One of the appeals of strategy games is to field a large amount of troops, be it to re-enact historical battles or simply have the joy of seeing vast armies clash. Some games zoom a bit and make the whole affair more personal, granting the player a small squad which has to be managed by a commander. Masters of Anima, developed by Passtech Games and published by Focus Home Interactive, takes the latter route and throws magic and puzzles into the mix.
In Masters of Anima, you assume the role of Otto, a Shaper in the making. Centuries ago, Otto’s home was threatened destruction by a sentient volcano named Mount Spark. The Shapers, people with the ability to summon magical constructs known as Guardians, sealed the mountain’s power away and saved the world. Ever since, the Shapers have watched over the land of Spark, led by the Supreme Shaper.
Otto’s fiancée Ana happens to be the current Supreme Shaper. Before the two can get married, Otto needs to pass his exam and become a Shaper himself — tradition and law say so. However, Masters of Anima is not about a young couple shackled by the constraints of society. What happens instead is the return of Zahr the Banished, a former Shaper who plans to use the power of Mount Spark to reshape the world.
When Ana confronts Zahr, he shatters her essence into three pieces. Now it is up to Otto to recover Ana’s heart, mind and body and stop Zahr. While Otto can smash inanimate objects and enemies with his trusty staff, the bulk of the fighting is done by the Guardians he summons using the titular magical energy known as Anima.
Guardians come in various flavours. Initially, you can only summon basic melee warriors, but over the course of Master of Anima, ranged fighters, support units and other Guardians are unlocked. The Guardians do not only serve as fighters, but are also used to solve puzzles: They can move heavy objects, unearth treasures, make certain terrain passable and grant Otto protection from corrupting energies.
Masters of Anima rewards all three — combat, puzzle solving and exploration — with experience and upgrades. Once Otto levels up, you gain skill points that unlock new abilities for Otto and his Guardians. A regular playthrough without too much grinding is unlikely to unlock all abilities. Thus, you are encouraged to invest the skills points to support whatever playstyle you like most, be it buffing Otto to make him a viable threat to enemies, focussing on certain Guardians or something else entirely.
Thankfully, Masters of Anima lets you reset all skills after a level has been completed — no second playthrough is needed to experiment with and no poor choice is irreversible. Likewise, you can replay any of Masters of Anima’s stages to find life bar extensions and other collectibles or to simply gain more experience.
The stages are a mostly linear affair: you transverse from one end of a level to the other, solving puzzles on the way and battling Zahr’s golem servants in specific spots. There is the occasional side path, however only one level, a ruined desert town, can be called open. The cartoonish graphics are pleasant to look at and in line with the art style of the cutscenes, but the land of Spark holds nothing unexpected; you travel through snowy mountains, a desert, caves, forests and similar landscapes.
Despite the linear design, you are unlikely to get stuck in Masters of Anima. The puzzles are not very difficult — coordinating the Guardians is often more challenging than figuring out the solution itself. There are checkpoints before every fight and Anima orbs scattered across the map, which respawn once you reload, giving you the opportunity to maximise your army of Guardians and summon the ones suitable for the next battle.
Nevertheless, failure can be frustrating at times, as some of the later fights can be rather lengthy. Even more time-consuming is replaying a level to find that last health or magic bar upgrade you may have missed. Simply grabbing the missed item and leaving is not possible; the level has to be completed again. The puzzles suffer the on a second playthrough of a stage: not very challenging to begin with, they become mostly busywork.
On the plus side, this gives you the opportunity to polish your fighting style, which Masters of Anima rewards; after each battle, you receive a breakdown of your performance. Taking the Guardians lost, damage taken and length of the battle into account, the game ranks you on a scale from A to D. Fight near-perfectly and you may even receive an S rank. The higher the rank, the more experience you receive.
While this does mean that a player who is already struggling is further penalised, it does encourage you to end fights swiftly and elegantly. Once a level has been completed, the overall performance is ranked as well. If you like to see S ranks across the board, this adds some incentive to go through levels a second time and optimise your strategy. If you are content with simply beating the game, most fights allow you to sacrifice your time ranking and win using patience and endurance.
The replay value of Masters of Anima is otherwise limited. You can combine different skills and different Guardians, but the levels, puzzles and encounters ultimately remain the same. The absence of any modes aside from the story mode and a lack of difficulty levels add to this.
The characters in Masters of Anima are quite charming, a fact underlined by the art style, but Otto’s quest to save his fiancée and the world, maturing along the way, is clichéd even by the standards of video game storytelling. The lack of characters to interact with adds to this; apart from the leading couple and the main antagonist, the only other people you meet are your old mentor, a faux-Arab merchant and a forest nymph.
Overall, Masters of Anima is a charming little game that is moderately challenging and easily accessed. The game’s strength lies in its tactical element and customisation. However, its puzzles and level design are lacklustre and, with regard to story, Masters of Anima has little to offer than has not been seen before.