Anno: Mutationem Review (Switch)
Release Date: September 1, 2022
File Size: 3.431GB
Publisher: Lightning Games
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
When the words Role-Playing Game come to mind, many likely think of a long-lost, magical, medieval realm, rife with swords and sorcery. Of course, if we are to expand our imaginations and conceive a world with new possibilities due to magic, why not also consider the distant, or perhaps not-so-distant future? Believe it or not, the cyberpunk aesthetic has been a part of the Role-Playing genre since its tabletop era, and its usage as a setting in many modern products offers strange commentary on how we view escapism.
The narratives in these games are not always carefree, offering up dystopian, oppressive cityscapes and little hope for humanity. A bit of Japanese influence might change the tone somewhat, however, which is what Anno: Mutationem uses to stand out in almost every aesthetic regard. Just because it leans into absurdity at points and plays things fast and loose with its worldbuilding doesn’t mean the game isn’t incredibly immersive, however. If you’re looking for an easily digestible cyberpunk adventure, read on to see if this game is for you.
Anno: Mutationem puts players in the shoes of Ann Flores, an enigmatic and scrappy loner with a strong protective sentiment for her adoptive family. When her brother Ryan goes missing, she embarks upon an adventure to get to the root of his disappearance. Aided by the plucky Ayane and possessing considerable authority as a member of the Skapp agency, Ann has access to a number of skills she’ll need to navigate the strange civilization that has sprouted around an equally mysterious impact crater.
The game seamlessly blends exploratory 3D sections with linear 2D action phases, with a number of carefully crafted environments that use smart camera framing and topography to transition between the two. You will usually start by navigating a larger civilian area, where many NPCs and shops can be accessed for potential quests and resources. You’ll find crafting and collectable materials strewn throughout these exploration phases, which can prove effective for creating your own healing items, weapons, and generating more cash.
Ann can interact with NPCs and objects of note by using the R Bumper, and can scan the surrounding area using the ZL Trigger. This can pull up a map of the area as well as further contextual elements, such as the game’s hacking and tracking systems. There are many interactive elements to find throughout the world, such as chat logs, gorgeous pixel art posters, and news bulletins. Lastly, a collectible known as the Cyber Neko can be found in multitudes and can be traded for aesthetic upgrades.
The action portions of the game require the most focus, and open up Ann’s mobility and offensive capabilities. She can string combinations of her light and heavy weaponry together by pressing the X and Y buttons, and can also use the ZR Trigger to auto-lock on the nearest enemy with her ranged weaponry. Using the L Bumper in battle will summon a shield, which can deal a devastating parry when triggered during an enemy’s attack animation. Ann can roll around enemies and avoid their attacks using the A button, and jump to either dodge attacks or continue air combos using the B Button.
The D-Pad allows her to cycle through her inventory with the left and right inputs, while the up input activates her selected item. Lastly, she can quickly equip specific weapons in her inventory using the right control stick, which can be useful for changing her ranged options as they open up later in the game. You’ll spend most of the action sections fighting a variety of enemies with their own attack patterns and accomplishing some light platforming, with the occasional puzzle element or environmental hazard thrown in for good measure.
Narrative and Aesthetics
As stated prior, Anno: Mutationem has its fair share of quirks when it comes to narrative. Most of the game is spent attempting to piece together Ryan’s journey, and although Ann and Ayane prove more than capable of finding leatds and subjugating their opponents into feeding them info, there is an element of technological mysticism present that assists them in their journey. This makes the game feel like a string of coincidences and conveniences strung together, with hints at grander lore and interconnecting plot points that only interlink in the conclusion. At no point did I feel that I truly understood where the plot would be taking me, though I did get certain kinds of vibes from specific characters. In the end, things work out- that is, if you’ve thoroughly explored the world and completed enough side quests to obtain the good ending. This isn’t difficult, but it does make what is initially marketed as side content feel mandatory.
Tonally, the game is rather consistent, in that it sways from overserious, badass anime postering to cryptic jargon to lighthearted moments in predictable intervals. You’ll uncover the secluded civilization of those plagued with Mechanika Virus, a disease that converts organic matter into metal, and battle against shady factions while fighting off grotesque mutant wildlife. At the same time, you’ll have to dress up in order to get a bouncer to wave you into a nightclub, and stave off the romantic advances of your holographic girlfriend. Luckily, every narrative beat in this winding tale is supported by extremely stylish aesthetics.
