Do Ann-droids dream?
The ‘Cyberpunk’ genre conjures up thoughts of Philip K. Dick’s fantastic Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, more commonly known as Bladerunner. A dystopian future where technology has advanced so much that people and synthetic beings are indistinguishable, cars fly, and the socio-economic divide is larger than ever.
For a debut title from developer ThinkingStars, ANNO: Mutationem is about as good as it gets.
A pixel art action-RPG wrapped in a sleek cyberpunk aesthetic, where the only thing bigger than the amount of fun you’ll have is the mystery you’re trying to unravel. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of what it would be like to live in the pages of a P. K. Dick novel. A world of lights, chrome and skyscrapers, littered with neon signs in various languages. Advertisements and announcements flashing above a society where people scrape by doing dirty deeds, and struggle to keep themselves afloat.
The game starts with a literal BANG, whilst introducing a shady group and a hand laying in some snow, you wake up as Ann Flores. Immediately, you're struck with fantastic pixel style visuals. The character sprites support quad-directional movement, and express emotions and gestures brilliantly. They stand out really well against the smooth lighting, hard metal, and various objects that create the world you’ll spend your time running around in.
The environments are pretty interractible too, they ooze style and are rich with visual story-telling. From photo frames in people’s flats and homes, to the furniture and knick-knacks they choose to surround themselves with, you get a real feel that this world is lived in.
Our protagonist awakes in a flat, hosted in a high rise tower with an out of order elevator and several dingy floors. Doors are covered in notes from passers-by (all of which are readable), and bins full of treasu- …er… rubbish… that you can use for crafting or selling. Then you hit the beautifully lit streets of Skopp City, the first of several hub areas. It has several traders and NPCs each of whom are going about their day, you can listen into their conversations or purchase things from them, and some give you quests whilst you explore the world that ThinkingStars have built for us, Ann and her friends.
We learn that Ann has a condition called 'Entanglelitis', which sometimes unwillingly makes her black out - though usually allowing her to best an enemy or two in combat, whilst being impervious to any damage. Though we’re not shown the full ramifications of this immediately in-game it does come into play later and serves as part of the sinister villain’s plans. We’re told Ann’s entangleitis is something that her brother Ryan, the driving force behind the start of the story, is trying to cure. We’re then directed to meet one of Ann’s other allies, doctor and scientist Alan who built Ann’s combat suit, and helped train her, and another one of the people trying to cure Ann. He plugs us into his machine and we get to see the other side of this title’s gameplay: The Action.
ANNO: Mutationem doubles as a side-scrolling hack and slash in its action segments. Sprinting across rooftops fighting gangsters and wading through sewers battling mutants, the combat system just simply flows. With several weapons in her arsenal, a projectable hard-light shield and a dodgeroll, Ann is armed to the teeth with everything she needs to survive this sometimes unforgiving world. Easy enough to get the basics, and a little more tricky to master, the combat uses a somewhat standard approach to the control scheme. Tap the ‘Y’ button for your lighter, faster weapon, ‘X’ for your slower, heavier attacks, ‘A’ to dash/ dodge, ‘B’ to jump, ‘ZL’ to scan an enemy with Ann’s handy “GROM System” implant and ‘ZR’ to shoot your chosen gun. It’s nothing groundbreaking but the possibilities of the combat style and, later on, your upgrades give you a chunk of depth, experimentation and some really flashy skills. Later you do have the option to “awaken” turning you into a masked ninja, sporting a pair of katana and flinging shuriken while being invincible, it’s brutal and fun.
It’s also where a large amount of the RPG elements come in. Almost all of the skills are centred around the combat - giving you stat increases, stylish special hits (like the very anime ‘Light Sword: Shadowstep’) or improving how much damage your shield can negate. You can also customise your weapons with 'chips' that you come across through side missions which can add elemental damage, new properties or provide stat buffs. On top of this are the different weapon modules available, providing stat boosts and funky new designs.
ANNO: Mutationem is a game dripping with style and energy, which comes even more alive with its sound design. Small details like the electric trills, thumping bass and synth, crisp battle sounds - the OST hits the noir themes and cybernetic design to a tee. Each district has its own unique soundtrack, whether it be the hazy swing from Margarita or the general bustle of Skopp City. In some cases, you’ll walk past characters performing in the streets with audio that fades in and out with your proximity. We’re also treated to some fantastic voice acting. While not all dialogue is blessed with the game’s cast, the in-game cutscenes are filled with them, and it really helps you get a further grip with Ann and her friends’ personalities, and their interpersonal dynamics.
It's a great challenge to talk about this game without spoiling the brilliant story. The side missions and dungeons are great, usually introducing new characters and locations which deepen the mysteries and the lore of the Mutationem’s world. There’s actually a side-mission where you enter a “Street Fighter” style tournament, with a grand prize of corn juice. The corn man later shows up near other boss rooms if you’ve beaten the mission, which is a useful side-effect, but either way it got a hearty chuckle from me. There’s a lot of humour in Mutationem’s world, be it through subtle references or even just eavesdropping, you can really feel the love the developers at ThinkingStars have put into this title.
On the technical side; performance and frame rate are smooth, snappy loading screens and responsive controls make ANNO: Mutationem a pleasure to play in both Docked and Handheld modes on Nintendo Switch. Even in the later game sections where the screen gets a bit more full of effects and visuals, ANNO: Mutationem still hits a smooth framerate with no stuttering at all.
There’s about 10 hours of story content, and an extra few hours of sidequests that’ll keep you occupied in your time with Ann, and the story’s ending gives me hope for a potential sequel down the line.
ANNO: Mutationem feels at home on the Nintendo Switch. It is a perfect game to play on the go, with hours of fun to be had whether it’s your first or fifth playthrough. It holds up against versions of the game on other platforms easily, and it’s an indie hit worth raving about. With its subtle edge and buckets of intrigue, Ann’s story will be one worth telling for a long time. If this title is anything to go by, I think we can expect fantastic things from developer ThinkingStars.
Where to Buy
Written by Luke Young
Edited by Mark McAllister, Jen Griffiths and Paul L. Russell
Graphic by Paul L. Russell