HIGH The boss fight against Kappel shows off most of the game’s best ideas.
LOW A boss fight where my controls got inverted and then I got stun-locked to death.
WTF Ergo singing a knockoff of the “Reading Rainbow” theme.
It’s clear almost immediately that Anima: Gate of Memories wants to be some combination of Nier and Demon’s Souls. I’m sympathetic to that concept since I love both of those titles. Those games, however, are expertly made experiences from deep-benched professional studios with master craftsmen behind them. It would take a miracle for a tiny indie team to make something even close. Miracles may be real, but one didn’t happen here.
The problem starts with the game’s principal characters, a nameless woman working for an order of religious warriors and an ancient demon named Ergo that’s been bound into the form of a book. The dynamic of emotionally closed-off, responsible woman and hedonistic, free-spirited man gets stale before the tutorial ends. The book-demon’s constant, crass come-ons are too boring to be offensive. Only the efforts of Ergo’s voice actor—John Joseph Archer II delivering the game’s only competent work despite the barren script—left me any emotional hook into the story at all.
Only one of these characters is onscreen at a time, though the player can switch between them on the fly, and in principle this priestess/demon contrast could lead to divergence in behavior. In one region of the game (and particularly in one bullet hell boss fight) Anima takes advantage of this split for some Ikaruga-style light/dark switching to compensate for enemy invulnerability. Most of the time, however, the characters play similarly and are equally effective in all contexts. They have different spells and special attacks, but when it comes down to physical attacks the two are almost identical, right down to the inconsistent hit detection.
Watching a character sweep an attack right through an enemy without any effect was a frequent occurrence, and a particularly annoying one in a game like this. Hard-hitting bosses and an incredibly tiny supply of healing items are clearly meant to encourage the player to read bosses’ tells and develop a strategy for tactical attack and dodging, but it’s not followed through with the necessary mechanical tightness. Like most games that take the low road to generating difficulty, Anima gives all its bosses and many of its minibosses enormous lifebars relative to the strength of the characters’ attacks. Every major battle becomes a tedious festival of whittling, typically spiced up by moments when the boss summons dozens of minions or makes copies of itself. One boss and a particular kind of miniboss also have an undodgeable (and unforgivable) attack that inverts the control stick.
Anima also interferes with the player by seizing control of the camera to turn itself into a side-scroller or a top-down brawler. These moments are among the worst in the game as they are often used to incorporate some additional wrong-headed gimmick. Just once, in a stylish black-and-white segment with text superpositions, did the side-scrolling choice pay off. In the spirit of a stopped clock, however, Anima shortly follows it up with a similar segment that incorporates terrible insta-fail stealth.
Even when the camera lands in the hands of the player, however, Anima doesn’t contain much to look at. Its barren environments and vast empty hallways are reminiscent of Nier in the worst possible way. In a precious few spots Anima has a level of detail that makes its world feel interesting and inviting, but the bulk of it is just blank, though a significant fraction of the game corrects for that by being too dark to see anything.
Anima explains away these boring, empty levels and their hub/spoke arrangement by being set in an artificial magical tower. Presumably this also explains why waves of enemies frequently teleport in and why so much of the game involves jumping onto moving blocks and vanishing platforms. In those segments I frequently found myself wishing the game would turn into a side-scroller again, if only because the position of the standard camera was too close to effectively judge jumps.
Anima’s RPG side isn’t much better than its platforming elements. The leveling system relies on activating a web of abilities, and each level grants both Ergo and the woman two points to activate skills, which lie at nodes on the web. This also activates a link between the two nodes which enhance passive abilities like attack, defense, or HP. However, the nodes will be filled in completely around level 16 or so. Some skills can be made more powerful with multiple activations after that point, but because leveling does not intrinsically improve the characters’ HP or abilities (and because all the links have been activated at that point) it’s impossible to grind the characters up if the late game gets too difficult.
Don’t come to this game for the story, either. Anima’s peripheral cast is even weaker than its protagonists, and with one exception it doesn’t foster any illuminating interplay between the leads and their antagonists. Ergo and the woman’s journey through the tower is a flat ride right up to the completely predictable moment of betrayal. The game’s twist doesn’t even illuminate anything about previous events or the tower itself. It’s just pro forma game storytelling, like everything else.
When a title shows off obvious influences one hopes that it will rise above them, but Anima: Gate of Memories isn’t fit to shine its influences’ shoes. Its fundamentals are shoddy, and its characters and narrative are a bore. Anima never executes anywhere near the level its considerable ambitions demand.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Anima Project and published by BadLand Games. It is currently available on PS4, XBox One, PC, and Mac. This copy of the game was obtained via the publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains language, mild blood, suggestive themes, and violence. The main male character constantly makes crass comments about the main female character. The violence in the game is largely bloodless, though there are a few bloodstains in the environment here or there. The character Ergo is too gross for pre-teens but young teens should be fine.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: In several fights sound cues are sole, important markers of an impending attack. Dialogue is subtitled but the subtitles, especially when displayed during boss fights, can obscure important information.
Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable in any meaningful way on PS4. Also, allow me to reiterate that several enemies have attacks that cannot be dodged that invert the movement controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are NO colorblind modes available in the options. However, nothing really relies on color distinctions.