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PREVIEW: Mato Anomalies

by Jean-Karlo Lemus,

Boasting creative staff from both America and China, Arrowiz Studios is currently hard at work producing a brand-new JRPG: Mato Anomalies. We were fortunate enough to gain access to an exclusive demo of the game on PC courtesy of Arrowiz.

Mato Anomalies takes place in a retro-futuristic version of Shanghai named Mato. The fashion and aesthetics are a mix of the Roaring 20s, traditional Chinese, and cyberpunk. Brick houses and stores line the city streets while peddlers sit before blankets selling their wares, massive holograms of divas blink and preen themselves over pedestrians, and beggars in straw hats whisper enigmas to any who will hear them. Also, one of the characters is a gynoid with a Robocop-visor. It's a striking mix, with a lovely color palette to bring it all together.

The game itself features two protagonists; the first is Doe, a private investigator tasked by a local nightclub owner to investigate the local drug trade. The other is his partner Gram, a “shaman” who dresses like a ronin to fight the Bane Tide—demons who feed off of emotions. Despite working together, the game itself is more or less divided between the two halves: Doe travels the city of Mato itself, talking to persons of interest, investigating leads, and traveling to new areas of the overworld. Players only take control of Gram during battles against the Bane Tide within the sub-dimensional pockets that serve as dungeons.

Battles are a simple JRPG affair: players and monsters take turns whacking each other until their health is depleted. In the demo we played, battles were limited to just Gram facing off against a handful of “Bingo” enemies. Certain attacks were on a turn-based cooldown, including an AOE attack and a double-slash. The menus promise other kinds of attacks, but whether because he doesn't learn them or he simply didn't have them yet, Gram didn't have any to use.

Conversely, Doe's emphasis on investigation doesn't mean he doesn't have his own battles. In place of raw combat, Doe has Mind/Hacks, which play out as card games where you overwhelm a person's mental defenses. Like a stripped-down version of Hearthstone, you chose and play up to three cards per turn, destroying mental demons (or perhaps daemons?) while you line up direct attacks against the enemy. We had limited opportunities to customize our Mind/Hack deck, but hopefully it will be presented as an option in the full game.

Unfortunately, that hope does a lot of the heavy lifting, because Mato Anomalies still needs a ton of work. Ignoring how the visuals can be a little janky and just moving the camera sends the game into a stuttery fit, much of Mato Anomalies seems very basic and rudimentary for a JRPG. Demons feeding off of human emotion is common enough, and in the glimpse we were given little else was given in the way of urgency concerning the threat the Bane Tide represents. The one dungeon we explored was dreadfully linear, with nothing but a trio of battles to engage with. The battle mode itself isn't terribly novel, either. While most JRPGs would have some kind of mechanic or wrinkle for the formula, Mato Anomalies... doesn't. Persona's Press Turn system, Dragon Quest's Tension mechanic, Grandia's Time Bar... there's no end to the kinds of mechanics Mato Anomalies could have taken inspiration from in order to reward strategy on the player's behalf. Instead, the only option offered was brute force.

Likewise, Doe's Mind/Hacks lacked any kind of engagement. There was little strategy on display from the one match we were given to play: bumrush the opponent's Demons, direct attacks to the opponent while the demons respawn, repeat. There was little need for defensive cards of any sort, and if there was any further opportunity for strategy we weren't allowed to see it. It doesn't help that the matches disappoint in terms of presentation; the victory screen was thrown up fairly unceremoniously. In fact, for as pretty as Mato Anomalies can be, it really falters in the details. Cutscenes are done with inspired comic-book-style panelings and impressive voice acting, but the scene transitions are sudden jump-cuts. Dialogue scenes are framed like visual novels, but there's a bizarre camera wobble whenever you move your mouse around. Voice clips in battle also repeat far too often.

It would be really nice if Arrowiz could fix these problems for Mato Anomalies' full release. The basic game itself shows a ton of promise and the aesthetic is solid. The ideas for engaging battles and a satisfying card game are there. And while the premise is well-trodden, it's still worth exploring given it can be executed well. While this is Arrowiz's maiden voyage, we're hoping they can iron out the kinks in time for Mato Anomalies' full release.

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