In reviewing Anno: Mutationem, I realize how difficult is trying to explain certain aspects of game design, even harder when one is reviewing them and trying to make the reader understands how a game works (or doesn’t). The gameplay flow has always been one of my biggest problems in that regard. There is not a specific formula to talk about the flow of how each piece of the game mechanics connects to another, and not even a precise formula to actually develop it successfully. Above all, what the player would want is that the flow, the way one mechanic shifts to the other, should feel as natural as possible: especially in a title that features multiple game mechanics, going from one to another should feel effortless.
In that complicated to explain situation, I feel that ANNO: Mutationem seems to perfectly understand how flow works.
A thick soup of genres
The developers describe the game as an “action adventure with RPG elements”, which is quite the mouthful already, but let us not forget to also add minigames to the mix. We have barely begun looking at the game and there are already four different gameplay styles that completely mix with one another! Set in a distopian and light cyberpunk future, the player follows the story of Ann Flores, a true take-no-crap heroine who can take care of herself in most sticky situations, together with her trusty holographic sidekick Ayane. The relationship between the two develops throughout the game, with Ayane usually being typically “anime style” obnoxious, but in quite an affectionate way. Ann is looking for her lost brother, having to contend with a family she has drifted away from, and also a mysterious illness which seems to slowly take control of her.
The narrative beats, at first, seems to push all the right buttons, with some quite dramatic twists and turns and stakes that will soon become much higher than what we imagined at the beginning. But, in the long run, the story does feel like probably the weakest part of the game, failing to feel like an integral part of the game. It almost feels like it makes little difference if the player cares about what is going on or not. Still, there is some sparse but solid voice acting in all the major cutscenes. As mentioned, Ann is quite able at taking care of herself: combat is quite varied as a consequence. We can wield multiple melee weapons and even have pistols and grenades at our disposal. Each weapon is assigned to a different button so that switching between one another is mostly seamless, along with the possibilty of upgrading them with chips and powerful mods that can be found in shops or exploring the world. Ann also has quite a good variety of special moves that she can perform, like dashes and parries with her shield.
Exploration and combat: two sides of the same Neko coin
Along with varied combat, the player is allowed to freely explore around the various locations (cities, docks, nightlife neighborhoods, etc), in order to find credits, pick up items and also get secondary missions. These are not the usual throwaway boring fare, but range from the humorous to the plain weird, like being paid to track down the real identity of a Virtual Streamer. There are also some slight Metroidvania mechanics at play, since throughout the levels and by defeating bosses Ann will gradually unlock new powers and abilities which will allow her to reach places she could not before. Naturally, there does not seem to be a necessity to revisit places and redo levels all over, especially since there is no respawning of enemies. So, unless one wishes to pick up everything, the new abilities are just used to progress through. Also yes, there is crafting: Ann can use materials found around the levels to create health vials, grenades and all kinds of useful stuff.
There are indeed a lot of different meats and spices boiling inside ANNO: Mutationem‘s pot, which in the hands of a unexperienced developer (as ThinkingStars might be, since unless I’m mistaken, this is their first game), might very easily end up being a very hard soup to digest. But that is not the case, as the flow – as mentioned at the start of the review – is practically perfect. The game switches from exploration to combat depending on the presence of enemies, while that can feel stiff sometimes, it is usually barely noticeable as the music ramps up and the player is immediately allowed to start kicking ass. Combat is appropriately crunchy and satisfying, never feeling repetitive as the developers know how to alternate it with exploration and story beats. The gameplay also often switches from 2D action to 3D exploration in such a way that keeps things fresh. In that regard, ANNO: Mutationem feels like a success.
A promising (cyber)future
Graphically, Mutationem sports a mix of 3D backgrounds with 2D pixelated sprites, which might sound like something already seen quite often, especially in the last 3-4 years. But, unless my memory fails me, it is a graphical style which has rarely been attempted for a cyberpunk title of the action adventure ilk. Also, it makes sense with the overall switching of gameplay styles which would be definitely quite more difficult to do with a full 3D environment. The 2D sprites have a lot of character to them and the style of the characters did seem to capture a lot of players’ imagination. The soundtrack is also incredibly well done, with ambient synths and more phat beats that put the player in the right mood for some defeating enemies.
While the overall gameplay mechanics feel solid for the most part, despite probably the game being perfectly fine without a couple of them (like crafting, which is sort of my pet peeve), the story does feel a bit diminished because of the need to pay homages to various futuristic/cyberpunk properties of the past. It almost feels like Anno: Mutationem is just a tiny bit afraid to fly beyond what was already been done before, like lacking the courage to take the last step. Also, unfortunately, it does help that the story does not arrive at a conclusion which I could define as satisfying. Still, as a first attempt, it will definitely more than satisfy different palates, especially those looking for a bit more variety and spices in their usual 2D action adventure. Mutationem puts ThinkingStars on the map as one of the most promising teams out there.
ANNO: Mutationem is now available for Playstation 4/5 and Windows.