Thursday, June 9, 2016

Anima: Gate of Memories (PS4)

The fantasy world of "Anima: Gate of Memories", much like our own real world has reached a point where the reigning superpower has faltered, and the seeking of global domination by others via war has brought all worldly existence to it's knees. In Anima (as I'm going to refer to it) the superpower which was the Empire of Abel has been destroyed by the darkness that aimed to consume it, and has left in it's wake an order called the "Order of Nathaniel" which stands as the sole savior of all creation. The story starts off abruptly in the midst of all this lore, and background information with a chase involving an enigmatic character named Lady Red who has stolen a prophetic book known as Babylos for unknown reasons. Her female pupil, who is known only as the "Bearer of Calamity" follows in pursuit with her demon companion "Ergo" at her side in order to get back said book. Upon facing the Lady Red in combat the bearer is warped to a sort of dream realm in which a convergence of entities are being gathered for the destruction of all existence. It is here where she must fight against all odds to ensure a future for humanity, and the order itself.

Gameplay in "Anima: Gate of Memories", as it were seems to be a mixture of inspired video game elements ripped from older action RPG games. At base level it feels like 'Castlevania: Lords of Shadow", but with 'Dark Souls', and 'Devil May Cry' features combined in the mix. This includes a Castlevania style level layout, Dark Souls inspired boss fights, and DMC combo oriented combat. This mismatch of gameplay archetypes comes together in an alright, but not so perfect package. Badlands Indie Studios definitely nails the visuals, and storytelling, but includes combat and conflicting camera angles that could use some refinement.

At the heart of it all you will be playing both as the 'Bearer of Calamity', and a demonic being named 'Ergo' who was imprisoned in a book by the 'Order of Nathaniel'. Initially through the provided tutorial, and Lady Red intro of the game you'll learn that these two persons, or beings of interest perform both magical, and physical attacks based on the weapons they each consume (equip). Their movement, or actions are governed by Ki in a similar fashion to the 'Dark Souls' series, and their magic skills by Mana. Each character has their own involvement in the game's mythology, but work together in a joint effort with the order due to a binding spiritual contract which allows the bearer of calamity to call on Ergo as needed.

Traversing the fantasy world that these two characters inhabit is done in a semi-linear fashion. Meaning there is a beaten path to follow. The paths, in general are set on beautifully rendered 3D environments with path deviations set aside for the discovery of hidden items, artifacts, and weapons. There are even doors, or pathways found along the way which will trigger a loading screen for the next section of environment to load in. The start of the game is barren for the most part though with only a few easy to kill enemies scattered about just so you can comply with the prompted tutorial instructions that pop-up onscreen. Once past the tutorials the real test of your gameplay mechanics understanding will begin. It is here in the previously mentioned dream realm that puzzle solving elements, platforming, and combo based combat that comes complete with DMC-esque verbal exclamations will come into play. You will be earning DP (skill points) for application to two different character skill trees as well as level rankings via earned experience. Along the way you'll also collect, and purchase equipment befitting of the increasingly difficult to defeat inhabitants.

Combat at base level abides by three different meters for both "The Bearer of Calamity", and "Ergo". These include a yellow segmented health bar which will refill with enemy kills, breakable object contents, or applied health potions as well as a self-replenishing Ki meter for physical actions, and a similar Mana meter for magic skill use. As far as the health meter goes once either characters' health is fully depleted you will be taken to a sort of "Game Over" screen where the option to continue at the currently gained checkpoint is allowed. To avoid an untimely death you'll need to either defeat enemies, or use the "Fragment of Life" potions which can be found, and bought. The Ki meter, and Mana meters on the other hand replenish over time allowing your characters to do such actions as evading or the casting of magic attacks. It's a lot like the 'Dark Souls' formula in that regard. It should also be noted that you can assign replenishing, or boost potions to the DPad's cardinal directions for quick access. During a fight. This feature comes in handy when you are in desperate need of things like Mana, or Life.

Each character including "The Bearer of Calamity", and "Ergo" have a selection of detailed "OPTIONS" menus which will allow for equipment, and skill assignment as well as a separate skill tree that is governed by links and added link effects. In the equipment, and skill setup menu you can assign up to two weapons per character. These weapons which can be found hidden in the environments in pink flames or bought from a certain vendor have attributes tied to magic, physical, and critical damage. Some weapons also have inherent special abilities which will be more effective against certain enemy types, or for certain situations. Both characters also have two slots for artifacts which basically boost physical, and magical defenses. When pairing equipment it is always best to have a complimentary arrangement in mind, or at least one fit for the current area's enemy types.

