Anima: Gate of Memories has been a difficult title for me to review. I remarked to other members of the RPGFan staff that I kept hoping it would fulfil its potential. It’s unpolished in many ways, but features gameplay mechanics and design that are reminiscent of two of my favourite criminally underrated action RPGs: Nier and Drakengard. Still, as a reviewer, I can’t award games for potential alone. Does Anima live up to it? Let’s find out.
Gate of Memories follows two characters: a nameless woman known only as The Bearer and a sometimes-talking-book/sometimes-shirtless-warrior-man Ergo. Sent by the Order of Nathaniel, The Bearer and Ergo attempt to retrieve a powerful artefact known as the Byblos. After fighting a powerful foe and failing to obtain it, the pair wakes up to discover they have been trapped inside an ancient, magical tower. Inside, they must fight against powerful entities known as Messengers that threaten the world outside.
In Anima you control only one character at a time, but can switch between The Bearer and Ergo instantly, even during combat. The action-based encounters take place seamlessly on the field where you can unleash a variety of melee and magical attacks against your foes. The Bearer and Ergo each have their own skill tree where you can assign points earned by levelling to learn new moves, improve stats and obtain other RPG-style bonuses. Sadly, their skill trees are near identical which means playing as The Bearer is much the same as playing as Ergo. There are dozens of different abilities on the tree though, so depending on how you spend your points you could aim for a little variety. For example, I chose to keep The Bearer focused on magic spells and Ergo on melee combat. Varying items can be equipped to both characters as well to provide stat bonuses to melee, magic and defences.
Combat is a straightforward affair of shooting magic or attacking a foe with combos until it dies. Regular enemies found on the field vary little in visual design or combat manoeuvres, so combat feels more like a chore than a challenge. Some have shields that block attacks while others explode, but a combination of simple attacks and dodging ultimately takes them all down. To make up for it, bosses are far more interesting, often requiring careful dodging of their bullet hell-style attack patterns (a la Nier). They don’t telegraph their attacks well though, so there can be a fair bit of trial and error in dodging. Bosses have a lot of health too, and tend to wear out their welcome long before the end. Unlocking and utilising new spells and attacks is fun, but since most foes only require basic strategies to defeat most ultimately feel superfluous.
You can swap between characters on the fly in order to link combos together, but the controls are sloppy and doing so is more of an annoyance than an aid. I’m not sure whether it’s a bug or invincibility frames without any visual indication, but often my attacks would appear to connect with an enemy but deal no damage. Certain gameplay elements seem purposely designed to enrage the player such as a side-scrolling area where one mistake means instant death followed by a boss that can reverse your controls. On PC, only Xbox controls are displayed on menus and the HUD adding further confusion to an already messy system.
While the plodding controls in combat hinder enjoyment, they’re far more excruciating during platforming sequences. Numerous areas in the game, and even some boss fights, require making precise jumps between moving platforms or over traps. The camera is a mess though and I would frequently miss jumps because I couldn’t tell how far away a platform was or if it was underneath me. To make matters worse, jumping feels ‘sticky’ and unresponsive, not to mention how the camera is yanked up and down at the same time. It’s a shame, because there’s a wonderful mix of inventive ideas: side-scrolling, stealth, platforming, action and more. If you’ve played Nier or Drakengard 3, then you know what to expect. Essentially, Anima’s controls feel like they should still be in the beta testing stage.
There’s plenty to see in the game’s magical tower setting, and opening a door in one room is as likely to lead you to an open fields and blue skies as it is to a dank sewer. There’s a solid variety of locations to explore and while the technical qualities of the graphics are not outstanding, the art direction is excellent, particularly in the brighter, more open areas. It’s fortunate that the environments are aesthetically pleasing because you’ll be wandering back and forth through them frequently; Anima seems to be built around backtracking. Time and again you’ll need to revisit previous areas as you unlock new doors or destroy magic seals, though you’re not always told where. There is a portal room to get you between locations more quickly, but the teleports are still too limited and you’ll spend an age running around lost. Many times there’s no clear indication of what to do next and I would wander from place to place until I eventually found something new.
For those of you familiar with the source material there’s a plethora of lore to enjoy in the form of written logs (memories), optional dialogues with Ergo and a codex that can be accessed through the menu. Progressing through an area requires finding a certain number of memories and many can only be accessed after solving a puzzle, clearing a platforming sequence or defeating a mini-boss. For everyone else, most of the world-building contributes nothing to the story and the rest is done through memories that you find throughout the tower. The story remains vague and mysterious for most of the game and there’s never a clear purpose driving you forward. Characterisation is extremely poor too: The Bearer is completely devoid of personality and Ergo has an annoying habit of perving on her and adding ‘baby’ to the end of every second sentence. There are plenty of jokes in his script to try and lighten the mood, but most fall flat on their face. The voice acting is stilted and dry and only serves to further alienate the leading cast. Cutscenes aggravate the problem since character models remain stationary during them, which I can only hope was a budget issue and not an intentional design choice.
Anima: Gate of Memories gives glimpses into a fascinating world of powerful magic, ancient artefacts and legendary heroes. Unfortunately, what potential lies beneath its surface is utterly obscured by horrendous controls, an embarrassing script, dull characterisation and sparkly, but uninspired combat. Perhaps diehard fans of the original RPG might find something to love, but it’s unlikely anyone else will. And it’s a shame, too, because there’s so much potential beneath Anima’s subpar execution.