Anima: Gate of Memories

Anima: Gate of Memories tells the story of two primary characters, The Bearer and Ergo, as they reluctantly work together to fulfill the mission of an ancient society known as Nathaniel.  The game begins with the duo attempting to recover an artifact called The Byblos.  They fail to retrieve it in time and the two are absorbed by an amorphous black mass, later awakening trapped in a tower.  This tower, known as Arcane, has the magical ability to extend to other parts of the world.  Because the story begins in medias res, this works as both a benefit and detriment to the narrative.  The early stages of the game are incredibly confusing, with a great deal of dialogue mentioning relationships and events that the player is unaware of.  On the plus side, the latter half brings the story together as the player is drip-fed important details of the past and the significance of their actions in the future.  By the end of the game, the motivations, relationships and stakes will be clear.  There are also five different endings, with the true ending leading to a much more enjoyable and story-rich experience.

I appreciate the fact that there is a ton of banter and discussion throughout the game; however, the dialogue through which the story is articulated can be very hit-or-miss.  By-and-large, the voice acting isn’t bad, but the dialogue often comes across as rather amateurish, which hurts the line delivery regardless of how it’s handled.  The Bearer spends most of the game being needlessly irritable, whereas Ergo’s character is defined by being cocky and antagonistic.  Ergo ultimately becomes the most likable of the entire cast, because there are a handful of times where his voice actor really nails the lovable jerk archetype, particularly near the end.  At the same time, there are a few horrendous lines that aren’t easily forgotten and sour the overall quality of the dialogue.

From a purely technical perspective, Anima is unremarkable at best and very rough at worst.  A comparison to graphics quality a few generations ago would not be unjustified.  Despite this, the solid art direction and strong use of stylistic elements produce very impressive results.  Anima does a lot with very little, and this is compounded by the story which allows for a lot of freedom.  Due to the reality-bending nature of the narrative, the game is able to offer a wide variety of locations.  In turn, these shifts in theme remain organic because the setting is already intrinsically disconnected from a logical sense of direction.  Every mundane door you enter can bring you into a completely different world, and one that is consistently well-realized.

While many of the core bosses are aesthetically appealing in design and thematically intimidating in portrayal, the same cannot be said of the standard enemies and mini-bosses.  These are almost entirely anthropomorphized globs of light and color.  Anything that doesn’t fit this description is just a collection of random shapes mashed together that vaguely resemble an insect or animal. This makes for a perplexing but ultimately uninteresting enemy type.  Considering the game offers such a wide variety of locations and an art style that clearly stayed true to concept art, it’s disappointing to see such little effort put into this area.  The enemies you will be spending the majority of your time fighting simply aren’t interesting to look at, and this unfortunately bleeds into Anima’s primary weakness:  The combat.  For all the praise I can give to the care and effort that was put into the setting and art direction, this element leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The combat in Anima is very reminiscent of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta in design.  Even games like Nier seem to have had an influence.  While this sounds good in theory, it is unfortunate that Anima’s imitation never equals the quality of the games it is borrowing from.  All of the required elements are here, such as dashes, launchers, air combos, area-of-effect magic, ranged attacks, and even character-switching.  You can also unlock new abilities and assign them to any button you wish in a context-sensitive manner.  For example, you can have each button assigned to a completely different attack depending on whether you’re stationary or in motion.  The fundamentals that are supplemented by a surprisingly high degree of variety sounds like a recipe for success; however, it all feels very stilted in practice.  In truth, the combat has very little depth and the situations in which you can string a combo together or character switch are extremely restrictive.  As a result, many of the options lack utility, creativity and even visual appeal.  While there are some standout aspects, Anima ultimately provides a functional but clunky combat system with a false sense of depth.

