Nier on a budget
I love Nier, so you can probably imagine I was pretty thrilled to find a $20 game that could pass for its spiritual sequel. While playing I kept thinking, "I'm going to call this the sleeper hit of the year -- I can't believe how great this is" until about the last quarter of the game where bosses start to get a bit too cheap.
While not perfect, for the price, this game is a steal.
Anima Gate of Memories (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Anima Project
Publisher: Badland Games
Released: June 3, 2016 (PC, Xbox One), June 9, 2016 (PS4)
If you're into tabletop role-playing games you may have heard of Anima, but I certainly hadn't prior to playing this. Thankfully, I didn't need to know anything about the series as this open-world action-RPG is a contained story set in the same universe as the board and card games that came before it.
You play as "The Bearer of Calamities," which is a way cooler way of saying 'a generic blond, big-boobed mage who forgot her own name and whose fate is intertwined with a book.' That book isn't just any book -- it contains a god-like demon that just happens to look like a sexy dude and sounds quite similar to Space Dandy (he's a dandy guy, in space). The duo ends up in a tower that acts as a hub world for different locations home to some deranged bosses, each of which has five memories scattered around their level that tell their horrific backstories.
As far as stories go, Anima is pretty predictable. It is the standard 'kill all the bosses before taking on one super evil boss that wants to destroy everything' story we have all heard a billion times. While there are a few different endings depending on your decisions toward the end of the game, none of them are surprising or all that original.
However, the backstories of each boss are fantastic. These range from a boy living in a mansion becoming obsessed with building life-like puppets, to children being trapped in a religious prison with the rotting corpse of a god. Not only do these spine-tingling stories explain the bosses, but also the level and enemies that surround them.
Combat is where Anima most feels like Nier. You've got a mixture of melee attacks and ranged magic attacks, with new moves being unlocked via a skill tree after leveling. The big difference is the ability to switch between The Bearer and Ergo (the demon in the book) on the fly. This lets you not only chain together combos by swapping between characters but also take double the damage as each character's health is independent of the other's. While the combat is mostly enjoyable, a lot of the time I found myself cheesing my way through fights by standing back and using ranged attacks or finding a way to stun-lock enemies instead of devising real strategies. Very few enemies aside from bosses require much thought to take down.
There are a few platforming sections found throughout this close to 30-hour journey, and they're mostly enjoyable. That said, some of the trickier platforming can be downright annoying thanks to the camera always recentering directly behind the character while jumping, meaning I had to either use 'the claw' -- reaching my index finger down to the right stick -- or constantly readjust the camera between or during jumps. Fortunately, there aren't many sections that required this, but there were enough to make it worth mentioning.
Like platforming, boss fights are mostly fun and challenging, up until the last three or four in the game, at which point they become frustrating and downright unfair. One boss creates multiple clones of himself that fire projectiles at you randomly from all directions, and as if that weren't enough, he also can reverse your controls and flip the screen upside down, all at the same time. The thing is, he isn't even the hardest boss.
Late-game bosses do extreme amounts of damage, have tons of health, and even stun-lock you with projectiles from a distance. What this means is you'll constantly be using items to heal and boost stats to attempt to topple them. Items can be used not only from a customizable quick use menu that's mapped to the d-pad, but also by pausing the game to go into your inventory directly. Doing both of these is a requirement for some bosses since they have unavoidable projectiles. Constant item management inside of a menu completely breaks any immersion and tension that may have been there for these fights.
Because you can only carry so many of each item, regardless of how much money you've got on-hand from killing enemies, you can't buy lots of health items from the hub world's shop to get you through these tough battles. You might think grinding levels would help, but you'd be wrong. A majority of your stats come from items found throughout the world that can be equipped to each character independently; leveling mostly just unlocks new moves with some minor stat boosts. There is no way to make these last few bosses any easier. Even with an extremely powerful hidden item that can be earned by completing a lengthy optional quest, I still had tons of trouble. I'd say about a third of my playtime was spent just trying to defeat the last three bosses, which is a real shame. I was having such a good time up until that point.
When not fighting bosses, you'll be hearing every line of dialogue fully voice-acted, the quality of which ranges from "a little bit better than House of the Dead 2" to "well, it's better than Oblivion." That is to say not great, but serviceable. The standout performance is easily Ergo, who is a smartass that sometimes breaks the fourth wall, and because of this he has the most personality.
The other characters are stiff and lack characteristics, especially the main character who primarily exists to be ogled. She is wearing a skirt, so of course the camera can be angled right up it as she runs so you can see her panties. Not only that, but Ergo sexually harasses her more than a few times, making jokes about him being a book bouncing on her ass (where she carries him in book form), and constantly referring to her as "baby" (again, like Space Dandy) for some unexplained reason.
Even though The Bearer is the main character, the only things I can tell you about her is how she ended up there, what her name is revealed to be, and that she made her own costume and might open a fashion boutique after everything is said and done. She just blurts out the thing about her costume and the fashion boutique towards the end of the game unprompted, almost as a last-ditch effort by the developers to give her some sort of personality, and the best they came up with is "women like fashion." She also likes to say "shut up" with an awkwardly long pause between each word. Like most poorly-written female characters, she mostly exists to care about the men in the story, those being her demon buddy and a father figure introduced along the way.
Aside from some minor camera issues, a sexualized and poorly-written lead, and some annoying bosses, this is a pretty great little game. The graphics are decent, on par with the better-looking games of last generation; the soundtrack is better than it has any right to be; and the set pieces are easy on the eyes and vary greatly between each level. Not only can you get around 25 to 30 hours from the main story, but there is also a new game plus mode with even more endings.
If you're a fan of Nier and looking to get your fix until the proper sequel is out, it is easy to recommend Anima. RPGs rarely hold my attention but I happily sank my time into this one no problem. There's enough quality content here that it feels like the developer or publisher is selling itself short by setting the price so low, as I would have easily been satisfied with this at double the price. It's even more impressive knowing the game was developed by three people. Just know going in that toward the end, you're going to be frustrated with some boss fights, pending the developers don't tweak them in a future update.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Anima: Gate of Memories reviewed by Jed Whitaker
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide