Biomutant, what are you, really?
I’ve spent upwards of 35 hours tromping around developer Experiment 101’s beautiful world. I’ve listened to thousands of lines of dialogue, leveled up my mutant raccoon-thing with psionics and resistances and custom-crafted gear. I’ve felled massive, unusually fluffy bosses, ended a tribal war fueled by dueling and unexpectedly nuanced ideologies, and saved the whole, entire world.
It’s been a long journey, but I’ve seen much of what Biomutant has to offer. And yet for all of that, I’m still not entirely clear on what this story was about or how it was shaped by various turns of the plot. Even the game itself is a bit of an enigma. I’ve dubbed the vibe it exudes “Ghost of Cuteshima,” since it plays a lot like Sucker Punch’s superb PlayStation game, except everything is furry and kind of creepy-adorable and named things like “Hoof Puff.” (Also, the presence of sifus and “Wung-Fu” is more of a nod to Chinese martial arts.)
What the heck are you, Biomutant?
At the most basic level, this is an action role-playing game where you punch and shoot things in order to level up, obtain new powers, and pick up sweet loot that’s color-coded by rarity. A lot of the treasures you find are parts, and it’s up to you to sift through all the handles and scopes and grips and magazines to piece together the zany-looking gun, sword, club, or whatever other killing tool of your dreams.
These are things I generally like in my games, and they definitely have some sticky qualities here. Building your own enemy-stomping tools out of a pile of parts never gets old, especially with Biomutant‘s steady cadence of useful loot drops — and lack of inventory restrictions, meaning you won’t ever see a “You can’t carry anymore” message — opening the door to a staggering number of possible combinations (think millions).
Building up that inventory is its own kind of thrilling, too, thanks to Biomutant‘s yawning and dazzlingly colorful world. The setting is never made explicitly clear, but it’s obvious enough that we’re wandering around some distant-future version of Earth. It’s equally clear (in fact, stressed repeatedly) that dirty energy led to a climate catastrophe that cost humans their home, clearing the way for the planet’s mutated and newly intelligent animal population to become the dominant sentient beings.
What the heck are you, ‘Biomutant’?
I never got tired of rounding a bend and coming across the crumbling ruins of an ancient gas station or the charred remains of a burned-out power plant, seemingly appearing right out of the natural growth. This is an Earth that’s only partially reclaimed. As you wander and explore, you’re constantly discovering clever little twists on the familiar as you come to understand how the natural order asserted itself once again in a post-humanity Earth.
Some of the threats you encounter are passive reminders of how badly the planet’s extinct ruling species fucked things up. Suffocating stretches of radiation, heat, cold, and the like blanket stretches of land, making them unsafe to explore without protection. But contaminated areas are also sometimes where the most appealing rewards — and key quest objectives — lie in wait, so figuring out that protection is part of the puzzle.
The more active threats you encounter take on a variety bipedal and quadrupedal forms, and they’re meant to carry the load on keeping your quests and treasure hunts interesting. Some are wild beasts that just wander the land doing their thing. Others are territorial bandits or hostile tribes. Whatever their form and function in the world, coming across a group always leads to a fight.
This is one spot where Biomutant falters. Combat is a mix of melee action and gunplay, with some psionic and/or mutant powers thrown in for players who build their character in those directions. Whatever your chosen form of attack is, however, it lacks a sense of impact. Enemies sustain damage and their health bar empties, but visually they simply absorb that punishment and keep on doing their “I’m gonna kill you” thing.
Watching a health bar drain as your only measure of progress in a fight just isn’t all that exciting. It can work in a game like Diablo 3 where you’re facing down enormous mobs and wiping them out by the dozens with big, effects-heavy attacks. But here in Biomutant, where you’ll rarely fight more than a dozen foes at once, it ends up feeling like a slog. Especially once you start taking on the bigger beasts and bosses, which seem to just sponge up the damage until they’re finished.
The problems run deeper than that, though. Simply, Biomutant tries to do too much. There’s a “save the world” plotline that sees you hunting down four massive Worldeater bosses that are slowly destroying the planet-anchoring Tree of Life. Then there’s the tribal war where you have to pick a side and conquer territories one by one. Finally, there’s a personal vengeance story involving your character’s dead mother and the creature that killed her. It’s a lot.
These three threads are all loosely connected, but they unfold separately and don’t entirely depend on one another. At one point late in the game, a character admonished me for solving the tribal war problem before I tackled the Worldeaters. This is despite the fact that the introductory stretch of Biomutant pushes you directly into the war, pretty much telling you in the process that uniting the tribes will be the best way to tackle the Worldeater problem.
At least, that’s what I think was going on. This is what bugged me the most about Biomutant: At any given moment, I had no real idea of where I was in the plot. The game’s script is flooded with oblique names for conventional things, like if that one South Park scene was turned up to 11. It’s not a decimated house, it’s a Fixer-Upper. It’s not a dilapidated cemetery, it’s the Goneforevermore.
Then there are the nonsense words. I’ve been to places like Flibberdit and Mambleklump and Shaftiloo. I’ve sought out Gnoats and Boompoo. Imagine processing information like the paragraph below, but for 35 hours. (Potential spoiler removed. I think? Really, who even knows?)
It’s a lot. There’s also a morality play going on where literal manifestations of Light and Dark pop out of the ether to critique your dialogue choices with other characters — choices which do seem to shape the world in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, hard as they can be to follow. In fact, Light and Dark are two of only three voices in total that speak a known human language all throughout.
That third speaker, the narrator voiced by David Shaw Parker (who must be so very tired), is a whole other situation. Parker speaks for every character in the game, translating their words in a third-person “he said”https://mashable.com/”she said” mode that feels stilted and jarring to the ear. It’s not a problem with the performance, but the writing, the way Biomutant talks to you.
Parker’s presence is constant, too. He’s translating every line of dialogue. He’s describing scenes and delivering exposition. He’s guiding us through flashbacks. He’s serving pep talks and solemn aphorisms like “Don’t flinch away from this. It’s your moment. You need to focus.”
The word salad and just non-stop noise overall is so dense that there are actual menu settings for turning down the frequency of narrator intrusions and “Gibberish.” It’s a lot.
I can give it up to Experiment 101 for this much: I’ve never played a game like this before. In some ways, Biomutant is a remarkable achievement. It’s intensely odd, but also a triumph of world design and sticky crafting experiences, and even with all the nonsense there is a logic to everything and a rich backdrop of lore underpinning it all.
It’s just so much to process. Information overload compounded by a pile-on of competing-yet-strangely complementary concepts. Some of it isn’t fully baked, some of it is clearly overcooked, and yeah, the combat just plain lacks teeth, but Biomutant is the kind of game and fiction that can win over its share of supporters. With good reason, even.
For me…well. I’m a broken record now. It really is a lot. I’d take any one or even two of the more overwhelming qualities and just deal with it for the right game. But Biomutant is extra to the nth degree. It’s doing too much of everything and not enough of one thing. And that’s why I’m sitting here after more than than a whole, entire Earth day’s worth of gaming hours, still wondering what the heck Biomutant actually is.
Biomutant is out for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on May 25 with PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series releases to follow at a later date.