Arrowiz, the Shanghai-based development team behind 2021's Hermitage: Strange Case Files, returns to Nintendo Switch with a determined attempt to replicate the general rhythm and vibe of Atlus' all-conquering Persona series in the form of Mato Anomalies. This is an RPG that throws a whole bunch of ideas and gameplay mechanics at the player but, unfortunately, it all comes unstuck due to clunky writing, uninspiring combat mechanics and environmental design that quickly becomes repetitive.
Thrown into a neo-futuristic Shanghai cityscape pulled straight out of the likes of Blade Runner, players assume the role of two protagonists: Doe, a hard-boiled private detective who deals in out-thinking his adversaries, and Gram, his mysterious exorcist sidekick who gets to do all the fighting. Working as a team, the duo set out to investigate a series of strange anomalies affecting the city, bringing them face to face with demonic entities known as the Bane Tide.
Over the course of the pair's investigations, they'll join forces with a handful of other rebels, which eventually makes for a party of four fighters in the game's turn-based battles, all of which take place in themed lairs, this game's version of Persona 5's Palaces. Dungeons are themed around the trials and tribulations of the character you're working to either save or stop — the very first lair takes the form of a twisted stock exchange, whilst later efforts see the struggles of the underclass writ large across the backdrop or fights taking place in a huge floating theatre that's linked to a trapped celebrity.
Mato Anomalies really does throw everything and the kitchen sink into the mix here in an attempt to engage the player. The story is told via a comic strip-style series of cutscenes, and the gameplay has you engage in both turn-based battles and mind-hacking segments which take the form of a card game. There are some neat ideas here, but the incredibly heavy-handed writing — which deals chiefly in inane technobabble and philosophising — made it almost impossible for us to connect with the adventure or make much sense out of it. There are moments where the game threatens to turn into something approaching good, but the narrative really does take on far too many ideas. There are too many disparate themes, characters, ideas and factions to keep track of, meaning you might struggle to maintain focus or stay invested. It also doesn't help that a lot of the exposition is groan-worthy stuff that prefers constant hyperbole over taking the time to explain itself coherently.
So, the story isn't for us, but we've still got the turn-based combat and that card game element to fall back on, right? Well, not really. Unfortunately, the combat is fairly dull and incredibly basic when compared to the games that it seeks to emulate. It has all the usual turn-based RPG pieces in place; the weapons and skill trees, upgrades, special powers and so on, but it's all so heavily repetitive and clunky. Your enemies are underwhelming in both appearance and in their ability to fight you, your special attacks are too slow to replenish and uninspiring when activated, and the lairs you work your way through are made up of simplistic environmental puzzles that very quickly become an absolute grind to work through.
And, oh boy, will you have to work through them, as Mato Anomalies tasks you with repeatedly returning to the same lairs over and over and over again, particularly in the first ten or so hours. This constant repetition feeds into issues with how you explore its overworld. The futuristic Shanghai can look good in places with some nice backdrops here and there, but many of the areas are tiny, and you'll have to backtrack through these countless times as you work through banal missions simply to indulge in uninspired conversations. We quickly opted to skip all the side quests and fast travel to areas to get through the narrative segments and into the next battle as quickly as possible.
Moving onto the card game sequences, every now and again, you'll need to use your mind-hacking powers to break down a stubborn enemy or informant in order to further the story, reveal a secret or pinpoint the location of your next face-off with the Bane Tide. These card sequences are where Mato Anomalies show the most promise. There are several sets of cards to unlock, each of which adheres to a different style of breaking down your foe's subconscious.
As you attempt to whittle your opponent's mental score to zero by using persuasion attacks, you'll also have the chance to bulk up your defence or add special effects to your current deck of cards. Whilst doing this, you'll need to factor in several random anomalies, annoying regenerating bugs that appear during mind-hacks and give your enemy various buffs. They'll add extra attacks to defend against, redirect your assaults to random targets or steal your attack power and add it to your opponent's for their next turn. These anomalies need to be vanquished if you're to stand any chance of victory, so you need to split your attention between them and your main target, keeping in mind that, once you've defeated an anomaly, it will return after a set number of turns.
On paper, it's a reasonably solid set-up for a card game, and we occasionally found ourselves getting quite involved in these sequences. However, as with everything else in the game, it quickly grows tiresome. Mental battles can often feel insurmountable with the various anomalies that you need to defeat in order to attack your foe, making for scenarios that very quickly grow frustrating and tedious. The idea is a good one but the execution just isn't there.
In terms of performance, we didn't run into too many issues in our 20+ hours with the game. There are a few framerate hiccups here and there in lairs — something that's due to be addressed with a day one patch — and we encountered some freezing and the odd glitch as we transitioned to new areas or loaded into sequences. But overall in both docked and handheld modes, Mato Anomalies puts in a solid shift.
For a dev team that has previously developed VR games and a budget Lovecraftian visual novel, Mato Anomalies feels like a big step up. It's an ambitious indie attempt to fuse a bunch of enticing gameplay mechanics alongside a sci-fi narrative that should be thoroughly entertaining, and we can't deny the commitment here. There are occasional glimmers of good stuff and the campaign is a big undertaking that features two endings for those who find themselves engaged. However, there's no escaping the shortcomings — the combat just isn't engaging, the card game elements are more frustrating than they are entertaining and the narrative struggles, lacking spark and faltering under the weight of far too many ideas, heavy-handed writing and weak characterisation.
Mato Anomalies is an ambitious indie attempt to create a Persona-like RPG romp through neo-futuristic Shanghai. There's no shortage of good ideas in the mix here, with flashes of inspiration in the fusing of turn-based dungeon combat, mind-hacking card games and stylish visual novel elements. However, for all the ambition on display, it's let down by uninspired combat, repetitive level design, clunky exploration, frustrating card mechanics and writing that just never manages to engage. This one's not entirely without merit, but overall it's an experience that'll test your patience far more than it manages to entertain.