Mato Anomalies is a hodgepodge of ideas and motifs that works, for the most part, but suffers from trying to do too much with too little. It's aspirational, but the experience as a whole suffers from poor pacing and repetition, and comes off feeling like just another mediocre JRPG as a result, despite some original ideas.
Set in a neo-futuristic city called Mato, a mysterious place shut off from the rest of the world, you play as dual protagonists Doe and Gram. Doe is a detective, and through his eyes, you'll explore these gritty streets. You'll meet its eccentric citizens, chase up leads, engage in visual novel-esque discussions, and unravel the mystery at the heart of this surreal story.
Gram, meanwhile, is a Shaman, a sort of spiritual street samurai who hunts creatures known as the Bane Tide, which inhabit metaphysical rifts throughout the city known as Lairs. Together, Doe and Gram investigate the strange goings-on taking place all over Mato in typical hardbitten sci-fi noir fashion, replete with a massive holographic advertising woman on loan from the Blade Runner collection.
The story itself can be tough to follow, full of the kind of high-minded philosophising common to this kind of setting. Reality, what it means to be human, that kind of thing. It's a shame, too, because certain characters definitely have potential (Gram and Butterfly particularly) and are wasted running back and forth interacting with forgettable NPCs. These supporting characters are, unfortunately, portrayed as faceless as a stylistic choice, which only serves to make each less memorable.
The city of Mato itself is evocative enough, but navigating it quickly becomes a chore. While you can, blessedly, fast travel between its various districts with ease, you're made to return to the same locations repeatedly, and it quickly becomes grating. A particular offender is an inexplicable escalator that exists smack dab in the centre of your central hub area, which neatly bisects it, and will tax several moments of your precious life on this earth each time you are forced to ride, oftentimes repeatedly in a single visit.
Lairs are where the meat of the gameplay takes place and are essentially much less detailed takes on Persona 5's Palaces which, keeping with that example, ends up making them feel more like Persona 3's Tartarus. Expect a series of drab, empty hallways and rooms that mostly exist to deliver turn-based combat to you in spades.
While Doe doesn't engage in combat, you'll gather a very eclectic group of loners, misfits, and outsiders in traditional JRPG fashion. Combat is simple compared to the kind of games Mato Anomalies is trying to emulate. The action can be automated, which may or may not be to purists' tastes, but we loved being able to blitz through weaker encounters, with the competent AI swiftly taking care of business.
Mato Anomalies does at least try to mix things up on the gameplay front, with various degrees of success. Your party shares health, for example, which means individual party members aren't knocked out, but you will lose if the collective health bar hits zero. In addition, abilities go on turn-based cool-down, which adds an additional layer of strategy to manage. Animations are flashy and fluid enough, but each attack is accompanied by an annoying vocal bark which quickly becomes grating. It's perhaps the worst example of this phenomenon since the recently re-released The Legend of Dragoon originally launched.
The game performs well for the most part, with some minor frame rate issues here and there. It features a fairly unique visual style and generally looks good. More essentially, it has a distinct attitude and vibe, which makes it feel counter-culture, punk-rock even. There's a sense of irony and cynicism in the way characters treat each other, which does a lot to stop it from feeling as generic as a gameplay snippet might suggest. There are some pretty great moments between characters, but just as many are ruined by sloppy writing and localisation.
This one-step forward, one-step back pattern extends to the monster design and imagery of the Lairs themselves, which borrow elements from Buddhist and Taoist depictions of hell. It's definitely quite cool and does a lot to distract from the blandness of your surroundings. It's a shame, then, that Lairs become so rote so quickly; between the main story, side quests, and randomised delving, you'll spend far too much time roaming their familiar passageways.
The Mind/Hack minigame is a mechanic that Doe will engage in occasionally in order to get information out of a subject, by engaging in a fairly robust card battling system. You gain new decks as you progress through the game, and we're sure some will enjoy the included deck-building aspect, but we sure didn't. In addition, it suffers from an abysmal interface, boring combat against constantly respawning enemies, and generally just feels shoehorned in as something for Doe to do.
In addition to visual novel sections, animated cutscenes, and in-engine dialogue, the developers also throw comic-book-style panels out there for certain story beats. Again, while neat, it makes the whole experience feel messy and disjointed, as you're constantly seeing familiar characters portrayed in different ways, often poorly, and it makes it hard to become attached to any of them.
Mato Anomalies is a game full of cool ideas that too often break down in execution. It features a unique visual design and tone that can't make up for the deficit created by poor writing, bland dungeons, and its repetitive nature. Die-hard enthusiasts of either turn-based RPGs or schlocky sci-fi might find something to love here, but with so many better options available, it's not an experience we'd recommend.
Mato Anomalies is a tough sell; it features some fresh ideas and concepts (which should be applauded) but fails to create a compelling core gameplay loop in the process. With so many other other excellent turn-based titles demanding your attention, it fails to provide a compelling reason to undertake this surreal journey.