So We Ride Again...To Another End...
Biomutant seemed, at first glance, like something that I could really get into. While little kung-fu critters aren’t exactly what I would call my ‘style,’ it was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic setting with such vibrancy of color and reckless variety of creatures (aside from your average horribly mutated monster). The combat seemed promising as well — I was in high school the last time anyone pitched me a video game with animals doing stylish martial arts, and I’m almost certain that game got lost to time and runaway ambitions.
The premise is decent: a post-apocalyptic world in which humans were wiped away by the corporate nuclear disaster of their design, and only mutated, complex, and fully armed mammals remain. The world is revitalized by an aptly-named Tree of Life, tribes have formed with their own ideological frameworks, and tiny towns have popped up from lakeside landings to deep forests. It’s all decorated with an emergent style that ostensibly coasts between the remnants of the human race and their own mammalian imagination. You, as the player, choose from a few familiar RPG classes, and depending on how your stats are distributed, the look of your character changes significantly.
In terms of performance, Biomutant can be a little challenging. The intro mission locked up at one point, freezing my monitor so badly that the only way to get out of the game was to hard restart the computer. It has frozen up and crashed a few times, and the graphics can get sort of nauseating while in motion, but otherwise it runs smoothly while pushing max settings on my seven-year-old PC. A bit of an all or nothing situation here. From what I can tell the game is somewhat of a memory hog, so for the most unobstructed experience I would suggest not having much else open in the background.
Speaking of backgrounds, one of the biggest strengths of Biomutant is the environment itself. Visually, the world is pretty stunning and the swathe of forests, abandoned human infrastructure, and dynamic lighting coalesce into some striking vistas, even if some of the finer details flatten out up close. I spent a lot of time with the in-game photo mode, looking at this world at its best angles and kind of seeing what Experiment 101 was probably going for.
Unfortunately, for all its surprisingly thoughtful design, the world is mostly empty. Among abandoned cities and homes are treasures to be found — mostly in the form of health packs, clothing, and pieces of stuff used to upgrade weapons and armor. And that’s kind of it! Occasionally there will be packs of enemies, every once in a while a really simple puzzle to solve, and even more rarely will there be someone with anything worthwhile to say.
The overall theme of Biomutant is absolutely soaking in East Asian aestheticism, which makes it all the more jarring whenever David Shaw Parker’s whimsical narration kicks in. Originally, the narrator was supposed to become less and less frequent as the player explored more of the world and gained experience, which I suppose makes sense. Experiment 101 has since patched the game to include more freedom in choosing when and how often the narrator speaks, although bringing that slider down to zero doesn’t quite get rid of him completely, which is what I wanted.
It’s not that the quality of the narration isn’t good, it’s just totally unnecessary. None of the characters in this game speak for themselves — it’s all translated by the narrator while they make random noises, as though there isn’t a common language among even creatures of the same species. By paraphrasing each and every conversation, it removes a lot of agency from the NPCs that could perhaps make the story more interesting or engaging.
The story itself is fairly strong in concept, but weak in execution. At the forefront are three dilemmas: rival tribes are vying for control over the fate of their little world, giant monsters are eating the roots of the Tree of Life, and the brute who killed the player’s parents and destroyed his home is still out on the loose. Also, the player has amnesia. I’ve got problems with all of these concepts separately, but the fact that they bump against each other like a bunch of fish in a bucket rather than coalesce into something more meaningful is my main complaint.
The tribes all have two main mission statements: how the other tribes should be dealt with, and how the tree-eating monsters should be dealt with. Some tribes want to destroy the other tribes, some want to unite. Some tribes want to vanquish the monsters and save the tree, and some want to let them eat away at that life-giving source, presumably just to see what happens.
None of this matters. I threw in early with the Extremely Dark tribe, who wants to destroy every other tribe in a quest for supremacy. In my rampage across other tribes’ lands and forts, I always made the decision to unite their leaders with my own. When this main quest was unexpectedly cut short by a simultaneous surrender of every remaining tribe, I accepted it and integrated them into my own, thus completely undermining that baseline ideology I was initially given to choose my ally appropriately. My tribe leader’s disposition ricocheted between pride in my non-specifically-stated actions and the original notion of superiority. I suppose freedom in action is preferable, especially in an open world game, but when it makes no tangible difference in how that world reacts to you, who cares?
