Standing apart in a crowded segment of the video game industry is surely no easy feat for a small, indie team. I imagine that the many open-world RPGs funded by enormous publishers must make the notion of competing against AAA production values immensely daunting; in order to peacock, then, such a team would have to think outside the box and get properly creative, maybe even a tad bizarre.
Described as an open-world, post-apocalyptic Wung-Fu fable RPG, developer Experiment 101’s Biomutant feels as though it’s a labor of love built around that ethos. First announced way back in 2017, a team of 20 has been busy at work forging its first-ever game, a unique sandbox experience that is in many ways, unlike anything I’ve played before.
Unfortunately, despite the impressive volume of different role-playing systems and gameplay mechanics, as well as the care that has gone into forging lore for its bizarre world, the scale of Biomutant’s ambition ultimately feels as though it’s proved too much for such a young team.
Frequently throughout my 30 or so hour playthrough, I found myself yearning for more substance and depth across the board, from combat and progression to the thrust of its main story and the narrative implications that its choice/consequence branching dialog system promises to deliver. It’s a shame because Biomutant is also thoroughly entertaining at times; it has its moments, and it has some clever ideas, but it never really evolves into anything beyond that.
Biomutant begins with a superb character creation system, which might actually be one of its best features. I love the way that each mutant’s breed and class not only determines their stats but also their appearance, which puts a novel spin on the usual moving up and down of sliders in other RPGs. There’s a level of depth here that allows you to get really innovative with your design.
From there, a linear section that introduces its strange world, replete with plenty of backstory and lore. We learn that the greedy company Toxonol’s pollution has blighted the Tree of Life that binds the world together; now dying as it drowns in toxic waste and is gnawed at by four monsters known as World Eaters, it’s up to us to beat them back and save the day.
All of this is narrated by an unnamed character whose voice is, at first, rather soothing and compelling. Over the first few hours of the game, he offers context to the goings-on of the world, describes its unusual sights, and even chips in with one or two witty lines that help set a whimsical tone.
But then it becomes apparent that he also acts as a fill-in for the lack of voice-acting throughout the game, speaking for every NPC in every dialog exchange. This is, frankly, an extraordinary design decision that isn’t just highly annoying to listen to but has the rather damaging knock-on effect of strangling the personality and charm of the various NPCs in the game. It’s so hard to connect with or care about anybody when they’re being spoken for all the time.
That would be an issue for any game, but it’s a major problem for Biomutant in particular given how foreign and bizarre its world is. It absolutely needs memorable personalities to draw players into the intrigue of the story, but with narration constantly translating gibberish noises I never really felt as though I got to know anybody. For reasons I won’t spoil, this lack of motivation to care about the character’s within the world hampers what is otherwise a clever and consequential story decision later in the game.
But honestly, despite what is a commendable but ultimately lackluster attempt to weave branching dialog and morality mechanics into its story, Biomutant’s best moments have nothing to do with its narrative design. The martial-arts combat system and traversal mechanics are easily the highlights of the gameplay experience.
Chaining together different combos and “special attacks” is really quite fun, and combat generally feels fast and fluid on PS5 running at 60 fps, even if the automatic lock-in is somewhat inconsistent.
At first, the sheer number of different combos, available upgrades, and strange nomenclature is a little intimidating, but it’s not long until I found myself right at home switching between different weapons, psi-powers, mutations, and building my Super Wung Fu to unleash devastating moves. It certainly makes grinding combat for XP much more engaging when there are so many different possibilities to make each encounter feel fresh.
Although, I must admit to defaulting to a small handful of easy, familiar moves right the way through, and one certainly doesn’t have to get all that involved with the nitty-gritty in order to beat the game. And in fact, as with many of Biomutant’s gameplay systems, you’re not really forced to engage with it all that much if you don’t want to.
In the case of combos, I think that’s fine as I appreciate not having to study dozens of different combos, but other facets of combat like Mutations, Perks, and Psi-Powers needed more fleshing out. All too quickly I felt like I’d upgraded them as far as I could, and in most combat encounters I never really used them anyway.
Across the board, in fact, there are a lot of customization options in Biomutant that almost feel like they’ve been included for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that one can modify the appearance of vehicles, for example, or change the appearance of an armor set, but I wish more time had been spent in better fleshing out one or two mechanics rather than including several shallow ones.
The tribal system is perhaps the most underwhelming of Biomutant’s major gameplay features. Initially, it presents itself as an intriguing battle for territory amongst several warring tribes with which you can ally yourself with and then slowly take over the map in the name of your pledged tribe by defeating outposts and forts. In reality, the process of actually retaking these strongholds isn’t particularly exciting and is very repetitive.
The tribal system actually correlates to another of Biomutant’s major mechanics: the “Aura” morality system, which classifies your actions throughout the game as either light or dark.
Allying yourself with a “light” tribe, for example, makes sense if you’ve decided to shape your character around that moral distinction, while you might instead opt to remain dark if you’ve chosen the opposite.
The problem with both of these systems is multifaceted but ultimately boils down to my earlier complaints about depth, or lack thereof. My decision to go for a “light” playthrough didn’t feel as though it had any major impact on the world, and the fact that it was also quite reversible lessened the consequence of that initial decision to the point where I didn’t really care about the mechanic by the game’s end.
Moreover, I actually ended up uniting the tribes and ending the tribe war hours and hours before defeating the World Eaters. I had hoped these two elements of the game would all tie together in an epic finale, but they’re disappointingly disparate.
I think that’s a key takeaway for me overall from my time with Biomutant: it ticks so many boxes in terms of the sheer number of features in the game, but they’re just not executed in a way that makes me excited to engage with them. Even the enormous volume of side quests are just there to make up numbers rather than ever intrigue you with any quality storytelling or gameplay. You’re just fetching items for other NPCs on either side of fetching items for yourself, most of which prove largely superfluous to proceedings.
It’s such a pity, too, because the concept of Biomutant’s story and world has so much potential. I really think it could have benefited from having a smaller scope with more effort spent on bolstering its narrative, characters, and opting to really flesh out its tribal system. It ends up being a by-the-numbers RPG experience that leans on repetition and fetch questing when I was so hoping the experience of playing it would prove as unique as its unusual premise.
That isn’t the case, sadly, though I think it would be unfair of me not to conclude by stating that I did certainly did enjoy some of my time with Biomutant. Landing combos, and zipping around the sandbox is amusing enough, and the game’s progression systems offer the usual RPG hook. But overall it’s a case of light entertainment and not truly innovative design.
- Fluid combat system.
- A surprisingly consistent technical performance on PS5.
- Plenty to “do,” even if there isn’t much substance to those activities.
- Too little depth to too many of its major gameplay features and systems.
- The choice to deliver its story and dialog via a narrator just doesn’t work.
PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
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