Mato: Anomalies Review (Switch)
Release Date: March 10, 2023
File Size: 5.03GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Mato: Anomalies is an anomaly of a game.
Sure, this statement is hyperbolic and overly punny, but it is important to note the curious nature of this title, which might seem like your run-of-the-mill, decently-budgeted Japanese Role Playing Game at first glance… until you realize that it is, in actuality, a Chinese Role Playing Game. I’ve played relatively few in my time, though I have heard of a number of great RPGs that have come out of the country.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mato: Anomalies is one of those greats, however, and the region of its development doesn’t account for its unique nature. Often, RPGs tend to stick with a particular gameplay style and draw that out for a forty to sixty hour playthrough. Not content with this standard of quality, developer Arrowiz has added some unique twists to things: dual protagonists Doe and Gram have different “combat” tactics, the former possessing deck-based Mind Hack encounters and the latter opting for more traditional, turn-based dungeon crawling fare. This is hardly the only quirk the game possesses, but it does offer hints at the complex nature of a cyberpunk, neo-noir RPG. Is it one that is worth your time in comparison with the multitude of other RPGs on the Switch? Read on and find out.
As mentioned before, Mato: Anomalies has its fair share of gameplay variety in combat alone, though the proportions are not-so-slightly offset. Doe handles things topside of Mato, which means he’s involved in all the investigative portions of the game’s narrative. This is a bit unfortunate, as this means he’s largely in-charge of all the mundane aspects of gameplay: traversing the world, interacting with most characters, purchasing items, and advancing the plot, which often occurs by going to sleep at your home base. He does perform Mind Hacks, which allow him to engage in deck- and turn-based combat with pre-selected decks based on the available party members. These are infrequent distractions that task the player with reducing an enemy’s overall persuasion pool, an HP bar interdependent of their summoned “demons,” a cadre of buffing and debuffing passive summons with their own HP bars. The goal during Mind Hacks is to deplete the HP of the opponent and not necessarily that of their summoned demons, but with that said, demons can possess a number of debilitating effects that can reduce overall damage output, draw aggro, or set up counter attacks, so picking and choosing your battles is essential.
The system doesn’t feel perfect, however, and the fact that the player can botch a Mind Hack up to three times and then skip it entirely is either a sign of poor balancing, a player accessibility feature, or both simultaneously. There are decks that feel poorly-suited to handling specific enemies, while others feel pretty broken for certain scenarios. The inclusion of “exiled” cards, or cards that leave play and don’t get reshuffled into the deck, adds a sense of pressure, especially to a combat system where the enemy has continuously respawning demons and the player does not get the same opportunity. In any case, Mind Hacks play closer to puzzle sections than anything else, and because of their infrequent nature- appearing two to three times a chapter- they feel like an occasional nuisance.
The bulk of gameplay, aside from navigating text boxes for the purpose of advancing the main narrative, is found within Rifts, Mato’s equivalent of dungeons. These navigable 3D environments are fairly generic in structure, mainly comprised of four-sided rooms, interlinking hallways, occasional staircases, and some interactive switches and moving platforms. There’s no risk of falling off of these floors, but as the game progresses, a slow trickle of environmental hazards and rudimentary puzzles are introduced and iterated upon in each narrative dungeon. There’s no random encounters in Mato, which might sound like a boon, but because of the carefully-distributed number of enemies (as well as their implementation as negative-feedback environmental hazards), the player will likely need to abandon the chapter-exclusive dungeon in favor of the “random” dungeons, which essentially act as proving grounds for grinding up EXP and obtaining weapons that will increase your odds of success. The “random” rifts actually act as single-floor, borderline-gimmick-focused content that reuses the visual theming and enemy selection of the current, chapter-exclusive dungeon.
In any case, though Mato seems like it’s grind-averse, the truth is that you will need to plumb its depths in order to become stronger and overcome challenges- it just asks the player to do so in a much more direct, arguably intentional manner. The random rifts are reused content, but it’s rearranged reused content- presenting a new environment with its own unique quirks. Random rifts also feature roguelike passive buffs that the player can select to streamline their experience, and there’s also an additional meter element, which intensifies enemy damage as the player continues through the dungeon unless they reduce said meter at a healing spring. It’s a fundamentally different sort of experience than the one featured in the usual chapter- or side-quest-exclusive dungeons, though these elements don’t have palpable impacts on play experience until you progress into later chapters.
