Review: Anno: Mutationem [Switch]
Cyberpunk. An evergreen aesthetic beloved by many, especially those of us in “geeky” communities such as gaming and anime. A genre and/or theming that has birthed both greats in their respective mediums, as well as some impressive flops. In some cases both at the same time, what with the reception Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is receiving and how it appears to be reviving its source game.
Earlier this year, Chinese developer ThinkingStars dipped its toes into the genre with the PC and PlayStation release of Anno: Mutationem. Combining the well-established Blade Runner cyberpunk aesthetic with the ever popular pixel art design of modern indie games, the studio’s freshman effort won praise from critics and general gamers alike.
It appears that the studio want to expand this fanbase as well, so they have recently brought the game to everyone’s favorite swappable handheld, the Nintendo Switch. While I had been meaning to try the game myself back during its initial PC release, I never found the opportunity to actually sit down and play it. With its second coming, there was no better time to finally dive in.
Developed by ThinkingStars and published by Lightning Games, Anno: Mutationem was originally released for PC, PS4, and PS5 on March 16th 2022, and received the Switch port we are looking at today on September 1st, 2022.
Right off the bat, Anno throws a lot at the wall. The game follows a young woman names Ann Flores, living in your standard cyberpunk dystopian daydream. She’s a cop…no, wait, was a cop…or, she still helps them out sometimes? Whatever, it doesn’t matter much. What does matter is she might have some kind of mysterious past linked to a shadowy cabal and an Evangelion themed nuclear explosion…or was that just a dream she had when the game opened?
Alright, set that aside. What we know she has is both a missing brother and “Entangelitis,” a disease that…makes her super strong and super aggressive? Which is presented as a bad thing…but she also puts it to use to fight crime?
Ok, I’ll end that bit here. Anno opens up confusingly. The first few hours just throw random story bits and game world jargon at the player. Even with being a fan of weird literature and unique storytelling styles, I found myself a bit lost when trying to get into this world.
Luckily, if you can stick out the rough opening, things slowly start coming together and making more sense. The key focus of the story is Ann searching for her brother Ryan, who has gone missing while searching for a supposed medicine that can cure Ann of her disease. All of the other bits are introducing mysteries and mini arcs that are all slowly developed and weaved together as the plot progresses. It feels like the developers set out to create a mystery story in a cyberpunk setting, but fumbled the initial “setting up the mystery” bit.
What managed to keep me going through the opinion rough patch, though, were the interactions between the two core characters of the story: Ann and her…friend? AI? partner?…Ayane Misuno. Again, another bit that isn’t initially explained well. The contrast of Ann’s more straightforward and reserved personality with Ayane’s bubbly genki girl aesthetic is a pretty classic character pairing, and works well here in Anno as well.
Sum Of The Parts
Much like the storytelling, Anno attempts to do a lot of different things with its gameplay as well. However, I’m glad to say, these portions are much more cohesive and understandable right from the get go.
I would roughly divide Anno‘s gameplay into three parts: RPG world exploration, side-scrolling platformer, and fast-paced beat-em-up. A good chunk of the storytelling and worldbuilding is found in the first part, where players navigate Ann around the various cities that make up the game’s world. These are the best times to just soak in the game’s atmosphere, which we’ll discuss more later.
Exploring various buildings and “dungeons” around the game world is when the game transitions to its second style. I’ll admit, calling it a side-scrolling platformer here isn’t completely correct, as you’ll still be navigating Ann around 3D space in many areas. But much of the “challenge” from these segments typically restricts you to a 2D plane. Platforming is satisfyingly tight, though there isn’t much to it.
The real meat of the game comes in the third portion, the combat. You begin the game with access to a quick melee attack and a gun, but soon also gain a powerful-but-slow weapon option as well. Combat takes place mostly in restricted areas (in fact, you can’t even use your weapons outside of designated combat rooms) and is focused on reading enemy tells, quick dodges, and striking when you see an opening.
Combat is admittedly on the simpler side, with access to just a handful of combos, but it does open up slightly as you build Ann’s equipment and skills. This is where some RPG aspects come in to play, as you can buy new weapons for Ann and upgrade them with skill buffs, as well as learn new skills in general spending points you earn in combat on a pretty straightforward skill tree. Once you unlock more aerial combos, some defensive skills, and a few more movement options, combat becomes more interesting to seek out.
I do wish that these three aspects of Anno didn’t have such a hard separation between them. As I mentioned, you have no access to your weapons outside of designated combat areas. The cities you explore eventually just become a place you teleport back to during dungeons to upgrade your equipment. A bit more blending of the parts would’ve lent so much more to the game.
But even with that in mind, I still enjoyed exploring the game’s world and, after progressing in the skill tree a bit, would purposely seek out combat whenever I could. If anything, Anno is an expression of “it’s pretty good, but there’s so much potential for it to be better.”
There’s only one big stumble the game makes: annoyingly long load times. I’m not sure if it’s just due to the Switch port, but moving between areas often saw me putting down my controller to go grab a drink real quick while waiting for the game to load. Reloading in after a death felt like it took even longer, and there were a few times I decided to stop playing for the day rather than wait for a loading screen.
The Future is Pixels
Back when it originally released on PC and PlayStation consoles, the graphical presentation of Anno is what initially caught my attention. Seeing the trailer in the Steam store, I was instantly enamored with it. And, after actually playing it on Switch, I can say that this game did not let me down with the aesthetics.
The fusion of detailed sprite work, attractive character design, and a well thought out and crafted 3D world, all slathered in that beautiful cyberpunk coat of paint. Anno is simply a stunner on the screen. And, aside from a few framerate drops in particularly busy scenes, it shines through beautifully on the Switch as well.
Anno also features some solid voice work as well, particularly focused on the two leads, Ann and Ayane. I want to commend Ayane’s performer specifically, as she somehow manages to perform the overhyped genki girl in English in a way that doesn’t make me want to tear my ears off.
Anno starts rough, and that’s something you definitely need to know if you plan to dive in. Particularly story-wise, where it shoots off a firehose of ideas in an attempt to set up a core mystery. But if you’re able to stick through the first couple hours, things begin weaving together to create a much more graceful package.
Aside from the graphics, I can’t say there’s any one aspect that the game particularly excels at. Taken as the sum of its parts, though, the developers at ThinkingStars have created quite an intriguing experience.
If you’re a fan of stunning art design and cyberpunk aesthetics in general, Anno: Mutationem is a no-brainer. If you’re just going in curiously like I initially did, I still think you’ll have a fun time here. Just be ready to be a bit confused for the first hour or two.
Review copy provided by Lightning Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.