Aside from the base equipment you can also assign skills from the skill tree to the face, and shoulder buttons of the Dualshock4 controller. These four base button assignment options are further divided in a "Neutral", "Combo", and "Aerial" sub-section. By assigning a skill which has been linked, or unlocked through earned DP (skill points gained through leveling up) you can perform said magical skills in each fashion using the assigned button. By that I mean a "Neutral" assigned skill is done when standing in the neutral position . A "Combo" assigned skill requires that it be used in a combo, and a "Aerial" skill requires it to be used as you jump. Not all skills will fit in every assignable sub-section type, but can be used in at least one. As far as the skill tree goes the tree tops off with your current level on display, and branches downward in a sort of multi-branched pyramid style pattern. Skills are shown in circles with accompanying symbols for each character, and have an associated description in a side frame detailing what that skill does. Once a skill is unlocked it can be linked to adjacent skills forming a midway path or link that harbors a stat boost effect. Things like physical, and magical properties can be enhanced through links as can experience gain, and other stat specific attributes. You don't have to link skills, but doing so can be beneficial.

Also contained in the detailed menu system is a "Memories" section which acts as a sort of reference. It houses the game's mythology, and background related information as well as the tutorial, and character descriptions of the main role players involved in the plot. You will need to access some parts of the "Memories" menu later on in the game to help solve various puzzles.

Going back to combat ...

As "The Bearer of Calamity", or "Ergo" you will need to use physical combos, magic attacks/skills, and evasion to best the baddies and bosses scattered throughout the game's environments. Performing combos is as simple as spamming the "SQUARE" button (on ground or in air), or chaining said "SQUARE" button with skills assigned to the preset face and shoulder buttons. Doing this will score you Force Points as well as a DMC style exclamations that coincide with how impressive your combo was. Force Points, as I understand it are the currency used at the in-game vendor for weapon, artifact, and item purchases. Aside from that you can also use magic skills by themselves when your Mana meter is filled to the required limit. Using both physical attacks, combos, and skills will often times mean the difference between seeing a "Continue" screen, and making further progress. As far as movement goes moving the characters in-game is as simple as using the directional function of the 'Left Thumbstick'. This along with the 'Right Thumbstick' for camera angle adjustment will allow you to move more freely in a situation where multiple enemies are onscreen. Like 'Dark Souls' you'll also be able to lock onto a single target by pressing in the "Left Thumbstick (L3)'. To switch between targets you'll need to follow up with a pressing in of the "Right Thumbstick (R3)". Jumping, and double jumping which is also an option can be done by pressing "X", or "X, X" respectively. For evasion, and recovery from attacks you will need to press the "R2" shoulder button. This shoulder button also doubles as a means to run if you hold it down. In order to switch between characters you'll simply have to press "R1" while not on the move.  Finally, "L2" serves as an alternative magic attack for "the Bearer of Calamity".

When it comes down to the plot it is shown through frozen 3D character renderings, textual dialogue, conversational menu Q&A at the rest point (Think Dark Souls), and spoken voice-overs. The character design itself is a decently done anime inspired artistic representation. Though most character images are static both in painting, and 3D model form they look quite impressive for an indie studio creation. It borders on being something like you'd see from Square Enix. Even the environments feature lavish, but somewhat simplistic layouts that range from outdoor fantasy hillsides to creepy indoor mansions with marionettes hanging, and sitting about. The moving characters, and enemies are definitely the game's shining stars. The Bearer of Calamity in particular is beautifully rendered in her 3D anime form. Ergo also looks quite interesting though a bit generic in comparison to his female counterpart. As far as the voice acting goes it is brilliant at times, but mundane at others. You can tell some of the voice actors, and actresses are experienced at the craft while others are a little less so. I definitely like hearing the conversations in conjunction with the readable lore regardless of the mixed nature of the voiced delivery. It really brings the story to life. My only complaint, if any is that everything seems kind of rushed. It's like this game could have been "NIER (The new NIER)" in quality, but kind of fell short in various departments. If Badlands Indie Studios were to team up with Square Enix I could see great things happening with the Anima series, Triple A things.

The Verdict ...

This game definitely had my attention. Despite shortcomings in the form of clunky/loose character movement, bad camera angles, and boss fight issues regarding a lack of invisible boundaries I found it to be incredibly inspiring. As I said it reminded me of a combination of three gaming franchises that are near and dear to my heart. Those being 'Castlevania', 'Dark Souls', and 'Devil May Cry'. I almost forgot there was even a little "Ikaruga" thrown in there with the character switching. The bearer being more effective against dark enemies, and Ergo being more effective against light colored enemies. Brilliant! The combination of inspired mechanics worked quite well together, and only failed under certain circumstances. I did end up giving up at the Necalis marionette boss fight due to frustration, but believe me this is a game I'd love to see through to the end if I could. The story is definitely engaging on so many levels, and the presentation in general is nicely done. It has great potential, but unfortunately it does fall short of perfection. I just hope Badlands Indie Studios can patch it, and are willing to do so as it would be more recommendable if it were perfected. The camera angles, the platforming (namely the jumping), and the Necalis boss battle could definitely use some work. For now I'd say "Anima: Gate of Memories" is only worth it if you are interested in experiencing the game's good points with it's current flaws in place. It is playable to an extent, but you will have moments of frustration due to certain in-game flaws.

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