The soundtrack pulses with synth melodies, offering moments of calm as well as pulse-pounding action, though the sound design is further enhanced by the dissolve between tracks in different locations. This makes the game feel as if you are overhearing new music tracks as you peruse the streets, and the NPC chatter as well as other sound effects further sell the idea. It is difficult not to love the character of Ayane, whose voice actress is putting in the work to sell the plucky hacker. Ann is brooding and other characters appear seedy or untrustworthy, but overall, the voice cast accomplishes the act of bringing life to their pixel art avatars.
This is all wrapped in visual flourish that is hard to avoid ogling. The mixture of 2D sprites in low poly, densely pixelated 3D environments is not only satisfying in screenshots, but even more impressive in motion. This future is filled with lithe and sexy feminine figures, punks sporting both street wear and suits, and many outcasts deformed with mechanized features. Some sprites have a limited number of animations, but the effort that has gone into giving the characters a number of detailed actions and character-specific visual traits is commendable.
Swipes of swords and stylish visual effects have been applied to finishing animations and cinematic cutscenes, giving them a professional touch and unified artistic vision. The way that sprites interact with lighting and movement in the environments sells the weight and reality of the world, even if environments are limited in their exploratory boundaries. There is so much visual information being presented that it feels a disservice to rush through areas. Even loading screens feature teardrops of rain streaking across a richly-detailed car interior. Truly, if there’s any reason to pick up Anno: Mutationem, it is the aesthetics of the product themselves.
Impressions and Conclusion
Despite its light RPG elements, the linear nature of Ann’s journey and the way that the progression systems function mean that the game is admittedly more of an action-adventure title. The developers have stated as much, however, and despite half of the talent tree having its currency locked behind boss battles (which are given somewhat arbitrary point designations), the other half is open to a modest deal of self-expression. While some upgrades feel essential, such as the branch of parry benefits, the player can expand Ann’s moveset based on their preferred weaponry. However, some bosses are immune to the unlockable launcher moves, which makes their acquisition feel a bit superfluous. This isn’t a huge issue, however, considering Anno: Mutationem is not a very difficult game.
While its dodge inputs can occasionally frustrate, mobility opens up substantially as the story progresses and the parry system is hugely exploitable against bosses. The variety of healing items also helps mitigate the damage a player might take, though keeping track of the action and the small inventory wheel in the lower corner of the screen can be tedious. If I did fall in battle, it was mostly due to enemies overwhelming Ann with overlapping hitboxes, which cannot be avoided entirely and will do chip damage even when blocked.
I particularly enjoy the nature of side quests, which often offer two choices and won’t necessarily penalize the player for picking one over the other. It’s a smart design that focuses on Ann’s goals rather than the parties she is working for. While I personally found the game’s tonal oddities a bit too hard to get behind, I appreciated following its elongated, perpetual mystery to its conclusion. The game is such a visual feast that it feels easy to forgive its quirks, but getting an extended cutscene about a child summoning Santa after a tense battle was the moment where the game lost me.
It has narrative significance, sure, but felt too out-there to keep me invested. The plot twists and turns just feel too episodic and over-layered, though their writing and voice direction show moments of brilliance during which plot twists and character beats aren’t explicitly handed out to the player. There are plenty of quiet moments, during which characters don’t always show their hand. At the same time, there are also cryptic cutaways to mysterious figures who spout jargon the player couldn’t possibly understand. All in all, the experience is very cinematic, but not always satisfying.
With all that said, I enjoyed my experience immensely, as the game offers a straightforward and comfortable experience. If the player wishes to buy all of the equipment and complete every side quest, they won’t find themselves investing a huge amount of time into the game. Though the price points for weapons are high, the game offers a few options for generating currency, including a fighting tournament and a surprisingly addictive and skill-focused bar-tending minigame. Sometimes a game doesn’t need to be an intense skill-check, or present a perfectly satisfying narrative, and I would argue that these aren’t Anno: Mutationem’s strongest suits. Similarly, it does suffer from some steep loading times when transitioning between areas and occasional framerate drops, the former of which can be irksome when having to reload from a previous save upon dying.
But the game is just such a uniquely wonderful aesthetic experience that deserves attention. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever played a game that accomplishes a similar visual style to Anno: Mutationem, and I think that the developers should be celebrated for their efforts. In adapting the foundations of 2D action, character progression, and engaging side-narratives and content, the developers at ThinkingStars have crafted beautiful and twisting narrative that doesn’t always stick the landing, but definitely offers a visual feast.