Animus: Harbinger attempts to take the well-worn Dark Souls style of slow, methodical combat and create a boss-rush game that sees you battle your way through a total of twenty-one small arena levels, defeating a handful of run-of-the-mill enemies before taking on an area boss in order to gain new weapons, grab upgrade shards and money to enhance your currently equipped gear or buy new stuff in the game’s black market store. It’s a pretty neat idea that’s let down by repetitive and basic level design, some crummy hitbox detection, janky animations, dull AI and boss encounters that don’t so much test your skill as they do your patience.
It’s not hard to see that this was originally a mobile, microtransaction-based game and, although that element has been stripped out here, the grindy and repetitive nature of its origins remain intact. Levels are short, small and samey, normal enemies are dumb and don’t take kindly to such elite combat tactics as being strafed and bosses have a very limited number of attacks which you’ll learn to avoid quite easily – but still find yourself succumbing to on account of that dodgy hitbox detection combined with moves that feel flaky and unresponsive to perform.
Animus: Harbinger doesn’t do a particularly bad impression of the patented Dark Souls combat that we all know and love, it’s just there’s a level of jankiness to it that lets the game down. The precise and exacting nature of a proper Souls title is lost due to a lack of polish, which is a shame, because had combat been up to snuff, there’s a tidy little budget brawler with a decent central gameplay loop here.
As you make your way through levels and defeat bosses in the main Quest mode you’ll earn upgrade shards and money to spend in the game’s forge or black market shop. You’ll also gain access to defeated bosses’ weapons and armour, Mega Man-style, and there’s a decent amount of variety in how the various weapons you can equip perform. You’ll start out with a heavy and very slow Great Axe, which is excellent for doing massive amounts of damage – but we very quickly switched it out for the much faster shield and axe combo.
Depending on the weapon you’re using, you’ll have access to a unique set of moves and combos, performed by pressing the B and A buttons for light and heavy attacks respectively. You also have access to the usual dodge and block moves, can lock onto targets in order to strafe around them (they really can’t handle this, the poor things) and unleash a temporary rage mode – built up by successfully attacking your foes – by pressing the right shoulder button.
Much like the flow of combat in FromSoftware’s series of games, you’ll move slowly around enemies here, getting a read on their move sets before throwing in your attacks and then blocking or moving. It’s all about making space for yourself so that when you’re injured, you can use a healing potion – which comes complete with its very own signature slow animation – without getting whacked. Basically, if you’ve ever played a Dark Souls game you’ll know exactly what’s going on here without much need for training.
Where Animus: Harbinger does do things slightly differently is in throwing up a bunch of on-screen button prompts that are on a “Devastate” timer; enter the combo in the proper order as you fight enemies and you’ll unleash a powerful strike that can knock them back or stun them, enabling you to hold down the A button to perform a special attack of sorts. Unfortunately, the very act of pressing A to avail of this opportunity is far tougher than it should be, as you need to stand in a specific spot in order to trigger it; it’s just another example of a general lack of polish that holds the game back from achieving its potential.
Quest mode pits you against twenty-one levels, each with a mini-boss, and as you progress you’ll come across the main area bosses in the game (you can even summon help for NPC characters to help in some of these battles, Dark Souls-style) and although they often look impressive enough, we found many of them couldn’t deal with the simple strategy of strafing around in a circle and waiting for your opportunity to strike. Occasionally, you’ll come up against a boss who has an area-of-effect move, but again, these are so sign-posted that you’ll always have plenty of time to get out of the way before they land their attack. When things do get tough – and believe us, there are a few pretty meaty boss fights later on – the game’s controls, flaky animations and hitboxes can often conspire to create instant rage-quit scenarios.
Beyond the main Quest mode you’ve got Trials, the game’s training mode which sees you practice a handful of combos for each of your available weapons before pitting you against an enemy to do battle – this is made a little more enticing by the fact you’ll earn upgrade shards, currency and a handful of special items for making your way through the challenges here. There’s a Passage mode, unlocked using special keys found randomly in the main quest mode, that pits you against apparently tougher enemies for special rewards, and a Proof mode, which contains a further six challenges.
For the budget price there’s certainly enough Dark Souls-lite action to keep you busy here, especially if you’re a huge fan of the series, and the core gameplay loop of making your way through short levels – perfect for dipping in and out of in portable mode – and then upgrading and buying new gear is addictive stuff. It’s just a shame it all feels so unpolished. We also, unfortunately, ran into some pretty serious stuttering problems during longer play sessions, the game’s framerate tanking when we spent more than an hour at a time doing battle with its bosses.
Animus: Harbinger is a good idea; a boss-rush-style Dark Souls mobile game that could have been a perfect fit for the Switch if its combat, levels and enemies had received a higher level of polish. As it is, for the budget price, massive fans of FromSoftware’s brand of action may find some enjoyment here, but overall the stuttering performance, unreliable hitboxes, bland levels and shoddy AI all add up to make this one a pretty hard recommendation for anyone else.