We can't take it anymore. We're done getting repeatedly bludgeoned by gigantic Golems and being forced to see our little minions smashed to bits in what seems like an unwinnable struggle. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. What if we supercharge our archers, instead of our tank units? It's working! The battle is about to be won, but no... not so fast. Another Golem, this one with a different skillset appears, and we need to switch up our strategy. The battle drags out, and it's simply not fun anymore. We're well aware that soon we'll get destroyed by evil red lava eruptions, a feature put in place to punish players who take their time. It seems impossible and we throw the controller on the floor. It feels like the game takes pleasure in punishing us, but we know we'll soon be back for more of the same.
The scene above is a perfect illustration of the frustration we felt taking on Masters of Anima, and it's the same every time we pick up the game. And while Passtech Games has created a game with lots of interesting ideas in this Pikmin-inspired adventure, the frustration it offers is a major issue for us. But let's take a look at what it offers first, and then figure out whether it's worth enduring the frustration.
Masters of Anima is a somewhat obscure mix of an action-RPG and a lightweight RTS, much like Pikmin and Overlord, basically, you control a bunch of minions. This is explained in the fiction with the fact that you're a so-called Shaper called Otto, and with his wand he can conjure Guardians by spending Anima - an equivalent to Mana. Your beloved Ana has been kidnapped by a rogue Shaper named Zahr, who also seems intent on causing the end of the world. It's not a straightforward hero's journey as Otto really doesn't want to be a Shaper, and it's actually Ana who is the talented one of two. However, in spite of his objections, Otto sets out to use his new powers to take on Golems, the primary enemy of the game.
It should also be noted that Masters of Anima doesn't attempt to present an epic or prize-winning story. It doesn't take itself too seriously and you're treated to a fairly humourous and lighthearted affair that works well together with well-crafted visuals.
With the threat of the apocalypse resting on our shoulders, you'll need to journey through the world of Spark - from deserts to snow-covered mountains, to save your loved one and Spark itself. To aid your adventure there are Guardians in all shapes and sizes that you unlock as you progress through the game. You can summon up to 100 Guardians to use for melee combat, archery, and to steal Anima from Golems, just to mention a few of their uses.
Primarily you'll be killing Golems or getting killed by them. Between these typically fairly intense battles, there are small puzzles to solve in the levels where you'll need to use your Guardians to move objects around, among other things. These are welcome breaks from the intense battles, but we could have used even more variation as the Golem encounters are so draining.
This brings us to the main attraction, and the main problem with the game: combat. These revolve around managing yourself and your Guardians in real-time. You have to make sure that the Golem attacks don't wipe out your damage-dealing archers en masse. You'll also need to replenish your ranks as needed. This costs Anima, which is dropped by certain Guardians but that's also hidden in places across the levels. This Anima can also be used to trigger the special attacks of your Guardians, a unique ability for each unit type. These can grant Otto health, send a deadly volley of arrows towards the enemy, and so on and so forth.
When you enter into combat the Golem is ready to launch an attack, and at times there's not much you can do to save your Guardians. For instance, one type of Golem sends a giant arrow your way at the start and if you don't act quickly you can lose a good handful of Guardians in the first five seconds, a disadvantage that's hard to overcome. One thing that's to your advantage is that you can freeze a Golem just as he's about to launch a devastating attack. But we often found that the timing of this trick is a bit hard to predict, and given the difficulty of the game we'd like more transparency in key mechanics like these.
Along the same lines, it would have been nice if the strategy had been clearer. Many players will be frustrated to find that what's essentially a fun concept quickly becomes very punishing. A game where you'll need to try, try, try, and try again, without getting much in terms of feedback of what you're doing wrong or if you've missed an important mechanic. It's something of a digital purgatory. This problem is exaggerated by the lack of difficulty settings, so you can't get settled in on Easy and later turn up the dial for an increased challenge. It's a shame, as with a few adjustments the game would have been a lot more enjoyable.
Once you've figured out the weaknesses of a Golem and brought him down, the encounter isn't necessarily over, even if your Anima reserves might be depleted. The game never signals whether there are more enemies coming. You might have played differently if you would have known, but you're going to have to make that adjustment for the next attempt.
If Passtech Games would have reserved this incredibly punishing level of challenge to single boss fights that you'd have to figure out, it would have been one thing, but here it's almost every encounter and it's exhausting. Another issue with the emphasis on combat is that it's easy to forget what else the game revolves around. Perhaps the problem lies in that the rest of the adventure needed further fleshing out - it just feels like filler in between the many gruelling battles.
Another big problem is that the controls are a bit clumsy. It is recommended that you play with a controller, as using a mouse and keyboard isn't ideal. It took us a good while to feel comfortable with the shortcuts. For instance, there's no command to send all Guardians to one spot. Instead, you'll need to command each type of Guardian directly. The same can be said of the aim function which is controlled with the same stick as you move Otto. It's a cumbersome control scheme and one that adds to the frustration as you face difficult Golems.
The visual side of things does a good job with its low-poly and colourful cartoon styling. It's well defined, even if the popularity of this art style makes it feel a bit anonymous. It is however easy on the eye and works well with the not too serious tone of the story. The animations and movements of enemies are also decent. Menus and UI elements are a bit of a letdown, though, as they come across as rather cheap. On the plus side the game runs well and the loading times are short.
The audio side of the game is also fine, with somewhat over-the-top British accents for the characters. Fortunately, these are not as abrasive as the narrator in the trailer if you've seen that. We've been told that the overall soundscape of the game can be a bit annoying to others in the vicinity, but it's nothing you'll notice directly while playing.
As it turns out there are plenty of good things here and if you're keen on the genre you may want to give it a try as there sure aren't many of these types of games around. Having said that, we really didn't have a good time with Masters of Anima. It's difficult to control, and the encounters are extremely punishing. You're often forced to figure it out for yourself by trial and error as things aren't made clear by the game. Without much of a narrative to focus on the combat should be more fun, and therefore it's hard to be more upbeat about it, unless you're looking for a truly challenging and less charming Pikmin to spend your time with, that is.