Role-playing games have come a long way since the golden era of gaming, merely having a simple foundation of a story, usually, a group tasked to save the world from a menacing wizard or a threatening dragon while respecting turn order. Since then, it's not always a "dragon" that a player must face. Sometimes it's a larger-than-life villain who needs to be knocked down a peg. Other games tend to combine action and role-playing games, some more "action" than others, like Star Ocean. Then there are games in which I don't have a specific genre to tie it to, outside of what makes an "RPG," an "RPG." This is what I felt when playing Mato Anomalies, but before I dive a bit deeper I want to give thanks to Prime Matter and the developers at Arrowiz for giving me a chance to review this interesting piece of media.
Beginning with its namesake, the city of Mato evokes feelings of nostalgia as well as futurism. The protagonist, Doe, is dressed up like the best "Herlock Sholmes" I've ever seen, with environments being run-down neighborhoods, seedy wealthy high-class venues, and the working class who must endure it all. The technology certainly screams "cyberpunk," but everything else is a more mellow mid-1900s-style appearance. The music for each section of Mato adds to the wonderous appeal, with soft muted background music that gives off a feeling of elevation. While Doe is relatively safe above ground, I couldn't help but feel as if turning a corner I would be met by a ruffian or other unpleasantries.
This is exactly what happens to Doe in the very beginning of Mato Anomalies where he is "encouraged" by one of his handlers, Nightshade, to investigate an occurrence at the harbor. Upon entering, Doe gets trapped in a world separate from Mato, in which enemies surround him and he's unable to defend himself. A mysterious man named Gram saves him and Doe is informed that this world is known as a "Lair," a world where demons run amok. Nothing else is known about them except for a product known as HANDOUT, which has a connection with these Lairs.
It's also quickly revealed that there are those who know of Lair's existence and wish to use the power of the Lair to take over the city. Here is where the game splits into two different experiences, Doe and Gram. The majority of the action takes place under Doe, a private investigator who chooses brain over brawn. The player controls Doe throughout Mato, talking to various NPCs and vendors while fulfilling side quests and main quests. Gram is exclusively controlled while in the Lair and it's here that the game turns into a dungeon crawler. Each Lair has a predetermined enemy placement, meaning there are no random encounters.
Initially, Gram is alone yet eventually, he finds more fighters within the Lair who decide to join forces rather than continue to foolishly go alone. A party can have a maximum of four members yet they can be swapped around accordingly. Each character shares the same health bar and level known as the party level. This means that all characters will have the same number of skill points invested, but it also means that if the party's health goes to zero, it's game over.
On each turn, a party member can use one of their skills, followed by a cooldown timer in which the skill can be used again. This eliminates "MP," "SP," or any other secondary resource. Depending on how a player distributes their skill points, even the cooldowns may be circumvented. There are a lot of potential synergies and once the player gets a handle on the combat, it becomes less complicated to keep everyone alive. At the end of each Lair, the player continues the main story until they fight the chapter boss, which usually has a built-in mechanic for the player to solve.
Doe doesn't rest on his laurels however as he also has his own combat mechanic. While Doe cannot fight (nor hold his liquor), he has the gift of gab and technology on his side. At certain points in the story, Doe can engage in argumentative conflicts in order to extract information from his targets. Here, the game switches from a "classic turn-based RPG" to a "deck builder RPG." Doe picks from a deck, representing a member of his team, as a way to form his argument. Gram's deck relies on card combos while Butterfly's deck overwhelms the opponent with residual damage each turn.
At the beginning of Doe's turn, a number appears on the top determining how much damage Doe will take. Accompanying the target are "inner demons" that give Doe a debuff should they remain in play. One demon may block one of Doe's attacks each turn while another will heal the host for the amount of damage dealt to Doe. It becomes a matter of eliminating the annoying demons first before working on the host. This combination of "deck building RPG" for the non-violent Doe and "classic turn-based RPG" for the fighters offers a sense of duality not common in games that like to mix it up.
Yurukill remains one of my favorite adventure titles for combining a point-and-click adventure title with a shoot-em-up mechanic, simply because it dared the developer to take two unlikely pairings and make them work. It's like the person who invented "Peanut Butter & Banana" sandwiches when everyone else was used to "Peanut Butter & Jelly." It's a delicious combination that one doesn't think to put together, and yet when it does it's near perfect.
While Mato Anomalies may be a slow burn and its dialogue choices may be a bit difficult to follow, the overall theme of a cyber-dystopian world mixed with supernatural entities are always great to see when done successfully. For players who wish to find themselves in an immersive world that is just as enthralling as it is dangerous, Mato Anomalies may be one of 2023's underrated games for the first quarter of the year.
Mato Anomalies is available on the Nintendo Switch, Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5