo’s Necromancers to feel. It’s an uneven game that falters often, but it left me wanting more. It seems like a case where a more sure-footed sequel would take its excellent premise and turn it into something much more impressive than its middling first attempt.