Luckily, these missteps with the use of basic mechanics are offset somewhat by the minor inclusions that improve the experience.  While the shallow combat makes the standard enemy encounters less interesting, the bosses are clear exceptions.  Good boss design shines through when it represents a test of what the player has previously learned.  Anima embodies this concept for nearly all of its bosses.  For example, one area has color-coded enemies that exist in forms of either white or black.  White enemies can only be hurt by The Bearer, and black enemies can only be hurt by Ergo.  These enemies force you to get acquainted with the character-switching mechanic.  The mini-boss of the area is fought in a platforming section with multiple lasers circling the boss.  This teaches you how to position yourself and figure out the timing for jumping over attacks.  The final boss of the area shifts between white and black auras, and uses attacks where positioning and jumping is extremely important.  Anima expects the player to have grasped the concepts of its bosses before they’ve even met them, and it works out very well in practice.

Anima also does an excellent job of establishing a scale of power.  Both the player character and enemies have a large range of magical attacks at their disposal, and they interact with one another based on a sense of hierarchy.  For example, attacking an enemy’s Magic Beam with one of your own will cause them both to explode, cancelling each other out.  If you use the more powerful Energy Cutter – which throws out a sharp wave of magic – it will destroy the weaker magic attack and continue towards the enemy.  If an enemy fires a rapid barrage of weaker magical attacks, they can be nullified or cut through entirely by responding with something more powerful, and the same rule can be used against you.  In many games, the player’s ranged attacks and the enemies’ don’t interact with each other in a meaningful way: If you see an attack coming, you move out of the way.  In Anima, you can fight back directly in a manner that is sensible, easy to visually identify and gives a strong sense of clashing powers.

Aside from the combat, a large portion of the gameplay will be in the form of platforming and puzzle sections.  The Bearer and Ergo must have graduated from the Dante School of jumping, because the distance they cover is almost entirely vertical with almost no forward movement.  This form of jumping is well-suited to combat, but is terrible when used for geometric traversal.  While each character can double-jump, this hardly matters for the frustrating platforming sections of which there are far too many.  The spacing of platforms is unforgiving and requires nigh-flawless execution.  Many of these platforms are moving cubes, but there are others such as rock formations with very ambiguous footholds.  This frustration is compounded by the inclusion of spikes and other assorted traps which can force you to redo an entire section.  There are a number of ways that this problem could be alleviated: greater air control, more forgiving checkpoints or a better camera angle with which to judge distance.  Anima provides none of these.

The puzzle design is handled fairly well, although it can be rather obtuse at times.  There is very little explanation for the puzzle elements in Anima, and it’s often unclear what constitutes a solvable puzzle as opposed to an unusable switch or door.  In some ways it can be irritating, but there is an endearing quality in how it harkens back to the pen-and-paper style of puzzle design.  There were a handful of times in which I literally wrote down symbols or combinations in order to use them for future reference.  These puzzles range from simple to moderately complex and it’s clear they were not an afterthought.  They don’t dominate the experience, but instead contribute to the sense of discovery that Anima uses very well.

I don’t think I’ve had a more polarizing experience with a video game than I did with Anima: Gate of Memories.  There are a number of very compelling elements that really solidify Anima as a title that had an ambitious vision and a team dedicated to making it a reality.  At the same time, they also sought to take elements from other successful games.  This amounts to an inferior gameplay experience, but one that is also surrounded by the strength of its original elements.  Expectations of AAA quality would be unreasonable for this title; however, so much is borrowed that one can’t help but be reminded of other third-person action titles. 

Anima actively does itself a disservice by forcing this comparison. While this is a failing that shouldn’t be ignored, its strengths lie in the ability to capture the player with excellent visual design and a sense of intrigue that compels them to move forward.  My experience fumbled with a desire to quit after an hour of playtime and somehow turned into 20 hours, beating the secret bosses, acquiring all of the endings, and starting a run for 100% completion.  I can’t precisely determine when this shift occurred, but Anima’s success in drawing me in is a testament to what can be accomplished when a developer goes all-in on the elements of a game it handles best.