Biomutant, appropriately, feels like the hybrid blend of so many existing games. But there’s more than a few evolutionary dead ends to deal with in this flawed creation.
It’s worth pointing out that the Credits for Biomutant are not large. If you take away the publisher support from THQ Nordic (and you should) then developer Experiment 101 consists of a frankly tiny number of people, and on top of that Biomutant is their first game and was supposedly in development since 2015 after the studio was founded.
What they’ve attempted to create is an open world action adventure game on par with the likes of Ubisoft, Warner Bros or even Nintendo; with some distinctly indie sensibilities. It’s one hell of an attempt. But they set some lofty targets that the best will in the world can’t guarantee they’ll hit.
Biomutant isn’t a bad game. I want to like it so much more than I do. But the systems underpinning a beautiful world just do not match up.
The world died. A long time ago, a company named Toxacol poisoned the water and the soil by dumping toxic waste. That toxic waste mutated the wildlife and world, while the humans fled on Arks to the safety of space. Now the wreckage of the human world is occupied by their final accidental creations, the titular Biomutants. It’s a very Green, very pointed narrative to start things off.
The various Biomutants live in a valley with the Tree of Life in the center, keeping the world going. You’re playing the long lost child of the leader of the tribe. Due to traumatic events in your past, the tribe was split into six smaller tribes in the past, and you were left wandering. Now the tree of life is dying because four World Eater Beasts are chewing on the roots. The six tribes are split between those who want it to die and usher some new world in, and those who want to preserve everyone and the tree.
This is the core of Biomutant. A tribe war consisting of six tribes, where you can unite with one to tip the balance in their favour, and four boss quests against giant monsters. All packaged in an open world and manipulated through third person action adventure combat and platforming.
It’s ambitious. The tribe war consists of multiple quests that evoke the likes of Far Cry, quests about taking over small outposts before moving on the faction base. The World Eater beasts are a set of quests to gather all the necessary gubbins to challenge them, then a showdown. Plus side quests, collectibles and exploring, with a Karma system, RPG elements, multiple types of transport to collect.
Biomutant put a lot of time and effort into maybe too many ideas. There’s a kernel of brilliance in some of them. Not much in others.
As the team themselves have described the game, it’s a Kung Fu Fable. Starting from there, that feels like it breaks down in two ways. The Mysticism/Cinema influenced writing and the martial arts/wuxia inspired combat.
I have multiple problems with the writing. Characters in the game all speak in a form of nattering vocalisation, rather than any actual language. It’s kind of cute, and the major characters each have their own slightly different style of speech. But for this to be translated to the player, it passes on to the Narrator. So conversations follow a pattern of NPC saying something in animal language, then narrator translating, then player selecting the next option.
It’s a surprisingly lengthy process, with the animal language portions having no subtitles until the narrator speaks. And then when he does speak, well.
Everything pre-apocalypse is “from the once was”, you buy guns from the “Pew Pew Seller” while going on a quest to the “Chug Chug yard”. A telephone is a “ring-dinger from the yesterdays”. Initially I thought this was a cute and clever way of handling the collapse of humanity. But the infantilised talk never stops.
It’s like having the audio track for Cbeebies accidentally play over a particularly weird nature documentary.
And then there’s the random interjections of the narrator. Hitting someone with a staff? “Way to stick it to them”. Using a powered glove? “You’ve got to Hand it to them”.
I am 100% behind comedy games. I also really like the voice actor for the narrator, David Parker-Shaw. His delivery is great, though him providing everybody’s voice does mean individuals can’t stand out. But the core problem is that a gag that’s funny to hear once isn’t guaranteed to be funny the hundredth time you hear it.
At ten hours in, the game offered a prompt to reduce the frequency of his interruptions. I nearly snapped the controller.
And worse than that? Being moralised at in ways a fortune cookie would be ashamed of. Just wandering the world? You clearly wanted to hear faux platitudes like “This is a story about a hero” or “Treasure the coming day, the world doesn’t have so many any more”.
It’s a feature that’s built into the core of the game. Very few conversations in Biomutant are actually conversations. Instead they’re often the NPC airing open ended questions around whether you’re doing the right thing. Or if there even can be a “right thing”. Again, initially thought provoking if a little trite. By the fourteenth time you hear it, less so. Even worse, you can’t normally repeat conversations. So if you’re confused by whatever proper noun has been replaced in a sentence by nonsense speak, hope you didn’t miss the one question in the game that would explain it.