Combat in Mato is a fascinating thing. As the storefront page itself proclaims: the unique nature of a shared HP bar does add an entirely non-traditional consideration to combat. I don’t know if I think it is justified from a lore standpoint- why would four individual characters have a shared life-pool, anyway?- but it does help put the characters’ specific abilities into perspective. There’s a very diverse array of combat techniques, from creating damage spike shields, to buffing particular stats for a single character, to drawing enemy fire, to adding more turns to a specific team member’s actionable instances. What makes these abilities all the more fascinating is their turn cooldowns and weapon affinities. Cooldowns actually persist across combat encounters, so popping a strong skill at the start of a battle is encouraged for the sake of consistent usage. Some cooldowns are relatively brief, but others can be a five to six turn wait. Each ability has a certain weapon affinity, which can make their effectiveness against certain enemy types essential or near-useless. The skill trees of each respective party member are divided into two build trees, but the player can choose to distribute skill points earned on level up freely across either tree. Early on, a player will likely need to prioritize building their characters around option coverage, as each party member can wield two of the three weapon affinities and has access to skills and vary between the two. However, upon gaining more of the playable cast, they can fixate on particular weapon builds for certain characters, with the hope of having a fully kitted party by the end of the game.
The party can be further customized via equipment, which comes in the form of their weapons and the unique gear matrix. The matrix is a 3×3 grid that slowly unlocks its nine slots across the first thirty levels of character progression, but even when fully accessible proves a challenge for optimizing particular bonuses and buffs. Each gear on the grid can be placed for a basic effect, which are usually related to team attack or defense power, HP, or speed, but they can be linked to other chips that match their particular sigil. Since all gears have a particular rarity, which dictates their ability and the number of adjacent slots to which they can connect. Optimizing the basic effect distribution and the potential connections can drastically improve your chances against enemies in dungeons, so it is a system worth investing time into.
Narrative and Aesthetics
If you are on the fence about Mato from a gameplay standpoint, it’s best to know sooner rather than later that this is a dialogue-heavy game. Due to the investigative nature of the narrative, Doe spends a great amount of time conversing with the denizens of Mato, investing a great deal of energy in forging bonds and understanding the circumstances surrounding the mysterious HANDOUT, which are connected to the rifts that are unleashing demonic entities across Mato. There’s an element of methodical, thorough unraveling in the narrative, but it’s somewhat exacerbated by the paranormal and virtual elements of the game. Gram’s mission is centered around cleansing Mato of its virtual corruption, and the way that this particular rot manifests is in extreme emotional reactions that threaten the status quo. In short: while there is some amount of sleuthing and subterfuge, there’s an equal-or-greater percentage of dialogue centered around character drama and emotional stakes.
This premise is compelling, but because the game attempts to be equal parts visual novel detective noir and spiritual dungeon crawler, the half that you don’t prefer might feel like a drag. In this case, the story does possess lots of moving parts and genuinely unique ideas, but it’s negatively impacted by a somewhat basic localization. The specific speech patterns of characters and their personas remain intact, but there are times when the text feels so inscrutable due to its reliance on jargon and full-immersion storytelling that it can leave even a careful reader feeling lost. I consider myself a careful reader. Mato: Anomalies can be hard to read.
>The first screenshots of Mato caught my attention, and the first gameplay videos then threatened my investment. I’m not overly fond of the aesthetic design used in visual novels, but I acknowledge its functional nature. Characters are presented with bobbing, blinking, and occasionally expressing portraits for a fair majority of dialogue, but there are occasional, lushly-illustrated panels meant to depict impactful plot developments. Similarly, there’s a smattering of comic-book-style cutscenes where the in-game models are used to depict limited action and fully-voiced dialogue as they play out in smaller panels. The latter two features are used to punctuate the narrative, and they rarely overstay their welcome. However, it does mean that there’s potentially three distinct visual styles being used in a single narrative sequence, which can feel a bit slapdash. The comic book cutscenes in particular risk cohesion, as the end of each clip is often not indicative of the action that played out within the clip, meaning that the full comic book spread of panels doesn’t actually tell a cohesive story.
The 3D environments and character models of Mato are carefully crafted and feature unique geometry, but there is an overall feeling of sterility to them. It’s hard to put into words, but the world feels about halfway between a polished indie title and an unpolished, triple A title. There’s little transition between animations, which makes moving and interacting jarring, and despite a very distinct visual style and care put into environments, the textures are simplistic and accessible routes are often generic. To be fair, the setting is a neo-futuristic city, so some of the predictable design is to be expected. But Mato is lacking a lighting engine that gives grime and character to its locations.
