Oriental cyberpunk city in Mato Anomalies video game

Jack of all trades, master of none: Mato Anomalies Review

Mato Anomalies is a cyberpunk game that doesn’t know what it wants to be. At its heart, it’s a turn-based RPG with an underdeveloped combat system. But it’s also a text based narrative detective game and a deck building game. Mato Anomalies is a jack of all trades, master of none. Which is a shame, because the game has some good ideas behind each of these concepts.

In the interests of disclosure, I recieved a free copy of this game through Keymailer. As an independent reviewer, this doesn’t affect my review.

The story is set in Mato, a futuristic oriental city gutted by corruption and air pollution. Coupled with the Asian characters, it makes a refreshing change from much of the Asian fetishization found in many cyberpunk games. In it, private investigator Doe must work with a team of allies to uncover corruption. Doe does the on-the-ground detective work (although his fresh face doesn’t match up with his gritty persona). His ally, Gram, is a shamanic warrior who can traverse the supernatural lairs across the city, fighting the Bane Tide. Bane Tide are monsters that feed on extreme human emotions. But with so many names bandied about this game, it’s hard to keep track of the worldbuilding.

Mato Anomalies is most similar to Persona 5, with the lairs reflecting the psychological state of their creators. The first lair is a thin reflection of a greedy man; the characters traverse a dungeon floating on piles of money alongside stock market screens, with enemies named after gambling machines. Defeating enemies in these lairs breaks the evil hold on the people trapped inside. Mato Anomalies lacks subtlety in its messaging – if you like more nuance between good and bad in your neon noir, look elsewhere.

These dungeons quickly became repetitive, with the difficulty curve too easy even as the story progressed. Attacks are quite limited in the early hours of the game, and although the voice acting is solid, each attack is coupled with a single line of dialogue, which can get very repetitive, very quickly. If I have to hear Gram say “the art of war” one more time… Thankfully, if you get bored, auto-battle can quickly do the work for you. But if you feel the need to put a game on auto-battle, you need to question why you’re playing it in the first place.

To make the combat more interesting, Mato Anomalies needs a greater variety of attacks. Like chess, part of the challenge of turn-based RPGs is knowing what approach to take with a plethora of choices. Even hours into the game, your attack choices are limited to three or four attacks with two combatants. Of course, these can be developed by levelling up, but for that, you need to grind in the repetitive lairs.

These issues point to the general faults of turn-based RPG combat systems. A turn-based RPG is a kind of perpetual engine. If there’s no threat of running out of HP, you’re never going to lose a battle. Like a mathematical equation, turn-based RPGs rely on a set process of moves against predictable enemies. So there are several things needed to make these interesting, such as more variety of enemies, unpredictable moves, and status effects on both the players and the turn-based combat. Unfortunately Mato Anomalies needed to do more work in integrating these elements earlier in the game to maintain player interest.

In the real world, Doe cracks even the hardest of suspects using his mind hack system, a complicated card game that’s under-explained, and looks a lot like a 1990s screensaver. Amidst the purple pulsing lights, it’s up to players to figure out how to defeat the mind’s defences, using a combination of attack and defence cards. When compared to the ease of the lairs, the card system is much more challenging. I didn’t mind playing these card sessions, but wanted more explanation of how each card deck worked.

Graphically, Mato Anomalies is animated like an interactive manga, with outlined characters in a 3D environment. This comes into clash with the oil painting style backgrounds and interstitial graphics, alongside the technological menus, and straightforward font. Especially in the card game, the demons that defend the mind are poorly animated, pixelated blobs. The game needed a more coherent vision and aesthetic from the top-down.

Coupled with lacklustre sidequests, which send you into the lairs yet again with little context, it’s hard for me to recommend Mato Anomalies. It’s a shame that these gameplay elements let the story down. I liked the feisty characters, especially the dynamic of Butterfly and Gram fighting between each other through the lairs of the city. And although there are far too many confusing names and logic leaps, with a little finesse, the story of Mato Anomalies and its corporations vs the workers narrative could have really been something solid.

One issue with the writing lies in the game’s direction towards a male audience. When helpful android SkyEye arrives on the scene, the first thing Doe comments on is her clothing, a skimpy metal outfit she pulled together herself. An android having a sense of gender makes for a long discussion in itself, let alone what inspired her desire to dress in an uncomfortable metal swimsuit. As a female gamer, I found this dialogue extremely frustrating.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the best aspects of Mato Anomalies: its music. It’s a dreamy nod to Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, and the game is all the better for it. While it can get a little repetitive in the hours spent in the lairs, the game is at its best traversing Mato’s neon lit city coupled with the haunting music.

I really wanted to love Mato Anomalies. It has everything I like on paper: cyberpunk, noir overtones, sassy characters, story driven gameplay. But at the risk of trying to be everything, Mato Anomalies falls short of its grand ambitions.