RPG Review: Anima Prime

Anima Prime, by Christian Griffen, is an action-oriented, tactical RPG intended to recreate Final Fantasy-style stories in a tabletop RPG environment. I first came across Anima Prime because of another game by the same author, Beast Hunters, a game that comes from a similar design space: action-oriented, tactical, and challenging. I thought Beast Hunters was a cool idea, mainly because at that point my experience with RPGs that had meaningful tactical decisions was pretty slim, and most RPGs that leaned in that direction, even a little bit, were slightly abashed about doing so. “Tabletop roleplaying is about drama, acting out your character, doing voices, and getting immersed in the world,” these games would explain, regardless of their mechanical complexity or how well suited they were for fun, “hack and slash” style experiences. But Beast Hunters promised a different approach: absolutely, this game is going to be about your character, but in particular, it’s going to be about challenging your character (and you) with tactically meaningful choices.

And then came Anima Prime. A game that embraces providing the players with a variety of tools to approach tactical situations (yes, mostly combat) and making those tactical situations difficult and enjoyable. Although it is by no means unique in its attempts to address tactical challenges to the players as well as the characters, Anima Prime does approach this goal in several unique ways.

Traditionally, RPG combat takes the form of a small scale war game. After all, the origins of the hobby are in an adaptation of war game rules to feature your individual character. This means that these games concern themselves with physical positioning, concrete ranges and areas, and spatial relationships and maneuvering. This works well for many games, among them some of my favorites: D&D 4th edition and Savage Worlds. However, many RPGs take this approach unquestioningly; your “tactical” rules must include grids, movement rates, minute rules about space and size… and they just end up feeling all very similar.

But Anima Prime’s tactical combat is about resource management and risk taking, building tension through narrative “maneuvers” that generate power for periodic explosive moments. When you take action in the game, you roll your character’s skill specialties (such as acrobatics, engineering, perception, explosives, etc.) to generate an abstract pool of advantage dice, and you can eventually spend these dice to “strike” an enemy, potentially taking them down. And in the mean time, you are incidentally generating a pool of points that you can spend to activate your character’s powers. It’s really a lot of fun, describing how your skills set you up, making small dents in a monster’s defenses until you go in for the kill. There is a constant stream of other choices you (and the other players) must make as well: What actions do you spend your resources on? Do you try to strike early to gain advantage, or do you wait until later when you might be more powerful, but the attack comes too late? Which bonuses do you target with your actions? Figuring out your maneuvers, linking any of your several powers with the other players’, determining an approach that will bypass your opponents’ mechanical weaknesses, building up to powerful attacks… it’s all very engaging.

The most important thing in these action scenes is the fact that you must split your efforts between engaging with the opponents and achieving the “goals” of the scene. Although you can focus entirely on taking down minions and bosses, those enemies typically have goals of their own that aren’t simply to kill you, and you sometimes need to commit the resources you generate with your skills to stop those goals or achieve your own. Here’s a concrete example: the evil cultists are trying to sacrifice a captive, and your team is trying to stop them and save him. Surely, if you kill all of the cultists and their dark master, you will succeed! But in the mean time, the bad guys just need to spend enough of their gathered dice to make the sacrifice. So, you can set a goal to free the captive, committing your gathered dice to the goal in order to ensure that, regardless of your success in the battle, you can make sure no evil gods are summoned today. But doing so takes away from your direct combat efforts. This parallel series actions, dealing with the fighting but also dealing with the reasons for the fighting, creates a compelling narrative that is often missing in bog-standard grid combat you find in many games. Plus, some of the available goals have mechanical impact, like breaking through impenetrable defenses (e.g. finding a weak point in the dragon’s scales), inflicting a specific sort of elemental damage (e.g. blowing up a gasoline tanker), or providing a boost to another player’s skills or powers.

Although Anima Prime purports to be a game for supporting Final Fantasy-style stories, a real strength of the game (and perhaps Final Fantasy-style stories?) is the flexibility of settings and character types it allows for. We have used the game for traditional comic book superheroes, grotesque demon-powered monster hunters, and even standard RPG fantasy with elves, dragons, and sorcerers. The skills and powers characters are built from are easily (and sometimes necessarily) re-skinned for whatever setting you need, and the tools provided to the GM for creating opposition are flexible and, with little effort, can be adapted and added to in order to represent all kinds of opposition, from overwhelming hordes of zombies to building-sized creatures without any discernible weakness. Even “combat” can be easily re-skinned to many kinds of challenges (physical, social or mental) due to the system of “goals” discussed above.

At this point, you may notice that I haven’t talked much about the Anima Prime system outside of the tactical combat parts. That’s because, frankly, there isn’t much of a system outside of the tactical combat part. There is a minor mechanic that functions sort of like Aspects in Fate RPGs, where playing your character in a particular way in non-action scenes can provide a buff… for the action scenes. But it’s all essentially freeform roleplaying, and then everyone claps each other on the back, we check a couple of boxes on the character sheets indicating some re-rolls we can use, and we get back to the actual action.

Now a big question: Does it actually support Final Fantasy style? I don’t really think so. I really love the way all of the mechanisms focus in on the action scenes, but Final Fantasy is about a lot of stuff that isn’t combat, and the combat here doesn’t really work like any Final Fantasy game I know of. In some sort of a nod to that source material, there is a setting that comes with the game, but it is really, really minimized, and it has never held any interest for me. It is barely detailed, and I have a hard time picking out why I should care about it as opposed to any number of other great settings that this game could be adapted to. Fortunately, the “Final Fantasy” pitch is really just a hook to grab you for this fairly genre-free system, so the lack of any Japanese CRPG touches isn’t a big deal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on a mechanical weakness of the game before the end of this review. Namely, the system of wounds and defense for the game is mathematically a little wonky. When you deal damage, you divide your successful dice by the target’s defense and the result is the number of wounds dealt. The problem is that Defense ranges from 1 to 4 (maybe 5 for unbelievably tough enemies), which means the same attack could be up to four times as effective against different targets… and when those targets are PCs, an attack that could barely harm the toughest of them will more than likely devastate the weakest. This results in a mad dash for high defense, and kind of makes the rest of the system look bad as a result. As long as everyone’s defense is fairly close, it’s not a big deal, but it’s something to look out for. I scale the cost of increasing a character’s defense so that a player who wants to be an absolute tank can be, but it will eat up most of their defining traits.

Anima Prime is a great RPG. But it is one of those RPGs that targets a niche, and it may not be a niche you are looking for. In fact, I’ve talked to people who are genuinely confused that it focuses almost entirely on tactical action, but the action is almost entirely abstract. In a hobby that is so used to particular approaches that 90% of games look like they are simply dice-rolling variants, Anima Prime is a welcome change. And in a hobby where so many games seem afraid to embrace the fun of tactical combat, it’s nice to play a game where you can unabashedly beat stuff up.

Find more about Anima Prime here: http://www.animaprimerpg.com/main/

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