Swords, sprites and cyberpunk – exploring the world of ANNO: Mutationem

Sometimes, all it takes is a slight shift in perspective to make the familiar look fresh and new. ANNO: Mutationem deals in the sort of familiar cyberpunk staples we’ve all seen plenty of in recent months: the benighted city bathed in queasy neon, the collision of high technology, and urban malaise. But what separates this outing from other cyberpunk odysseys of its ilk is its almost seamless mix of 3D polygonal world and 2D, anime-style sprites.

As high-kicking mercenary Ann, you roam a high-tech city in pursuit of your missing brother, a quest that sees the tempo constantly shift from free-roaming adventure to side-scrolling brawler action. Armed with a gun, laser sword, and an array of combat moves, Ann makes for a formidable protagonist – and more than up to the task of fighting off the hordes of henchmen and what appear to be zombie lizards lined up in her path.

Keen to find out more about this unique-looking hybrid of 2D, 3D, cerebral adventuring, and reflex-testing combat, we caught up with lead producer Zhang Pingwen, lead artist Zhang Jian, and community manager Martho Ghariani to chat about their work-in-progress.

Can you talk a bit about how the project got started? Did it begin as a cyberpunk game, or has its backstory/setting changed over time?

Zhang Pingwen: When we started out, we had this idea for a pixel-style, roguelike game inspired by titles like Dead Cells. Cyberpunk is a style most of us really dig, so while working on prototypes, the idea of 2D pixels and 3D gameplay came together and we decided to change the course to a plot-rich action-adventure game.

All told, there are 24 developers working on ANNO: Mutationem, with a few extra contractors handling sound and music

Zhang Jian: [Zhang Pingwen], a colleague of mine who I’d worked with years back called me and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to make a pixel game together?’ I was super-thrilled, and that’s how it started. Starting out, we wanted to make an action game similar to games like Dead Cells, or older stuff like Castlevania. But when our first prototype was done, we didn’t really take to it as we had hoped. 

This started a long process of reconsidering what we should do. About this time, the new Blade Runner movie came out, and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ We took a world of cyberpunk and used some inspiration from the awesome SCP [an online collaborative fiction project] to infuse it all with a sense of the uncanny and the eerie.

The cityscapes look amazing. Are these based on research into real locations?

ZJ: As you may have seen, our game features different cities, and all these have their own style. Noctis is your more recognisable Forever-Night-Mega-Towers-Dark-Alleyways cyberpunk trope – gotta have it – whereas the other towns, for example, the one where the main character lives, is more based on a European style. Also, the sun actually shines there!

To get back to your question, it’s more like a mix of places I’ve been to, combined with stuff we made up alongside creating the cityscapes. We’re aiming for a mix of different styles in one world.

Like last month’s Demon Turf, ANNO: Mutationem uses Unity to blend 2D sprites and 3D environments

The mix of 2D and 3D assets creates a unique feel of old and new – how did this come about? Did a lot of experimentation go into that?

ZJ: I cannot express the hours of experimenting we did on this in a numerical value! A lot. When we decided to adopt cyberpunk for our game world, we found out that pure cyberpunk is actually pretty hardcore, and while there’s obviously a big market for this, we wanted to go in a direction that would be a bit broader, and so I decided to use the style of Japanese anime, which you can see clearly in the looks and the interactions between the main character and her friend. Because I love that style, but also because we think players will like this.

The 2D part really adds to the ‘retro’ feel of the game – a lot of our core members are roughly the same age, in their 30s, and so have grown up with these types of games, whether on the PC, NES, SNES, or what have you, and so it’s cool to make use of this while at the same time doing new stuff with it. 

The game’s campaign can be completed in about eight hours if you blast through it, but will be closer to twelve hours if you take on side quests

Adding the Z axis, which makes 3D movement possible in adventure mode, is something that looks real cool, [and] that people seem to like, but at the same time also created a whole world of challenges. That’s mostly because you’re working with 2D sprites in a 3D world, so the camera usage always needs to be in the back of your head because it leads to certain design limitations that you wouldn’t have in full 3D. For example: ‘OK, that character just disappeared from sight since the angle is wrong – let’s try that again,’ or ‘I’d like to change the camera, but we didn’t prepare for that angle.’ 