You’re constantly given these prompts to reconsider your actions. But the game is mechanically laser focussed on one outcome. If you choose a single tribe, you have to wipe out/subjugate the others. There’s no way to go back, that I can see.
You ally with a faction and it immediately starts being clear about what that mechanically means for the end of the Tribe War.
The ribs and structure of this game are poking through the clothes. The Narrator literally explains the only way to get all the skills/tribal weapons is to take over each tribe. The game constantly preaches thoughtfulness and consideration of your actions. While guiding you down the path of your choice with no way off.
This is also reflected in the very twee karma system. Mechanically, there’s a clear focus. High level karma unlocks the ability to get high level psi powers.
Do good things, get good psi powers. Do bad things, get evil psi powers. It’s the traditional morality bar problem of having no material reason for choosing to split your focus. Beyond this, the Karma system resulted in one of the most frustrating elements of the game for me. When you finish certain side quest chains, you’re presented with a moral choice about people involved in the final plot element.
Except you never get to opt in on this or forewarning. And there are limited slots available. So every time you have one of these pop up, it’s give away one of four slots, or tell the person no.
Tell them no because you’ve not yet met all the side characters? Too bad. That was a karmically evil choice and now that person will never ask again. It’s infuriating.
The disconnect between the intended tone and effect of Biomutant, and what the player experiences stretches further than the writing though. As this is an action adventure game, the main interaction you’ll have with the world is combat.
The combat feels off. It’s a fairly conventional third person combat system built around simple button combos and weapon switching. Similar to a Ratchet and Clank or Jak and Daxter style of game.
But weapons often seem to have minimal impact, with feedback that doesn’t really have oomph. This is somewhat balanced by the additional aesthetic choices, like when comic style onomatopoeic dialogue boxes appear. But that creates its own problems.
Combat in Biomutant is busy. Really busy.
There’s an automatic over the shoulder camera that pulls in tight depending on what your actions/combat input is. (It only gets snagged on the dense environment about a quarter of the time) You’re generally fighting somewhere in the region of 4-6 enemies, with one of those being a big brawler and probably 2 having ranged weapons. Maybe one hovers!
Controlling this combat is hard. You have no hard lock on. If you use the thumbstick to point the camera near an opponent, the character will gently automatically target them with either close or ranged attacks while the camera tracks them. Unless you move around too quickly and lose the tracking. Your weapon sprays indiscriminately within those reticules, precision isn’t really a trait. Shooting feels underwhelming, especially at low levels.
How do you read the combat otherwise? Well obviously you’ve got your comic art style “thwacks” and “blams” that appear around enemies you strike enough. On top of that, let’s add some wavy lines above enemy heads that are your warning for incoming attacks. (hope the ranged ones aren’t off camera/you didn’t get too close to the larger enemy so it’s now off the top of the screen).
Sometimes you’ll get a button prompt for dodges or follow up attacks, so that’s an additional factor to look out for too. And then on top of that it’s just the general set up of watch the opponents move around and telegraph swings or prep special area attacks that have brighter colours or particle effects. You also need to be switching weapons or nailing combos to build your Wung Fu state. Get to this point and you’ll be able to unleash super moves that, to their credit, generally feel awesome to pull off.
It’s a lot of chaos. Which may be the biggest mark against it. Biomutant trades heavily in Kung Fu aesthetics, but it forgets that the most important part of that type of fantasy should be control. The player should feel like they own the fight. Here you take hits constantly from enemies off screen or get caught by attacks you can’t avoid. Even worse if you’re in an enclosed area.
In fights against bigger or less humanoid enemies, things are often better. These have less opponents and thus there’s less going on. You can really focus on nailing the combo/dodge flow that the designers wanted the player to experience. But unfortunately these aren’t the majority of engagements. On the other end of this bell curve though, the special boss fights against the World Eater Beasts are aggravating in the style of the worst AAA games. They can in theory be approached at any point in the game. So they have to be manageable at any level.
