When I think back on my time with plucky cyberpunk beat-em-up Anno: Mutationem, the first thing I think of is that I wish they'd included a pronunciation guide for that mouthful of a faux Latin title. But the second thing that comes to mind is attitude. From the colorful, retro chic art style to the endearing, ass-kicking protagonist, this is a world with a strong sense of identity that knows from the first minute how it wants to make you feel – even though the story told there sometimes seems a bit more lost.
The streets of futuristic Skopp City are where most of the action takes place: it’s a delightful chrome and concrete sprawl packed with influences from the likes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. Its various districts each use color, sound, and small environmental details to create a textured world that manages to feel bright and homey in spite of its bleak backstory. I had a lot of fun exploring its bars, shops, and alleyways, listening to random conversations and discovering out-of-the-way secrets. It's not exactly a groundbreaking setting – though some Stranger Things-esque weirdness brings a dash of spice to it – but it's one I would happily spend a lot more time in.
When trouble comes to these streets, the capable and daring Ann Flores is ready to shoot, slash, and smash her way through hordes of thugs, robots, and mutants. Combat is responsive, well-paced, and in its best moments the enemy design and flow of battle reminded me of old-school Mega Man. There are plenty of interesting and challenging bosses and lieutenants to pound to a pulp, and the fact that you need to wear down their shields with slower heavy attacks to unlock powerful finishers, while dealing damage with quicker light attacks, makes each scrap more tactically interesting than button mashing away at a health bar. The one kind of annoying thing is that there are a few too many encounters that rely on infinitely respawning minions for my taste. There are lots of ways to make a boss fight harder, and I'm just not fond of that one.
Ann's progression as a professional ass kicker comes from two skill trees, where beating story bosses gives you currency to improve your base stats and beating normal enemies lets you unlock new moves. This ends up working out really well, because you can't really grind to become way too powerful for any given area, but earning yourself a new heavy slash or improving the effectiveness of your parry provides you with more tools to experiment with and put together the the right fighting style for tougher encounters.
A lot of the main story takes place off the grid in lengthy, varied dungeon crawls that create a sense of isolation and are a nice contrast to running around town doing odd jobs. There's always a hint that they're part of a slowly unraveling mystery, but this didn't save me from feeling like I was kind of being led by my nose with too thin of a connecting motivation. The places you get to explore along the way, from a secret lab full of mutant plants to a hidden civilization of cyborgs, are genuinely interesting and weave into a richly detailed world. It's just missing a smoother flow between them to save it from turning into a whirlwind tour that sometimes seems much less interested in why you're discovering these places than it is in the places themselves.
The huge, colorful cast of characters represents both one of Anno's most visible strengths and weaknesses. There's limited voice acting, but where it pops up, it's really well done. Especially Ann herself, voiced in English by the fantastic Suzie Yeung, who comes across as a confident and driven young woman trying to make sense of a mysterious and traumatic past. The dialogue writing itself, though, isn't quite as impressive. There are a lot of times where what's being spoken doesn't match up with the written captions on screen, and far too many conversations felt like rushed exposition that wasn't presented in a very naturalistic way.
Sometimes Anno simply throws too many new characters at you, often in one-off cutscenes that won't make any sense until much later in the 20-hour story. While some of the reveals are definitely cool and I like how they've put a weird, metaphysical spin on the cyberpunk genre, it felt like maybe the plot was a bit too intricate for its own good. It is trying to do too much, with too many cast members who don't get enough time to develop or make an impact. What little I saw of characters like Ann's snarky sister Nakamura or the moody cowboy Raymond made me want to get to know them better, but they're simply shuffled on and off the stage too quickly.
The one person you do get to spend plenty of time with is Ann's best friend Ayane. And, well, I love you girl, but you're just a bit much sometimes. The bubbly, manic, aggressively gay sidekick who follows you around in the form of a hologram is an effective foil to Ann's straightforward stoicism, but also reminds me of some of the overcaffeinated anime addicts I hung out with in college, and I often just wished I could tell her to tone it down a couple notches. In her defense, she does sometimes break out of being a living stereotype with moments of emotional depth.