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Review: Masters of Anima (Nintendo Switch)By Renan At 09.04.2018 22:00

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Considering how overdone the damsel in distress premise is within the videogame medium, it is a bit disappointing to see Masters of Anima centre itself around it. On the day of protagonist Otto's trial to become a Shaper, someone with the power to harness Anima and summon Guardians, a sorcerer named Zahr, disrupts the world of Spark by sundering Otto's fiancée, Ana, and dividing her soul into three essences: heart, mind, and body. Naturally, it falls on Otto to go on a quest to reassemble the love of his life. Conceptually, it's been done and it isn't particularly impressive, but it does have one element that allows it to at least feel fresh.

Where a traditional damsel in distress story would keep the damsel relegated to the beginning and ending of the game, with maybe one or two near-miss interactions, having to find three pieces of Ana allows Otto to interact with her almost the entire time. As soon as he finds Ana's heart, she becomes a core part of the story, discussing matters with him and providing comic relief until her more serious mind comes in to ease the narrative into its endgame. It still isn't ideal, as Ana can have no development due to her soul being split, but it is a preferable alternative. Keeping her active in the plot in some way allows audiences to see the chemistry between Otto and Ana, making them care more about their plight.

It's really exposition more than anything that hurts the script. The world of Spark is clearly very rich in lore and history, but just about every piece of information is relayed inorganically. The story itself opens with an info-dump that honestly does more harm than good. Players have no reason to care about the world starting out, so unloading so much on them ensures very little ends up retained. While the exposition slows down in the second half, this is a problem that never gets resolved. Thankfully, Otto's dynamic with Ana is charming enough to save the script, and the two makes for a genuinely endearing pair with plenty of appropriate quips to go around.

The story may not be anything to write home about, but Master of Anima's gameplay is nothing short of addictive. Stages are typically structured into two halves: exploration and combat. When exploring, Otto can find health and Anima upgrades through solving puzzles either by finding the right altar to feed Anima to, or by using his Guardians in creative ways. With five different Guardians to choose from, the puzzle solving in the second half ends up particularly creative. Protectors can move heavy blocks or statues, Sentinels can fire at targets stuck in the air, Keepers can purify the environment to allow Otto to pass through corrupted areas, Commanders can hoist up heavy objects, and Summoners can summon titans for Otto to control. From a design standpoint, the puzzle solving works as well as it does because every Guardian remains relevant throughout the whole journey. Once they are introduced, they are going be used in every stage onwards.

Although Guardians are put to good use in the exploration section, it's combat where they truly shine. There are about three to four battles per stage, on average, but each combat section lasts a solid few minutes as every enemy encounter is basically a boss fight in its own right, especially later on. Protectors can form a shield around enemies to prevent them from attacking other Guardians, Sentinels can fire from afar, Keepers drain Anima, Commanders are tanks with the ability to support other Guardians, and Summoners summon their own Guardians to fight on their behalf. Since Otto requires Anima to summon Guardians, it's important to keep a careful eye on the Anima gauge and not just summon haphazardly. Running out of Anima in a fight is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing Otto's defeat.

While Otto is always going to run the risk of running out of Anima, there are methods of ensuring he maintains an upper hand. Keepers feed Anima back into Otto, but losing them means having to use that Anima to summon them back. This goes for any Guardian. By pressing ZR and B, however, Otto can deconstruct his Guardians and convert them back into Anima. If an enemy is targeting a group of Sentinels, it's best to just destroy them instead of calling them to Otto. That way, Otto avoids losing any Guardians and can simply summon them back without wasting any Anima.

Otto also has access to an ability called "battlecry." By pressing ZR and Y, Otto can use Anima to either buff his Guardians or trigger a special attack. Protectors parry enemies when battlecried, Sentinels fire an explosive shot to deal massive damage, Keepers drain health instead of Anima, Summoners mass summon multiple Guardians, and Commanders relay Otto's battlecry to where they are positioned so the player doesn't have to run halfway across the map to buff a group of Guardians. Otto can also attack enemies himself, but this is mostly a last ditch effort when all his Guardians are dead and he's low on Anima.

To further help Otto is a level-up system where each level gives him one skill point to attribute amongst himself and his five Guardian classes. Between the puzzle-solving and battles, each stage allows Otto to level about twice rather comfortably. Purchased skills can range from giving Guardians new attributes, buffing their battlecries, or just making Otto strong enough to participate in battle himself. Regardless of what's levelled up, there's enough variety where just about every build will wind up useful.

As great as the core gameplay is, there are issues in the second half regarding gimmick stages and the difficulty curve. The further the game progresses, the more stages begin to stray away from the core puzzle-solving-to-combat ratio. Suddenly, Otto needs to collect gems in a desert or take control of a nymph to move around mushrooms in order to make fog disappear. In a game where the mechanics are plenty complicated and abundant as is, gimmick stages feel like overkill. It doesn't help the gimmick stages that they tend to be the hardest in the batch. Until about halfway through, there's a clear progression of challenge. Once Otto gets his hands on the first part of Ana's soul, though, the difficulty spikes and never comes back down.

The problem isn't that the game gets hard. Rather, it's good that the developer feels comfortable enough delivering a challenging endgame. The problem is that the transition into the spike is too sudden. By the time the challenge ramps up, many players will still be trying to master the mechanics. This shift makes the second half feel far more chaotic than it would otherwise be. With an already short campaign, a few extra levels would have done wonders for the overall length and pacing alike. That said, the ranking system does encourage the replaying of previous stages, so going back to grind doesn't feel like a complete waste of time. Masters of Anima certainly could have benefited from a more refined back half, but it's nonetheless carried by some excellent core mechanics.

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Final Score
Despite a reliance on gimmicks and an, at times, overwhelming difficulty curve, [i]Masters of Anima[/i] manages to overcome its shortcomings to deliver a wildly addictive action-RTS experience. Battles are genuinely demanding, but never impossible, requiring an understanding of the mechanics to survive, especially during the second half. The ranking system encourages clever play that would otherwise be lost in the inherent chaos of combat, and the puzzle-solving segments make for wonderful respites where Otto can play around with his Guardians and accrue Anima for any upcoming bouts. The script does suffer from an emphasis on exposition, but, like the rest of [i]Masters of Anima[/i], it carries with it an endearing amount of charm.



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