With the indie scene’s obsession with “retro-inspired” games, we’re seeing a lot of throwbacks to the 8-bit era. Some, like Shovel Knight, commit fully to the idea; for others, it’s a vague reference to a pixelated art style. But one things remains constant: “retro” and “8-bit” seem to be almost synonymous.
Far fewer games seek to emulate the style of subsequent generations. There are a handful of games that harken back to the Super Nintendo – not as many as there should be, but at least they’re there. Back in 1995 recently gave us a PS1 styled game. But where are the games inspired by PlayStation 2 – a console that sits alongside SNES as one of the finest systems ever made? As far as I can tell, there are none.
Enter Anima: Gate of Memories, a game with a PS2 feel from start to finish. I suspect this wasn’t intentional, and instead stemmed from the constraints of being developed by a three-person team, but it’s a delightful outcome nonetheless. Some of this will have to do with the graphics – low-poly models that look like those of a PS2 game, albeit rendered at a higher resolution – but it’s more than that. This is a game that feels like a PS2 game, and that’s a wonderful thing.
An action RPG with a focus on boss fights, Anima has you exploring different wings of a strange tower called Arcane that exists more or less in its own reality. Each wing is home to a “Messenger”, a group of demons ostensibly looking to bring about the end of the world, and as a nameless agent for the demon-hunting Nathaniel organisation, it’s up to you to stop them. If that all sounds a bit Castlevania for you, that’s because it is – Konami’s dormant franchise is clearly an inspiration here.
Another obvious inspiration is Hellsing, a manga series by Kouta Hirano. In lieu of a name, the protagonist is known as the “Bearer of Calamities” because, well, she bears calamities. Specifically, she controls Ergo Mundus, a powerful demon with the power to destroy the world, but who was sealed in a book and formed a bond with the Bearer by chance encounter.
It’s the kind of weird, slightly off-the-wall story that characterised so many games of the PS2 era. As developers tried to look to more heavily story-driven experiences, but the whole “cinematic storytelling” thing hadn’t quite taken foot, that generation produced a lot of weird and wonderful gems, and that’s exactly the kind of feeling that Anima engenders. The writing and voice acting certainly helps – neither is what I’d call “good”, but they certainly capture that era’s narrative growing pains in a way that’s pleasantly nostalgic.
The testament to this is that, as uneven as it is, the story managed to foster a sense of emotion in a way that a lot of games struggle to, particularly when it comes to the Bearer and Ergo. Initially, theirs’ is a confusing relationship that appears to be driven more by circumstance and duty than anything else. However, as the game goes on, flashbacks offer insight into their history, while the growing demands of their quest put their relationship to the test in quite moving ways. Beneath this rocky presentation is a game with a degree of heart and soul that many more polished, cinematic games could only dream of.
This contrast is true of almost every aspect of the game, really. It’s rough around the edges in so many ways, but that actually improved the experience for me. Take the level design, for example; each of the aforementioned wings has its own unique visual style, giving the game a rather disjointed feeling. One moment you’ll be in the dark, oppressive corridors of the Mansion of Puppets, the next you’ll be in the wide-open, grassy plains of Folklore. But this feeling of incoherence is fitting, giving the game’s premise, and is quite intriguing in a way that more cohesive worlds rarely are.
They have their own mechanical quirks, too. The Mansion is full of traps to dodge, with nary a platform in sight; a crumbling cathedral is platforms and jumping puzzles akimbo. One area even turns the game into a Limbo-esque silhouetted side-scroller. This all just adds to that disjointed, dreamlike feeling.
One thing that remains constant is combat – this is an action RPG, after all – and Anima strikes an odd balance between making you feel powerful and making you feel helpless. The availability of flashy moves almost from the get-go means it’s never quite as methodical as, say, Dark Souls, but a moment’s inattention will still see you getting carved in two. Like the rest of the game, there’s a lack of polish here. Balance issues and camera woes can make combat frustrating at times, but the tradeoff to this is a great sense of accomplishment as you learn to use the odd quirks of the game to your advantage.
Boss fights are a major factor, and are certainly among the more creative encounter designs I’ve experienced. Most of them feel almost like bullet-hell shooters as you try and weave through arrays of projectiles to find an opening, and being multi-staged affairs means you’re always kept on your toes. They can be infuriating; you’ll die for reasons seemingly beyond your control, and huge health bars mean that dying and retrying is more of a chore than it ought to be. But in the end, they’re satisfying and fascinating in their design more than anything else, warts and all.
Anima: Gate of Memories is a game that’s certainly lacking in polish, but it’s a game that, frankly, is all the better for it. There’s so much focus in the games industry, and in games criticism, on games that are “objectively good” that I think we forget about how much “B-grade” games like this can offer. Anima takes that and runs with it, and it’s this, more than anything else, that makes it feel like a relic from the golden age of the PlayStation 2.
Anima: Gate of Memories is developed by Anima Project and published by Badland Indie. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A PS4 code was supplied by Badland Indie for this review.