One fun thing is that you can really be creative: we added some cutscenes and interactions where you switch to a first-person view for a short time, which is kind of a surprise because that’s not the first thing you associate with pixels.

How would you describe the plot, and how do the zombie lizards we see in the game fit into it?

Martho Ghariani: Our plot revolves around our main character, Ann, who’s working as a kind of mercenary together with her hacker friend, Ayane. You start out in your apartment but get a call to check out your sister’s bar in another part of town. When she gets there, she realises her brother Ryan has gone missing and sets out to go and find him. In no time, you’ll find yourself chased by this criminal organisation, watched by a mysterious character that keeps popping up. Trying to find where Ryan went pulls Ann and her friend deeper and deeper into a dark and inexplicable world.

The zombie lizard: I can’t say too much about that, but what I can say is these types of bosses and enemies will be a common sight in the game, and they’ll tie together with a central part of the plot. And they’ll hurt you.

The skyscrapers and neon are things we’ve seen plenty of times before, but other, very different, locations will open up as you progress

It’s refreshing to see a female protagonist in a cyberpunk game like this – what sort of work went into designing her?

ZJ: I’m a big fan of female characters in games. A [couple] of my favourites are Claire from Resident Evil, and [Bayonetta], the protagonist of Bayonetta – I have a feeling I’m not alone! Ann had tons of versions before we reached the final one. The same goes for Ayane, although you don’t control her, she’ll pop up through a hologram several times. One of the things we’re spending a lot of time on is the animations, as well as the different clothes for Ann, which you’ll see pretty quickly in the game. Although resources are limited with pixel art – you can’t just swap one costume on the model for another, but have to redo basically the whole thing – we had to add this in both for the story and also just because it’s fun.

Ann has a lot of cool moves in the game. Are these things we’ll be able to add to and upgrade over time, RPG-style?

MG: Yes! We have a full-blown Talent System where you can use your experience points to acquire new skills or get better stats. Apart from that, we have a weapon system in place as well, so you can buy different types of weapons – both cosmetically different as well as functionally different weapons, sword/double swords and guns – which you can upgrade. Then there’s your wide array of buffs through items and grenades you can use in battle with different elements: ice for freezing enemies or fire to burn them.

What sort of scale and scope can we expect from the game? It looks as though 2.5D action segments are joined by more open areas in places. Is that the case?

MG: Correct! The game’s divided into 3D sections where you can explore and roam freely, as well as 2D sections where you’ll do the hacking, shooting, jumping, and overall ass-kicking. At the start, these are divided kind of clearly – sometimes you have an encounter in a city and you’ll switch to combat mode – but as you progress, you’ll find areas that swap between the two, combining exploring with action, or you can see them as a break after some intense combat. You can then see if you can find items, clues, or what have you.

What’s been the most challenging element you’ve faced in ANNO: Mutationem so far?

ZP: One of the strengths of our game is also the biggest challenge: combining a lot of different elements together into a whole, and by whole, we mean a fun unity of different elements that tell a compelling story in a rich world that players like to hang around in. That’s what we’re working hard to achieve with our first title, and hopefully, we won’t disappoint our players.

Finally, what’s left to do before the game’s release? Do you have any post-launch plans you can talk about?

MG: Still quite a bunch [of things]. We just finished recording the Chinese voice-overs, and we’re now preparing for the localisation process, including the English and Japanese voice-overs. Apart from languages, we have tons of polishing to do, which will take up most of autumn. It’s a lot of long hours, but it’s cool to see our game improving almost per week. 

Hopefully, in the end, we’ll manage to not disappoint everybody who’s looking forward to the game – and perhaps interest some newcomers in the world of ANNO: Mutationem.

Genre: Action RPG | Format: PC  /  PS4  /  PS5 | Developer: ThinkingStars | Publisher: Lightning Games | Release: TBC 2021 | Social: @AnnoMuta

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