'Cyberpunk' has become a bit of a dirty word in games as of late after a certain game's widely-publicised rough launch. However, video games and the cyberpunk aesthetic have gone hand in hand for almost as long as the medium has existed. From SNES-era titles like Shadowrun and Hideo Kojima’s wildly underappreciated Snatcher and Policenauts; to the present where we find games like Astral Chain, VA-11 HALL-A, and — yes — Cyberpunk 2077. In fact, it's so common in games that it becomes harder and harder to be wow-ed by the aesthetic. Despite this, ANNO: Mutationem pulled us in right away.
ANNO (no relation to the popular city building simulator of the same name) is an action-RPG that comes courtesy of indie developer ThinkingStars in conjunction with Sony’s China Hero Project. After launching on Playstation platforms and PC in March, it makes its way to Nintendo’s hybrid with a near-flawless conversion, only let down by some long load times and the occasional frame rate dip.
Throughout the 12-or-so-hour campaign, you take on the role of Ann Flores, a young woman living in Skopp City. Ann is afflicted by a mysterious illness called entangelitis, which causes her to black out and go berserk, attacking everything in her sight and being impervious to damage. She soon finds out that her brother, Ryan, has gone missing searching for N540, a medicine that can suppress the effects of her disease. However, during his search he got involved with a band of thugs named Factio Pugini. So, Ann sets out to find Ryan and, possibly, the cure for her disease.
On her journey Ann is supported by her not-explicitly-stated-but-sure-seems-like girlfriend Ayane, who is projecting her image by means of a small robot. She chimes in constantly throughout the game and while initially we thought she could become annoying, she ended up being one of our favourite characters over the course of the journey. The relationship between her and Ann carries much of the plot, helped tremendously by great voice performances from Suzie Yeung and Lizzie Freeman.
The narrative mystery is interesting and keeps you on your toes. A secret organisation by the name of the Consortium is introduced via cutscenes randomly spliced between area load screens. At first, it seems like nonsense, evoking memories of Kingdom Hearts’ incoherent Organisation XIII rambling, but it does all come together in a satisfying way towards the end of the game. Not the best start, then, but it wraps itself up well in the end.
Between the gorgeous sprite work and its use of voxels, ANNO is a treat to look at. The gameplay is split into two styles, with 2D side-scrolling and exploratory segments in which you traverse through 3D environments with your 2D character. The depth in these areas is impressive, from how dense the cities feel to little details like how the light pierces through your blinds in the intro.
The investigation-focused exploration segments mainly consist of talking to people and finding items, and the 2D sections are where the combat takes place. The bulk of the game has you switching between these styles all the time. Dungeons will swap between perspectives from room to room, which can be a little jarring in places, but works well for the most part.
Combat takes inspiration from games like Devil May Cry (or at least a 2D take on it) with a style that focuses on both melee and gunplay. While your initial kit is basic, through the use of a skill tree and unlockable weapons, you soon have a solid inventory of moves and gear to play around with. For the most part, combat isn't particularly challenging; barring the odd death here and there, we only really struggled with one specific difficulty spike near the game's finale.
There’s a litany of sidequests you can take on around the game's five city areas. These jobs range from being your common or garden go place, hit guy, get thing quests to part-time bartending. The best of these include engaging investigations like searching an apartment to find where a suspect has disappeared to, or finding out who is throwing trash off the balcony in a high rise.
ANNO wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will no doubt pick up references from the very first cutscene; there are visuals that feel directly lifted from Hideaki Anno’s 1995 anime. The game also owes a lot of its visual design to Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner, as well as the SCP Foundation’s influence on the Consortium.
ANNO: Mutationem tells a strong tale with its core mystery, strengthened by beautiful visuals and satisfying combat. While its inspirations are a little on-the-nose, developer ThinkingStars manages to carve out its own space in the Cyberpunk genre. Some long loads and minor balancing issues take the shine off a little, but it's still an incredibly impressive effort from a small indie team who has created a world that feels as immersive as any £60 AAA RPG.