By: Stephen Machuga (ShanghaiSix)
Developer: Experiment 101
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Available on: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
Biomutant is a strange beast. Playing it feels like developer Experiment 101 took a bunch of amazing tropes and game mechanics from various world-class titles, threw them in some radioactive wastes, took the toxic sludge, and packaged it all together. While the sum of the parts should be fantastic, it feels like it tried far too much, and none of their efforts actually feel great.
Where to begin? Okay, so what is the story with the game? Who are all these whack-a-doo-looking anthropomorphic animal/human hybrids running around on this wrecked world that appears to be Earth? That’s it. That’s the story. The narrator goes into more details about the Earth-like planet with a villainous super corporation called Toxagen dumping chemicals into the oceans and causing a global-level extinction event where nature took the planet back over. As for you, without going into too much detail, you play as a cat...samurai? When you were a young boy, you witnessed your mother and father’s death at the hands of a monstrous polar bear hybrid that you are now seeking vengeance. I can’t remember his name, which should tell you how much he plays a role in the story. Simultaneously, the planet is being held together by a great piece of nature called the Life Tree, but four massive creatures known as the WorldEaters have decided to start gnawing on the roots and threaten to end the world. You are told you need to defeat these four boss monsters, one covering each corner of the game world.
However, all is not as simple as it seems, for there are multiple factions in this world, some of who think that the death of the Life Tree is where it’s at; the rebirth of the planet and the start of something new, as opposed to trying to limp along in its current state. You have to choose which faction, light or dark, you wish to ally with.
Biomutant is, at its heart, an open-world exploration game in the vein of a Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or an Assassin’s Creed, with a giant map, fast travel, mounts to move faster, and plenty of unexplored spots on the map to uncover. The terrain is beautiful, and each section of the map consists of multiple biomes that are seemingly handcrafted features to check out and loot.
If you’re looking for game mechanics, Biomutant has them in spades. The pause menus felt like each tab was 20 titles deep. Having finished Biomutant at the 20-hour mark, I feel like I completely scratched the surface of its complex fighting and crafting systems. I started playing on “hard” difficulty, and then when I found I was only at 7% game completion 12 hours in, I bumped it down to “normal,” and then things got a little too simple for my tastes. The harder the difficulty, the more you are forced to use every trick and tool at your disposal to loot every shed and chest, trying to find something to give you an edge. When I bumped it down to normal, I gave my gear one final upgrade from everything I’d been finding and proceeded to stomp the game flat.
Combat, while extremely complex across multiple weapons, different fighting styles, mutations, and psionic abilities, felt a little too mindless at the medium setting. I have notes from early on here screaming about how hard the combat scenarios were up to about level 10-12 when my weapons felt like they were made of soft plastic. Every fight, I would use up almost all of my healing items (health only comes back out of combat until later) just to chip away at the baddies. In medium? I was mowing everything down without a care in the world.
One of the nice things about mass melee combat that we all learned from the Batman series was; generally, you’d have a nice little combat arena, a little icon would flash above an enemy’s head, letting you know that an attack of a certain kind was coming. You would counter using whatever ability you needed to. Here, because the world is so wide open, it’s not uncommon for you to be focused on meleeing one enemy and have another 2-3 enemies off-screen throw things at you or shoot at you from where you don’t even know it’s coming, whittling off your precious health pool. It felt like every fight, I was exhausting my limited supplies of healing items and would be forced to circle strafe for five minutes straight, finishing off whatever enemies were left. Not exactly a lot of fun for a game clearly focused on getting in close and executing crazy extended melee combos through Biomutant’s “Wung Fu” special abilities. As you’re in the middle of slow-timing through a wicked sweet combo, you’re continuously getting pelted, beat on, set on fire from the enemies around you. Survival means constantly moving and getting a punch in when you can, not wading into the middle with your melee weapons, and getting annihilated.
