The Anima universe finally gets the videogame its creator always longed for.
It's difficult to find a small indie developer willing to take a gamble on creating a semi-open world action-RPG with 3D grpahics. Add a deep and balanced real-time combat system to the mix and it's even more rare. But Anima Game Studio / Anima Project have done just this, and they've managed to build a coherent and solid title. As its creators say, the only triple-A thing about this game is that it's been created by three people across three years.
Anima: Gate of Memories is based on the Anima: Beyond Fantasy universe, a series of book- and card-based role playing games that originated in Spain and, over the last 15 years, has spread to several other countries around the world. This is the second video game based on this story and characters, but there's several differences between the two titles, one of them being specially relevant: in addition to launching at different times on different platforms, offering 2D or 3D, the main difference is that the universe's creator, Carlos García, is 100% on board with this game as its producer and director. Development has taken a while, as the game was originally funded via Kickstarter and finally backed by a small publisher, BadLand Games (allowing for digital and boxed standard and collector's editions with a bunch of extras).
The game tells a story of subtle destruction and chaos. In Gaia, the world of Anima, there's fantasy, but it's been concealed from human eyes by powerful and secretive organisations (think of Men in Black or Devil May Cry). As a player you step into the shoes of one of the mightiest monsters of all time, Ergo Mundus, who was trapped inside a magic book. And in order to materialise he must concede his power to a human who, in return, must resign his or her name and memories, entering the female protagonist who's simply known as the Bearer of Calamities. They're not one single entity, but they can only exist one at a time, which allows for an instant switch between characters (by pressing R1) that offers some cool options and combinations in combat.
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The game is true to its universe, but somewhat flexible. Even if it doesn't feel much like an RPG when you start playing given its hack 'n' slash combat system, it gradually reveals more depth and makes the most of the rather long script that was written for it. The most laudable achievement here is how the team has been able to cut out the filler and keep the most important parts, yet managing to build a well rounded story that everyone can follow, even those unfamiliar to Anima. There's some flaws in the narrative due to technical limitations, some out of place dialogue lines and average English voice acting. This, along with the untidy and puzzling structure, leaves you feeling a bit lost during the first half of the adventure, at least until you start to grasp the bigger picture by collecting memories and fragments throughout the game.
Another positive thing provided by its origins are the multiple endings. In this game you can witness five different endings depending on your actions and decisions during your play-through. Although alternate endings don't come via branching conversations as you might expect, instead they come depending on your actions in combat and the wider world. Of all these five endings, only one is the 'official' one, but the others reveal an alternative aftermath, just like it happens when you play with pen and paper, a future you keep building on the go, step by step. A great achievement for such a small team.
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The combat system is perhaps even too elaborate for what a game like Anima: Gate of Memories is and needs. It's focused on combos, be it with just one character or chaining the attacks of two characters by switching between them. It's easy to control as it's based on just two attack buttons, two for magic and dash/push/dodge, but at the same time it's demanding because enemies don't tend to get stunned easily and take any chance to hit you hard, forcing you to measure your distance and watch your timing, and keep dodging; a light-hearted Dark Souls if you will. Besides this, the Ki (stamina) and magic meters deplete quickly so that it's not possible to keep jumping around untouched. Furthermore, one character (The Bearer) represents the light and the other (Ergo) the darkness, and thus their attacks aren't as effective against every type of opponent, requiring a strategy similar to Outland or Ikaruga.
However, there's really not many enemies to try all this out against. Instead of repeating the same enemies over and over, they focused instead on mid-size or major bosses (there's not much in the way of weak enemies). This design decision, at times, makes the world feel empty.
As far as the visuals, graphics and technical side goes, there's more food for thought. Should we weigh it against the fact that only three people were responsible for it, or should we criticise it for not being up to scratch compared to what big studios have produced, even a couple of years back? Well, it lands somewhere in the middle. It is indeed an indie game, but the action is smooth, and the game seems free of annoying bugs or glitches. The camera behaves correctly most of the time, except when jumping and leaping, which causes the occasional platforming section to feel a bit painful. But it's also true that the artistic style taken from the series has been put to very good use in order to build pretty, varied, and large environments, with some degree of exploration partway into the game, without filler content or interesting backtracking options. Oh, and there's a rather unique separate world we won't spoil here.
Weaker is the depiction of the characters, and surprisingly enough it's the two main characters that don't seem polished enough, with poor expressions and a lack of definition. For some reason the enemies are better in this respect. All in all, there's not enough volume and geometry, making for an outdated visual whole, but most of the time it's well concealed by the cel-shading style and the artistic work.
Finally, there's another RPG-ish touch to those characters' progression. Each protagonist has their own ability tree split by physical combat, magic, and support. They're mid-sized and invite you to take different, complementary styles for each protagonist, given you can combine them depending on the situation and that they share a bunch of upgrades they then use slightly differently. There are also weapons and accessory items meaning stat buffs, but these don't make for different gameplay or even looks.
It's in this mix of genres we find both the strongest and weakest aspects. There's a good balance between the story, the map size, the lasting appeal of the adventure, and the progression system, but you're not getting a two for one deal here. If you're looking for a fantasy-themed, lively, combo-filled hack 'n' slash similar to Bayonetta, you'll feel it's short on variation when it comes to enemies. And if you're looking for really deep RPG progression systems with a good selection of characters available, it's not that either.
Anima: Gate of Memories stands out as an indie game because it doesn't actually fail in either of these areas; it manages to fulfil everything its creators intended, even if it's not always brilliant. It has its flaws, although perhaps some of them were inevitable given it had a rather limited budget for a 3D third-person action-adventure. But at the end of the day its an entertaining title that caught our attention early on with its gameplay, and convinced us with its storyline before the end.
7 / 10
Simple but effective combat system, varied environments, in-crescendo storytelling, artwork makes up for limited technical aspect.
Poor platform sections, weak main character animation and VA, slightly lacking on enemies.