A new battle begins. I order my melee Guardians first, packed with swords and shields, to get in front of the group in order to concentrate the enemies in one place. While distracted, the range units are sent to the bushes, where they gain a bonification for their bow damage. A third class is in charge of consuming Anima, my magic source needed for puzzles and spawning Guardians, giving me a solid resource to never stop fighting until the enemy Golems are destroyed. All of this happens in a matter of seconds, usually involving dozens of units per class in small, yet at the same time, intense battles.
Masters of Anima puts us in the boots of Otto, a mere student training to become part of the Shapers, a selected group of people who can wield the power of Anima to create Guardians as they see fit. A few minutes into the game Ana, Otto’s fiancé, gets sundered by the game’s villain, who used to be a Shaper as well. Angry for, in his words, lack of proper teaching from their masters in terms of the whole potential, he becomes our target throughout the adventure. But Otto is just interested in getting her Ana back; saving the world is just a side effect.
For this, we have to travel around a vast selection of maps and areas, engaging in combat, solving puzzles and finding all three parts of Ana: heart, mind and body. It’s interesting to see how each “element” has its own personality prior getting together to make her whole again, but the voice acting doesn’t do proper justice to portray the emotions that it tries to evoke in certain moments. While the performances aren’t bad at all, sometimes fail to deliver the exact emotion that the character is trying to represent.
Otto’s purposes and beliefs are in constant conflict, but not for compelling reasons. At first, the soon to become Shaper express his concerns about how humans used the power of Anima to create aggressive entities, using them as a tool for war. He’s concerned about the fact that he will soon be another person capable of commanding Guardians. But, throughout the game, some of these concerns fade away without explanation. When meeting a certain type of Guardian, he express a surprise seeing that they have a will of their own. And that’s when the voice acting breaks the atmosphere, leaving us with almost an ironic commentary. It’s like the game doesn’t want to take itself very seriously, which is a shame considering how interesting the universe is.
Masters of Anima introduces itself as a blend between action, adventure and real time strategy elements. It’s impossible not to think of Pikmin and Overlord, and it kind of resonates in some aspects: as expected, you get a limited number of active units at the same time, choosing between different classes depending on our needs for a puzzle or a better strategy in combat. Each class has its own abilities and weaknesses, which can be later upgraded in between levels, getting one point to expend when we gain a level. Not only the Guardians but Otto can either learn new abilities or improve their stats in terms of damage, range, defense and so on.
Being able to upgrade and improve your current abilities gave me a huge relief, as difficulty is a complex aspect in Masters of Anima. Battle encounters present an equal challenge most of the times, and once you learn the best places to locate each class, it even seems like saving your fianceé will be an easy task. But only if you are quick enough. Enemies, along with their health bar, have an Overcharge meter that will make them increase their damage and attack intensity. While this is an interesting challenge, it proves to be frustrating if we don’t get the upper hand from the very beginning, getting swamped by undodgeable attacks until we inevitably die. Now, if you take into account that running out of anima is pretty much a death sentence, you have two important factors to be wary of during battles.
The interesting thing is that time, along with number of fallen Guardians and damage taken by Otto, is used in a score system after each battle, rewarding you with bonus experience depending on your grades. This system and an additional objective in every level aren’t enough to guarantee replayability, but they add a decent incentive for our path.
There aren’t random encounters or regular enemies during the levels, as all combats are set in arenas of sorts, showcasing big Golems that will only increase their size as we proceed through the game. While simplistic at first, they start to get really challenging fast, often demanding us to break formations with area attacks and constant movements that can bash through our units in a matter of seconds. Aside with using Guardians, Otto can perform a set of melee attacks with his staff, along with -probably the most important ability in the game- activating a secondary power for a nearby group of units, enhancing their abilities like an increased damage for the archers or the possibility to interrupt an enemy attack by stunning them at the right moment.
Puzzles, on the other hand, are way easier. Instead of riddles or challenges, they are pretty much related to matching pieces in the environment, and assigning the right amount of units from an specific class to overcome them. But what I did find rewarding was the exploration aspect: levels are more dense that they initially seem, and while still linear, offer a lot of bonuses for wanderers such as collectibles, items to increase your health and anima or experience, all of these often hidden behind optional bosses or puzzles.
Playing Masters of Anima on Switch proved to be much easier than expected, considering the nature of real time strategy games and how hard it its to adapt controls out of the classic mouse and keyboard. The pointer is locked with our camera, leaving the right analog stick for dodging (an ability you have to purchase as an upgrade for some reason). You can command actions or directions to either one unit from a class or at everyone at the same time by either tapping or pressing the button. Classes are selected by using the shoulders, regrouping is done with B under the same logic as commanding actions, and combining ZR with A and B will either spawn or destroy an unit, respectively. I know it sounds like a lot, but it really comes together nicely.
From its presentation and all the way to the art style, Masters of Anima is a gorgeous experience that is fun to delve into. While at times it feels like it could have been so much more in terms of storyline and enemy variety, its core aspects are fun and worth exploring to the very last corner to get the most out of each level.
A review copy of the game for Switch was provided by Evolve Terminals for review purposes. Masters of Anima was developed by Passtech Games and published by Focus Home Interactive; make sure to visit the official site for more information, and keep up to date to their latest news by following the studio on Twitter.