Ultimately, it feels like an Eastern-animation inspired aesthetic that lacks a little something extra in terms of polish. It isn’t a bad looking game, but it risks appearing formulaic. Take enemy designs, for example: they’re often odd, geometrical mishmashes, lacking any sort of context within their respective dungeons and instead acting as alien anomalies intruding on the “real” world. Hey, is that why the title has that word in it?
This lack of aesthetic polish reoccurs in dungeons, which have basic level geometry and reuse a number of assets and skyboxes across each chapter. If there were a bit more going on in the background of these digital worlds, it might feel a bit more authentic- and don’t get me wrong, in side-quests, there certainly are additional background elements meant to illustrate narratively-relevant details, but they are mixed with the chapter themed skybox, which is always highly specific and not always aesthetically consistent. Maybe that’s the point…?
The music and sound design of Mato are decent. Sound effects and music feel a bit generic, but they function well enough as urban, somewhat whimsical explorations of the neo-futuristic city and the warped digital rifts. The voice actors all do well enough with their given material, even if some of the lines are, again, very literal translations that lack nuance. A major issue that seems to be plaguing even larger releases these days is a lack of variety in voiced lines, and Mato fits right in, with characters possessing a single voiced line per attack. When your catalog of techniques expands and you find yourself reusing skills with less frequency, this issue solves itself… but that doesn’t make the experience up to that point any more enjoyable. My advice: switch the voice acting to either its Chinese or Japanese setting if you’re less familiar with those languages. It feels easier to stomach if you can’t understand what’s being said.
Impressions and Conclusion
Mato: Anomalies has more than enough unique ideas and ambition to pique the interests of an RPG enthusiast, but whether or not it sticks the landing is up for debate. Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure myself. I think the jarring nature of the localization hurts the experience overall, and I don’t think the game does a great job of introducing its systems and their potential benefits. That the context of customization changes as you gain access to more party members is an admittedly neat idea, as are a lot of the moving parts. Having Doe perform Mind Hacks to get what he wants out of persons of interest is neat, if not ethically dubious, but the game doesn’t really explore these complications. The writers are wont to throw in wild ideas- people abandoning their physical bodies to exist in digital consciousness, soldiers using cybernetic enhancements that persist after the death of their users, and the idea of technology and humanity merging and presenting haunting emotional specters, just to name a few. But these concepts are flung at the player with such frequency and at such a high intensity of jargon that it can feel difficult to follow. Mato certainly appears to be a game better enjoyed in its native tongue.
The game is incredibly economical with its assets, reusing locations in order to instill a sense of familiarity with the eponymous city and its particular districts, but also to make the most of its lengthy playtime. But each chapter does feel bloated from a dialogue and gameplay perspective, as if the game feels like it needs to earn your attention and each new gameplay fold it introduces. There’s definitely pacing problems in the game, but honestly, what RPG doesn’t have this issue?
It all comes down to what element you consider more damnable: the very bloated and often-stilted visual novel dialogue sequences, or the dungeon crawling that uses enemy encounters as gates for progression. Of course, if you want to defeat enemies, you have to invest a good deal of time in the game’s “random” dungeons. It’s a lot of time. And if you feel disrespected by one half of the game in order to get to the other, that’s assuming you feel strongly enough about either part to think it’s worth investing time into at all. If you feel both sides of the coin are flawed, then you probably don’t think the investment was worth your money.
I don’t like to talk about cost when it comes to games, because something that is well-paced will probably justify any price point. With all of the disparate elements of Mato: Anomalies to consider, I wonder if it would have been better for developer Arrowiz to reign in their ambition, in at least one area, to better support the whole. It wants so badly to be this incredible, epic experience with a tight focus, but it can’t be focused with so much on its plate.
This is my last review for SwitchRPG. I spent a good time on this site asking whether or not the games I reviewed were worth your own. I sometimes spent too much time asking that question. When it comes to Mato: Anomalies, I have to ask this additional question: is this game worth purchasing over other cyberpunk/neo-noir/dungeon crawlers that exist on the eShop? There’s lots of great ideas here, but whether or not you would find one or many of them compelling is entirely up to you. I can’t help but feel that the product that exists and that I reviewed is flawed- not fundamentally, not past the point of enjoyment, but it doesn’t meet the standard of other great titles on the platform. Mato: Anomalies is a respectable first attempt, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.