Having spent your time developing your skills in combat, learning the flow and mastering Wung Fu or combo timing, you have to sit through four gimmick fights that “may” feature the regular combat but due to the size and attack styles of the bosses heavily disincentivise melee combat. Hope you didn’t put all your points in strength! Like I did…
The game begins with your creating a Ronin style adventurer in a fairly conventional RPG fashion. You move skill points around, with these affecting your physical appearance. Focus on strength, you’ll develop a trapezoid-esque upper body. Focus on intellect and the head will swell. (this can be amended later in the game)
Every level lets you upgrade your base stats, as well as giving you points to upgrade elemental resistances or unlock perks. Collectible Bio-points come from certain areas of the game and allow you to get further active special powers.
Combat based moves like poison spit or a ground slam, or combat/mobility like sliding on a turtle shell, spawning a bouncy mushroom or creating a large water bubble around yourself. These are cool abilities, inventive and injecting a dynamic sense of control into the game. They also make no sense based on the general themes considering that Radiation is bad and killing the world. (Except when it gives you sick powerups)
Other than giving you xp or opportunities to collect those upgrade points though, Side quests are mostly just filler collections. Kill eleven bandit chiefs, all in near identical bases with identical attack patterns. Free 23 captives, all of whom will present you the same moral choice. Even the multiple types of puzzles in the game are some variant of match the colours on pattern in a set number of moves.
On the main quest lines, there’s a little variety at least. Take the outpost captures. They’re really just standalone missions that are very short and linear. One early one is that your Tribe’s scouts have found a nest of wasps under the outpost. So you continue along a tunnel, punching some wasp nests and beating up the outpost guards who are also there for some reason. It’s at least slightly varied, though the opportunity to end the tribe war early feels counterproductive as a result. You actively reduce the amount of game you can play.
Even further in my case because of a known bug, whole sections of the game were locked off to me. Because I ended the war early, I lost the option to collect the three other tribal weapons, each with a unique moveset. Additionally, this ended up meaning there were sections of the world of Biomutant that I had much less incentive to explore.
Of all of the design flaws, this may be the greatest. The aesthetics and world of Biomutant stand out more than any other element. Every creature in the game is a lumpy, misshapen mass of colourful fur or scales, both enemies or NPCs. The world itself is filled with the ruins of humanity, civilisation reclaimed by nature. Every scene is diffused with a soft ambient lighting while colours shift from the aquas of an island archipelago to the harsh reds of desert mesas to the deep greens and browns of an evergreen forest. Everything has the slightest tinge of South east Asian influences, and exploring is joyful.
The sound design follows the same cues, with the music shifting flawlessly between instrumentation for each biome. It never overpowers a scene, constantly shifting in prominence.
Even the sound design as a whole matches, with the nattering of creatures or the sounds of the world being some of the truly immersive elements of the game. Accordingly, the open world traversal mechanics that allow for the best experience of this beating aesthetic and soothing music are some of my favourite parts of Biomutant.
You’ve got a water based vehicle system, a whole Mech/Walker system and rideable mounts, which each have their own collection of cosmetic elements to find around the open world. These mounts are often the best moments in the game for me, mostly because they’re so far removed from the rest of the game. Just you and whatever deeply awful beast you’ve tamed riding along enjoying the landscape.
The walker though is another part that feels a little weird, as you’re fighting the same enemies you would on foot but without the combat abilities you’ve spent the whole game learning and upgrading. It’s just yet another example of yet another mechanic being implemented with minimal mechanical rationale for the player in the game itself.
That might be Biomutant’s worst offence. That it does many things inexpertly with not enough going on that feels special to counterbalance.
At its best, there are moments of blissful solitude in Biomutant where stirring music and the beautiful landscape sweep past as I ride my deeply hideous/lovable beast through the overgrown ruins of humanity. It’s hard not to appreciate the fact that a tiny team created such a sedate experience.
Then the narrator pipes up. Or I run into a batch of enemies that suddenly appear from off screen. The magic breaks and I’m back to remembering the game of it all.
I really look forward to what experiment101 makes next. I want to see more of their worlds and their ideas. But I hope the next game from them is mostly getting out of their own way and not trying to shove quite so much into one game. As it is, there’s more than enough for anyone to find something they like in Biomutant. They’re also likely to find something that frustrates them.