There’s a sort of magic and a sort of frustration in small town life. Everyone knows everyone – and you certainly notice when new people arrive. You notice who comes and goes, and identify streets by the people who live on them. Sometimes, while out to grab a couple things, you find yourself pulled into conversation with someone who knows your family and wants to catch up. Actually, it’s not sometimes – it’s often. Somehow the other side of town knows your big plans before you’ve even run into anyone there. Everyone knows everyone, and everything gets noticed. You can watch whirlwind romances kick up – or sometimes flounder. Listen to the gossip about who’s drinking too much, or who said what at the local diner. Chat with everyone as you pass by. There’s a kind of camaraderie that pulls people together, and when you’re leaving the bonfire or bar at closing time, the night is more peaceful than scary.
The most incredible thing about Die Gute Fabrik’s Mutazione is how it captures this feeling.
When I receive a game code, I usually rush to play as much as I can before release. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s easy. With Mutazione, it’s impossible, but not for the usual reason. It’s simply just such a nostalgic, relaxing experience, that I don’t want to rush through it. It’s the first game in a long time that I want to slowly experience. Playing Mutazione feels like a fantastical reimagining of the village dynamic I grew up with. Starting up the game after a long day feels just a little bit like returning home for a little while, to a new family of mutants and strange things beyond my wildest imaginings. I want to fully enjoy it – not finish as fast as I can. In fact, it might be the first review game where I’ve really felt that way, and it’s rather magical.
Mutazione puts the player in the place of 15-year old Kai. When her grandfather becomes gravely ill, she must travel to her mother’s old village, Mutazione, to care for him. Mutazione is not just any village, however – it’s a small place with a tragic history. Over a hundred years ago, this once-famed holiday resort was struck by a meteor. Most of the inhabitants died. Those who did not were afflicted with strange mutations – a state that drove visitors away and drove the small community to become isolated and self-sufficient. Kai’s mother eventually left to the mainland and, though Kai is no stranger to the villagers who have heard about her in letters and stories, everything and everyone is new to Kai. Here, in this isolated place, she will need to do what she can to help her grandfather recover, while uncovering the secrets and sorrows of this small, quiet community.
There’s also a bit of mystery at play as well – as Kai spends more time in Mutazione, she continues to have strange dreams and visions. Her grandfather – a well-known shaman – also hints that maybe there is more going on than she knows about just yet. Day by day, you’ll uncover more strange details, moving ever closer to the truth.
Most of your gameplay takes place in two forms. Each morning, afternoon, and evening you’ll have some primary tasks to complete – sometimes it’s just to talk to someone, others you’ll have to gather an item or run an errand. Along the way, you can stop and listen to or chat with the townspeople. Sometimes it’s interactive, and others you’ll hear bits of conversation that unfold more and more of the lives and relationships of Mutazione’s citizens. The second mechanic is one I haven’t run into before in gaming – you progress the game through gardening. Throughout the game, you’ll obtain seeds. Some are picked up along the way from wild plants, while others are gifts. Each plant has a perfect place to grow and each garden is best suited for a type of environment. Songs will help them grow faster, and over time Kai will learn new songs to play for her gardens. The plants are used for everything from Ailin’s bathhouse to cheering up Miu. When I first heard about this, I wondered if it might be boring, but the combination of planting and music is lovely and calming, and it’s become a part of the game I truly enjoy.
Mutazione’s small map is lovely and certainly looks the part of a small town built out of old ruins – you can still find old buildings being taken over by plant-life and the remnants of a life long gone. Unfortunately, it’s also the cause for one of the things I’m most torn about in the game. On one hand, I love the realism of being able to run into and engage with various townspeople on your way anywhere. Everyone has some favourite places, but sometimes you’re surprised by where you find them. On the other, sometimes it gets tiring doing so much running back and forth through town, even if it’s lovely. Faster travel – even if only to the next screen – would help make life a little faster, especially for those unfortunate times when you get lost trying to find someone or something. Or even a hint, when characters are in randomized locations, for where they might be.
That’s just one small detail though in a game that otherwise has some pretty lovely UX design. Everything’s intuitive and easy to play and enjoy, and some small details were surprisingly enjoyable. For example, I read too quickly for my own good, and quite often I’ve gotten in the bad habit of clicking repeatedly through dialogue because games move so much slower than I read. I loved Mutazione’s dialogue layout, where if you accidentally click too soon, you can still read what was just said. Small details like that make for a much better experience – they’re things I didn’t realize how much I loved and wanted until I found a game that had them. Additionally, it’s easy to click on where you want to go to, or who you want to speak with or what you want to touch, and Kai will begin moving there automatically. While Mutazione is compatible with controller, mouse and keyboard is definitely the way to go for this one – you’ll have a much better time moving around town, I promise.
I will caution that this is a slow game, where the story builds up in bits and pieces. If you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, this may not be your speed. For me, it’s a lovely treat because it truly lets you come to know and care about the characters in this strange, slow place. So many of the interwoven stories of Mutazione probably wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t delicately, softly woven together in the way that they are.
Mutazione is out now, available on Apple Arcade, PS4, Steam, itch.io, GoG, and GameJolt!