Following in the footsteps of critically acclaimed games with a fiercely loyal fanbase always feels like risky business. But Mato Anomalies by developer Arrowiz has stepped up to the plate, to produce their own take on the much loved visual novel meets turn-based JRPG genre. While the game is far from perfect, it brings to the fore fresh new game concepts and a unique neo-Shanghai inspired setting.
In The Mood For Shanghai
Players begin the game as private detective Doe who, through a series of events, is tasked to investigate HANDOUT, a new drug being sold on the black market. His probing leads him down a literal rabbit hole, a rift in space called a Lair, in which nightmarish creatures called Bane Tide reside. It’s here that you meet exorcist Gram, the other half to this dual protagonist story and it is through both of their unique skill sets that the story begins to unfold.
It’s a tale of mob bosses and virtual idols, shady associations and the rebels that threaten the foundations of society. The mainline quest is told in episodic format with ten chapters in total, including an epilogue. If you like exploring the underbelly, you’ll resonate with the various twists and turns, plus the interesting and unique cast of characters that you meet along the way. While I found certain plot points hard to follow, logs found through your journey can be accessed for greater context. Unfortunately, a bigger disservice to the story is the voice acting, which feels very much unfinished. Not every bit of key dialogue gets a voice over, which is a crying shame because when it is there, it’s top notch and does so much to deliver some very well written lines. Fans will be sure to recognise big names such as Todd Haberkorn (Zanzo in Hi-Fi Rush, Hwoarang in Tekken: Bloodline, Razor in Genshin Impact) and Cristina Vee (Frost Queen Cookie in Cookie Run: Kingdom, Ran Mouri from the Detective Conan Series). It would have been great to hear more.
Film Noir Meets Cyberpunk
Mato is the city that the game takes place in, and it’s beautiful in it’s own mash-up of neo-Shanghai and gritty film noir. It’s almost exactly like how I would imagine a Wong Kar Wai film in video game form, albeit with more purple hues than red. There are some cyber elements to it such as the robot police and some of the Lair designs, but it’s well rounded enough by the Chinese architecture and cultural nods to the past that it supersedes the cliché. Characters dressed in qipao and changshan, add to the mysterious allure and create an overall sexy setting that you don’t often see in video games. The character design is great and if it looks familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to a previous Arrowiz title, Hermitage: Strange Case files.
At first glance, the world is expansive, and it’s a thrill to run around and catch glimpses of backstreets and neon signage. What mars the experience somewhat, is the annoying manual camera panning that one must do with a right click on the mouse. You can’t explore otherwise as your view will get stuck. In-world assets such as a market vendor with his wares laid out on the floor might also give the impression you can run through them due to gaps in between. However the pieces (items, carpet, stall owner) are all actually one big asset which means you can’t go through it at all. It can get frustrating to keep running into this and realising that the game isn’t actually as open-world as it had originally seemed. For some reason, generic NPCs also don’t have eyes, which I guess is a visual cue to tell players they’re less important; in an unintentionally creepy way.
Of Cards and Swords
Gram and Doe are very different protagonists, which is mirrored in how the gameplay that they own also diverge. Gram’s role is fairly straightforward as the player’s main fighter, leading the charge in combat mode by defeating monsters in the Lair. This takes the form of a traditional turn-based combat system where characters take turns to attack, utilise skills and consume items. You’ll start with just Gram but other characters will eventually join the party as the plot progresses and in battle they rather uniquely all share one HP pool. Characters also have individual skills that invoke different types of damage such as Pierce, Crush and Slash. Finding the right combination and understanding the monster’s weakness to the different types of damage is key to ending battles quickly. Aside from a selection of characters, weapons can also be acquired to unlock more skills and talents can be upgraded to buff stats. Gears can also be bought from shops or obtained within Lairs to bolster attributes for the entire team.
After playing so much action RPG in recent games, it was nice to go back to turn-based battles that require more strategic thinking. One minor annoyance I found was that skill cool downs do not reset after a battle is over which means it may not be immediately active at the next round. However this can easily feed into your plan of action, ensuring your final blow deals just the right amount that you need, and saving big hits for the next one. Auto-battling is also an option and the few turns I tried saw my characters clear basic fights with ease. I’m unsure if it would work against tougher enemies or bosses or if players would need to take the wheel at that point.
Doe’s game is a mental battle called MIND/HACK, a card game played as a means to hack into the minds of important NPCs to make them bend to your will. The goal is to reduce the host’s Mind Power to 0 through a series of card plays, but the NPC’s inner demons are also often present and many need to be dealt with first. Players will obtain new card decks as the game progresses, each with different strengths and weaknesses to ensure the best play against an NPC. MIND/HACK is fun but extremely hard. The inner demons have all sorts of buffs which could render the NPC untouchable and they also respawn within a few turns of killing them. After failing three times however, the game does provide players with the option to skip and continue with the story which greatly helps with alleviating player frustration.
Mato Anomalies might not have the perfection of Persona due to story pacing issues, sporadic dips in the quality of voice performances and certain gameplay quirks that could be ironed out. What it does have however is potential, in the form of some great designs, satisfying core battle mechanics and an addictive yet punishing card game. While I wasn’t familiar with Arrowiz before this, I’m glad to have solved the mystery through Mato Anomalies and I look forward to seeing what this studio will be working on next.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Engaging combat; Unique and vibrant setting; MIND/HACK card game is fun and addictive
Lowlights: Uneven voice performances; Open world can feel a little limiting at times
Publisher: Prime Matter, Plaion
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Review conducted on PC with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.