Blade Runner 2049. Cyberpunk 2077. Katana Zero. Alita: Battle Angel. Ghost Runner. These are just a few prominent examples of cyberpunk-oriented media that have been provided to the public in the last few years. A dystopian world full of neon and wreckage, tied to a synthwave soundtrack that sets a futuristic, cool, emotional mood. This type of scenario is one that has always been fairly popular in fiction, and the expanded scope of game creation has allowed it to flourish within the gaming world, as well. Anno Mutationem is the latest in a long line of cyberpunk settings to deal with a complex narrative and bountiful world, all contained within a 40-minute demo.
The game also has some intriguing experimentation to its presentation. A mix of 2D and 3D, with perspective changes depending on the situation involved. Character-based and sprawling with a lot of vivid visual sparks, there’s quite a bit of work put into this title that seems massive for a team of six. Their efforts are much appreciated, though it could do them well to perhaps temper the ambition just a tad to make the overall experience more robust. In a sense, the demo leaves a lot to take in—debatably too much.
Anno Mutationem is available to play as a free demo between October 1-7 during Steam’s Next Fest. A “2021” window has been provided for a full release.
Story – Dreamy Confusion
Booting up the demo for the first time, one is shown an abstract dream sequence. An empty world, completely gray. Soon, it becomes apparent that it’s a dream, and the protagonist, Ann, wakes up in her room. This is where the story begins. At least, I think so.
Anno Mutationem is a game that decides to start by giving the player absolutely no context on anything. Seconds upon waking up, we’re contacted by Ann’s hacker friend, Ayane, via communicator. Who is she? How does she know Ann? I have no idea. They speak as if they’re familiar with one another, so I guess she’s a friend, maybe a sister? Pictures in the room can be interacted with, with Ann commenting on who’s in the picture and how she feels about them. Again, no idea who these people are—they’re just names and faces to the player. Information is spilled like a broken dam from the very beginning, with hardly a chance to get situated.
As one explores, they’ll begin to understand the situation at hand. Going from one place to another, the course of the demo seems rather linear. Speak to this person, interact with that thing; a variety of world filler is also present, though hardly important or integral. Commentary from Ayane is plentiful throughout, as well as a couple other characters that will undoubtedly be important in the full game. Generally, they do well to fill in the context of a given situation, which is appropriate given the grander narrative explains practically nothing.
For transparency, the decision to leave the player completely ignorant is not necessarily a bad one. Some plots manage to become more engaging upon the sharp realization of situations yet to come. It’s a risky maneuver, though they can direct the course of the narrative into spectacular territory if they pace themselves. From the quality of this demo, though, I’m hesitant to see how it’ll unfold, for some reasons I’ll elaborate on later.
Gameplay – Finding Junk and Fighting Punks
A majority of the demo will be spent getting situated to the world present. Running around, interacting with things, talking with folk, and the occasional battle sequence. Said battles are also contained within these tight spaces, which take up maybe five minutes of the forty-minute runtime of the demo. Very cinematic, in a sense, where the goal of this preview seems to be to let players test the water before throwing them into the ocean. For that alone, it’s rather successful.
With that covered, there isn’t too much expected of the player overall, gameplay-wise. A lot of it is basic exploration—traveling to a point onscreen easily identifiable by an arrow pointing in the direction of the main objective. One can also interact with NPCs in specific spots, indicated by a symbol above their heads. This symbol doesn’t change at all when near, so one has no feedback suggesting that they’re interactable at all, which is a bit disorienting. This only goes for non-essential NPCs, though. A large chunk of my time was spent just seeing what everyone said, if they did anything, or if any of it mattered. The answer: not really.
Then there’s combat, which is by far the most enjoyable part of Anno Mutationem as of current. During specific sequences, one can don battle armor and slash baddies to bits with a shiny saber. If that isn’t your fancy, you can also shoot them with a pistol, albeit with a small ammo cartridge. The basic desire for violent altercations is well-produced here, with a tutorial walking you through the finesse of combat. Cathartically smashing, combat is quick and easy to get ahold of. Slightly button mash-ish, though there’s heavy motivation for one to take advantage of a dodge mechanic and pay attention to enemy behavior.
Performance was a slight issue while playing, though in specific moments. When outside, surrounded by many NPCs and objects, I experienced a gradual decline in framerate, which persisted for most of the area. Some cutscenes also had a noticeable lag to them, but not to the extent where it seemed broken.
Engagement is a fickle thing with these kinds of games, wanting to display a huge world with a lot of information coming all at once. What this manages to do is intrigue rather than engage. It’s quite a lot to take in—exploration, item collecting, combat, an expansive story, hacking, and lots of dialogue. It provides a sample of what appears to be a very, very large project in waiting, and that bears a lot of promise. However, I wonder if perhaps, should this be how the actual game will begin, people will tune out of things too quickly. And a lot of this has to do with its manner of presentation.
Graphics & Audio – A Notable Lack of Nuance
Immediately apparent, just upon waking up in the first room, is how free-flowing everything is. Without hesitation, text appears onscreen for you to read, with no player input on the speed of the conversation or any pause in gameplay. One can simply run around and still actively control Ann while reading text onscreen. Perhaps this was meant to give players more urgency and freedom, but it comes across as off. Like with the world itself, text is flying at you at will, whether you’re prepared or not, and suddenly you’re obligated to both read and travel. No voice acting, either.
What makes it more abrupt is just how quietly it appears, as well. One grows so used to sound effects accompanying transmissions or cutscenes in games that when they’re gone, it’s glaring. A surprising lack of sound effects perturb most of the demo; everything is so silent, especially in passing conversations, that it feels almost like a dream. (Maybe it is?) They could at least throw in some static, some beep, some “ker-whoop” to signify that it’s even occurring—better yet, a dial tone and symbol onscreen beforehand.
All of this is on top of an already loaded introduction, complete with loads of people, passageways, and enterable locations. It’s almost like an incomplete mash of 2D sidescroller, 3D exploration, and basic visual novel. I also wonder if the demo was meant to provide all that Anno Mutationem has to offer in a sort of rushed package. There’s no guarantee that the full game will be anything like this. I would hope that upon full release, it would pace information better, and provide a more detailed approach to its presentation.
Enough negativity, though; Anno Mutationem is an intriguing array of a different mix of visual styles. Detailed pixel animation interspersed with 3D-esque models. Dreamy orange sunsets alighting the run-down neighborhoods below. A couple establishing shots of picturesque dystopian views, complete with neon advertisements and gargantuan towers. When it’s not throwing text onscreen every few minutes, the game has an incredibly lively atmosphere, complete with awe-inspiring sights.
Traversal is a tad odd to adjust to, given general travel and combat are structurally different. The former allows movement in all cardinal directions, while combat is only side to side. Judging when one’s within range of anything is also somewhat fickle, never knowing until it’s too late that you’re speaking with someone or about to be punched in the face. Could just be too much information occurring onscreen, as has been a constant issue throughout.
Also, a quick note: text onscreen is very small and occasionally gets drowned out by the background. This is especially noteworthy with combat, where health and numbered units are barely legible unless you’re playing at full screen. Would recommend either bolding it or wrapping it in other colors to make it stand out more.
Anno: Mutationem was previewed via a demo available on Steam.