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Disclosure: the author received a review copy of the game from Novy PR
Publisher: Badland Games
Developer: Anima Project
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 (review platform), Xbox One
I can’t say I expected this, but today I’ll be telling you folks about an Action RPG featuring a wise-cracking talking book that isn’t called Nier. This comes courtesy of Spanish developer Anima Project, who launched a modestly successful Kickstarter campaign back at the end of 2012. That combined with an extended campaign later on netted the team a backing from fans nearing $150,000. Developed by a 3-person team with such a modest budget, it would be very surprising if they could actually pull off even a passable 3D Action RPG. Well surprise me they did.
Gate of Memories is set in the world of tabletop role-playing game Anima: Beyond Fantasy. I had never heard of it until playing this game, but I don’t have much interest in tabletop anyway. The video game stands on its own well enough, with a good dose of lore sprinkled throughout that enhances the limited setting of this story, rather than distracts from it. All you really need to know is it’s a fantasy franchise that draws some inspiration from anime and manga. Our main characters are members of “The Order of Nathaniel” – a society that protects humanity from the vicious dark monsters inhabiting the world. One of its members has gone rogue and stolen a mysterious tome called The Byblos. Two agents of the order track her down, but in the ensuing conflict they become trapped by strange magic, and are imprisoned in a bizarre tower called Arcane. This pair consists of Ergo Mundus, a demon sealed inside a book; and “The Bearer of Calamities,” a young girl who made a pact with the demon, and carries him along on their missions. Now trapped within the tower, they’re ordered by Nathaniel’s leader to kill 5 “Messengers” whose power and memories are forming Arcane.
There are a few more regular characters here and there, but the story is a rather mundane quest full of lost memories, hidden truths, and apocalyptic threats as expected. While the Arcane showcases a nice and varied range of locations, it’s a shame there’s little in the way of people inhabiting it, or events affecting the surroundings. Rather than exploring the world of Gaia, you’re limited to walking around abstract imitations of the proper fantasy world these characters inhabit. It’s not exactly an immersive introduction to Anima‘s setting. These environments are a mish-mash of typical level design (I don’t think many gamers will be happy to know when they’ve reached a “Sewer Labyrinth”) and pretty lacking from a story-telling perspective. There are pages of lore scattered about, and the locations are arguably relevant to each of the Messengers, but the levels here just aren’t places you can become attached to.
The story is rarely interesting, and the backdrop is bland, but how do the main characters fare? Well, that’s a mixed bag. Ergo is the most charismatic member of the cast, for better or worse. Fitting the mold of a morally ambiguous demon; he’s cocky and rude in a way you’ll find either endearing or annoying. He provides comic relief mainly by offending The Bearer who he takes to calling “baby.” Even if you can go along with his personality, some of the attempts at humor really fall flat, particularly when he suddenly decides to badly sing a parody of the “Reading Rainbow” theme song. It’s out-of-place, embarrassing, and goes on way too long. And it’s not even that long, but the joke missed the mark so hard it’s stuck in my mind as a prime example for why you don’t want to play this game for its writing. As for The Bearer, she really does just embody anime archetypes. She’s very serious and monotone a lot of the time, but will also do some regular introspection as well as constantly telling Ergo to shut up. Despite this, I was still invested with the situations they were in towards the end of the game, and their relationship definitely gives the game’s multiple endings some impact. Perhaps not enough to make you want to unlock all 5, but it does motivate you to reach the True Ending, especially if earlier you experienced the final boss of what is literally called the “Worst Ending.”
The gameplay is where Gate of Memories proves itself as an achievement in budget RPGs. The combat sees you switch back and forth between Ergo and The Bearer, with the demon swiping at enemies with his demonic claws, and the lady using the magic of Ergo’s book form to swipe and shoot enemies, while healing and buffing both halves of the duo. You can have a favorite, but the game encourages you to swap characters often, with some enemy types being immune to one character’s attacks, but not the others, even using white and black colours to emphasise the Ikaruga-styled mechanic. Both of the leads earn experience from defeating monsters, and each new level grants them both 2 skill points to unlock or upgrade a new ability. There’s a decent amount of powers to unlock for both Ergo and The Bearer, and you can customise your button inputs with each of these. Don’t expect the stylish fighting of Devil May Cry, but there’s enough options for launchers, projectiles, stingers, and dodges for you to cover all your bases in battle.
Though the locations of Arcane are lacking in character, they still manage to be quite fun to explore. The five major areas see you explore cathedrals and rolling hills, but also a mansion filled with living puppets, a silhouetted castle, and a temple transporting you between seasons. One of the best aspects of Anima‘s level design is a welcoming amount of freedom in reaching the bosses. The first part of the game gives you access to three areas, and you only need to finish two of them to unlock the next section of Arcane and open up the remaining two levels. You’re free to do things in whatever order you like, and the requirements for fighting the boss at the end of each area are also unrestrictive. Each of the five main locations has five “Fragments of Memory” hidden within them. These are pages detailing the background of the area’s Messenger boss, and will require a fair amount of exploration and puzzle solving to find. Luckily you only need three of these in each area to fight the boss and move on, so you don’t have to worry about completing your collection unless you want to fight a secret, very difficult boss at the end of the game.