One of the problems with the nearly immeasurable amount of crafting in the game is that everything costs resources to make every item and attach every piece. It doesn’t really give you that incentive to try new toys out. You find the tools that do the most damage or have the most armor, you slap everything together once, and then you’re generally good for several levels. Primarily because you don’t have the resources to make something to see if it works and experiment. You have nine slots to outfit and upgrade: chest piece, head, two shoulders, both hands for weapons, a ranged weapon, a backpack, and even something to go over your face. Each one of those items can have multiple slots to attach shiny widgets onto, but you only have enough for a few upgrades, and then you’re kind of stuck. I hope you liked that two-handed saw blade you put together because if you break it down, you don’t get the resources back to make anything new instead. It’s rough and a shame. By the end, I’d been so gunshy about leveling up my gear; I had a pretty decent stockpile of resources to craft. But again, the fights were so simple; I didn’t need to really focus on it.
The world-building that Biomutant attempts to get into is cute at first, but it starts to get a little tiresome. Experiment 101 got a nice proper British man to do all the narration and translation of the human hybrids chatter, but even they admit when he can be a bit much. There is a setting that tells you: “Hey, you can go in and turn the frequency of the number of times he’s quipping or chatting you up while you’re riding around the world.” Also, because it’s a bunch of animals living like humans, they have things like shopping malls that they now call “Brick-a-bracks” or televisions are called “I-Boxes,” and saddles are called “SitTighters”...but they still seem to have a grip on the words of what a “knuckle sandwich” is. Another problem with the narrator is you meet several dozen characters throughout a playthrough, but since they’re all being translated from “furry” into English, you don’t really get attached to any of them. There’s a pretty major choice as you’re playing on which one of these characters you want to help for a future event, but because you don’t really get to know them at all, there’s no real emotional attachment on having to turn some of them down. As I said earlier, I can’t remember the name of the big bad guy of the game, and I pride myself on knowing game storylines.
Biomutant gets redundant quickly. For instance, the run-up to each of the four WorldEnder fights was almost identical: go visit this mad scientist, where he has a special mount or vehicle that will allow you to take on the boss. But wouldn’t you know it? There’s something wrong with the vehicle, and it needs a part that you need to go fetch to get it fixed. Okay, you went and got it? Great! Now we need a weapon that we can mount on the vehicle or some kind of distraction device that the WorldEater will be confused by, go out and fetch those parts for him. Come back! The vehicle is working! Now go take out the boss, which is broken down into three phases on the health bar. Each third of its health is a new checkpoint, and each time, they add a new mechanic to their fight.
Another perfect example of things getting stale quickly are the game’s tribal mechanics. You start by pledging allegiance to one of the two starter tribes (light or dark, in essence), and throughout the first few hours, you beat down the opposing tribe until you conquer all their territories on the map. Upon conquering the enemy tribe, it actually turns out there are four more dissident tribes on the map across the world, and before you can take on the final WorldEater, you need to “unite the clans” and either crush them or bring them to heel and have them join you. As you go to each region and conquer each territory with a series of fights in a castle or a simple fetch quest, everything starts feeling kind of samey, no matter how they dress it up with their goofy mutant talk speech. After you’ve beaten two more of the tribes, it literally asks you, “Hey, do you want to keep doing this, or do you want to stop the fighting and force the other tribes to surrender?” Spoiler alert: I jumped on the “skip” button so fast...and blessedly, the other two tribes fell in line after a quick cutscene, and I could move on to the final WorldEater.
Biomutant is so strange. Much like all of the parts it is fused together from, it should be a grand slam. Light and dark mechanics, open-world Zelda-style game, in-depth crafting and role-playing game mechanics, hard moral choices to make...it works, but after the first few hours, I felt like I was doing an assignment (which, technically, it was). It’s either blisteringly difficult, and every combat turns into a fight to the death (and a lengthy reloading screen) or a mindless pushover you can put your headphones on and listen to a podcast to mash buttons to. There are dozens of side quests, fighting mechanics, weapons to choose from, and craft, but again, because crafting is so restrictive, you get pigeonholed into a set style very quickly. It all becomes unnecessary. And when the developer is asking, “Hey, do you just want to skip this part?” that’s them saying, “Hey, this kinda isn’t that fun. Do you just want to not play this?”
Why five enemy clans? FIVE.
Bah, I think you get it at this point. I just finished playing it an hour ago, 12 hours before the embargo lifts on posting it up. The good folks over at Evolve PR gave us a full two weeks to immerse ourselves in the Biomutant experience, but I played the first 10 hours in the first two days, then spent the better part of two weeks going, “I don’t want to play this game.” Do you need a score “out of ten” after that?