Dealing with the monsters eating the Tree of Life is a little more straightforward, though again the actions available to the player are limited compared to the story presented. Although some of the tribes – including the one I chose to ally with – want to let the monsters be, there doesn’t seem to be a way to do that, unless by perhaps ignoring that chain of quests until a certain part of the story, but it’s unclear. There’s also a quest that comes up later that involves a rocketship to leave the New World in case it ends, with the option to invite certain NPCs to come with you. The outlook is not optimistic.
Most of the writing is repetitive, aimless, or confusing. It’s like an unseasoned dinner — it does what it’s supposed to do, but am I enjoying it? It could be a lot better! The dialogue trees are often strangely worded and unorganized, and it’s not clear when the conversation is about to end. A lot of platitudes are thrown around, everyone having the same thing to say to the player regardless of alignment. At some point I burned down a village and slaughtered its enraged villagers because I was instructed to do so (without much preamble or opportunity to object) and still, every conversation with any significant NPC is about how my heart is in the right place, and I have the power to change the world, and this is a hero’s story! It’s not, and I’ve made that very clear!
The only apparent metric of morality in this game is a scale of Light and Dark actions, a spectrum between all or somewhat either way. This seems to mostly serve to gate off certain abilities and has a slight effect on character interactions, otherwise it’s easily nudged one way or the other. The easiest way to get back into karma’s good graces is to pet a creature or help up the captive pilgrim rather than open-hand slapping him across the face. A bit insignificant, and while I can see the bigger system it plays into, a more robust response to the player character’s actions would make this world come alive.
For a game so willing to illustrate its grim premise with words like nuclear waste and apocalypse, and the volatile gas that filled the air and soaked the land, to the toxic runoff that came up through the ground and spoiled the waters, there’s a disappointing lack of meaningful exploration into any of those topics. It’s a missed opportunity; this setting seems comfortable with the heavy topics, yet it only just scratches the surface.
Instead, it’s juxtaposed with a lot of cutesy replacement words, like mooma and popsi and, you know, putting the pew-pews into the bangbitsky jupspitko. This clash of tone, generally harsh pacing, and weak animation makes a lot of the scenes that are supposed to be emotionally resonant feel kind of silly.
The high points of Biomutant are only truly realized when you really dig into its fantastic combat systems. There’s a huge diversity of long-range and short-range weapons, from guns to swords to a really big fist. In complete tandem with the weapons is the martial arts system which is robust in the way not dissimilar to a fighting game — packing a lot of moves into a limited set of keys, with prompts on screen so the player won’t have to rely solely on their memory of which combination of keys do what. Weapons are customizable from the top down, and can be enhanced with elemental effects. It’s very fluid, each combat element smoothly switching between each other and a full range of motion around the space, so you can kind of just go crazy. Personally, I chose the mage class and that introduced a new group of magic-based attacks to use. The variety of skills that I got to throw around as a Psi-Freak (yeah) was actually pretty impressive, and it seems as though the other classes have a similar spread.
The customizing and crafting is also expansive. Weapons are able to be crafted and recrafted and customized with materials found around the world of varying quality, rarity, and effects. There are slots for armor all over the player, and masks that are mostly either for surviving the hot/cold/irradiated zones, or pure aesthetic. And so, so many hats.
Overall, Biomutant is rough, and I had a hard time getting into it. It takes a while for the player to escape the tutorial stage, which has a lot of tedious explanations, grating voice acting, and overeager gameplay prompts – a prompt to open a door to get into a room with a prompt to open the door to get into the next room, – so I had time to marinate in all that initial resentment. I hated it for a while, actually, between the narration, the dialogue, this guy:
However, I did come to love it a little bit. It’s a fun world to explore, and while it doesn’t really have surprises, moving around in it is relaxing and the combat is fun. I want to be honest, but I also want to give credit where it’s due. There’s a lot of promise here, especially because the fundamental aspects of the game stand strong, and the weakest parts are some of the most easily fixable parts. Everyone wants to make an open-world RPG, and Biomutant didn’t quite hit the mark, but it has a lot of heart, a lot of thoughtful design, some really creative designs, and I’m genuinely excited to see what Experiment 101 makes next.