Dragging things down however is the platforming. There are several sections in the game where you need to double-jump and hurry along platforms in order to get items, fight enemies, or progress. Unfortunately your maneuverability in the air is pretty limited, and sometimes you’ll just not reach the other side of a gap despite aiming your jump in the right direction with seemingly correct precision. If there was an unlockable air dash this might not have been an issue, but these frustrations pop up in too many areas, and that’s including the final boss of all things. A similar annoyance occurs with the Graven area in the latter parts of the game. A good chunk of this place has the whole environment in a black silhouette while locking you in to side-scrolling movement, as well as forcing you into stealth segments not unlike the Scarecrow levels in the Arkham games. The problem is since everything is black, it’s difficult to tell which direction the giant demon hunting you is looking in. His timing is also pretty unfair, and if there wasn’t a checkpoint every minute or two in this place, I’d desperately struggle to survive this irritating stealth section.
The silhouetted areas at least manage to be an example of the amount of variety these environments manage to have. Some places are sprawling combat zones like the grassy field of Folklore, while the house of puppets has you deciphering passwords, and visiting a strange sidequest in which you free very weird prisoners with a limited supply of keys you find throughout Arcane (hint: the evil one is actually worth freeing). Some ideas like the puzzles work, while the platforming kind of doesn’t, but there’s a good amount of things to keep you busy while you’re traveling towards those bosses. Those battles can also be pretty enjoyable in terms of spectacle and challenge like with the giant marionette Nascal, or the powerful Nameless warrior, but there are also parts such as the pumpkin-headed boss of Graven who fights in such a confusing manner I have no idea what kind of strategy the developers are expecting players to rely on. Half a dozen clones, devastating projectiles, teleporting, and reversing controls do not make for an enjoyable fight.
In terms of visuals, Anima is honestly decent. It’s a budget game made in Unity, so it’s by no means gorgeous, but the varied areas are crafted with distinctive visuals and lighting to differentiate themselves from each other. Some places can look rather generic of course, but it’s by no means a bad looking game – just not something that’s pushing the power of any system it’s played on. The character models for Ergo and The Bearer look fine, though some NPCs like are noticeably less detailed. There’s also nothing in the way of mouth movement in the game, so the cutscenes play out like half of those found in Bayonetta, where characters stand still and speak while the only animation is the camera panning, or a simple visual effect. The direction for these scenes could have better accomodated this though, since it just looks awkward to have so much dialogue play over characters posing like action figures. Meanwhile the lighting can be quite nice at times, but then there are some areas where the bloom just becomes outright aggressive. It’s especially bad in one of the optional rooms where you have to perform some tricky platforming while enduring reflections so bright you can barely make out the places you’re supposed to land.
The one part that suffers most from the game’s low budget is the English localisation. The game supports English, French, and Spanish, but the audio is English only. The voice acting here is passable, but with too many noticeable amateur mistakes. The in-game text can be wildly inconsistent with what is actually being said at times, and this gets particularly bad when you collect a Fragment of Memory. These pages get read out by The Bearer, but the text you see is worded pretty poorly when it comes to grammar and readability. So much so that the voice actress is saying a completely different version of these pages, yet the in-game text hasn’t been fixed. Unfortunately if you’re fine to settle with just listening to her speaking, the delivery here is as monotone as someone being asked to read aloud in class. I think The Bearer’s actress is honestly fine, but sadly these page readings are just embarrassingly poor. For the most part, none of the other cast members have trouble (with the exception of snobby child Johnathan’s dialogue), but then there are baffling mistakes that just come out of nowhere (reading “futile” as “fertile”), as well as a complete lack of consistency in how the characters are supposed to pronounce “The Byblos.” Add on to this an array of spelling mistakes and a map that outright gets location names wrong, and you have a very weak, disappointing English version.
Yet for all the flaws and errors you find here, the game still manages to be engaging for most of its play time. The freedom to tackle things in the order of your choosing is greatly appreciated, and it was actually quite fun exploring Arcane for missing Fragments as well as secret weapons and accessories. Even on easy mode, combat can be quite challenging and exciting, and a lot of the boss battles are truly intense. The music’s nice, as is the atmosphere, and there’s a nice selection of optional content including multiple endings, unlockable costumes, and a difficult New Game+ mode. The story might not be up to scratch, but there’s just a lot of interesting things to find in Anima: Gate of Memories. If you can forgive some sloppy execution and appreciate what the game does right, you’ll find a low-cost action RPG with ambition and variety littered throughout. Should there be a sequel, there’s plenty of room for refining the experience, but Gate of Memories is an enjoyable package in spite of its flaws.