I complete yet another circuit breaker puzzle in yet another underground bunker, and Biomutant’s narrator, David Shaw Parker, delivers the same identical congratulatory line as he had for the dozens prior. Having long since finished the game there’s very little reason for me to still be wandering its various environments, hitting up identical abandoned building after identical abandoned building, ticking pointless tasks off of unimportant lists. Yet, here I am, completely engaged and with no thought to stop anytime soon. After 25+ hours I’m still not quite sure if I’m having fun, or just gave up trying to, but I can certainly admit to being attached – to my mutant marsupial avatar, to my collection of hand-made trash weapons, and to a colourful post-apocalyptic world that I’d much rather spend time in than our actual, pre-apocalyptic one.
The opening moments of Biomutant will likely elicit a range of responses from players, going from “Wow, this character creator is neat!” to “I wish this narrator would shut the fuck up!”, as it establishes its narrative and your custom mutant’s place within it. The gist is that, following humanity’s fallout and the subsequent rise of a variety of mutated creatures, a variety of threats have arisen including tribal warfare, four huge world-devouring beasts, an evil carnivore named Lupa-Lupin ravaging innocent villages and also very likely the actual end of the world. After Lupa-Lupin wiped out your village and family, you’ve wandered the lands as a Ronin, and have now returned grown and capable to help restore some sense of peace to the lands and take your revenge in the process.
Biomutant’s best asset isn’t necessarily its core narrative, in which the theme of ‘maybe it’s the good guys who are the bad guys’ is presented with all the subtlety of the 80s/90s anthropomorphic mutant martial arts cartoons that clearly inspired it, and a ham-fisted morality system has a very clear ‘correct’ path. Rather, it’s the world that Experiment 101 has established and lovingly crafted, with a clear history told by the ruins of human civilization and nuggets of evidence of the careless corporation that set the ball rolling toward the end times. With nature having long taken over, the now-overgrown and biodiverse lands are full of a staggering number of uniquely mutated flora and fauna as well as the intelligent, tribal creatures shaping the beginnings of new societies.
It’s actually quite beautiful to look at as well, far from a showcase of modern graphical technologies it’s instead a triumph of art with fantastic use of scale and colour and an anything-goes attitude toward design. There’s a staggering amount of variety in both the living things you encounter and the junk you pick up to either wear or weaponise, to the point that I wouldn’t be shocked if 75% of the game’s protracted development cycle was spent outfitting every angry critter with a unique outfit – every piece of which could turn up on an enemy or picked up to wear yourself. Though barebones, I gave the game’s Photo Mode a good workout just taking screenshots as I rode through lush forests, over rolling hills, past irradiated shopping malls and flew across superheated wastelands.
Fair warning, though: the game’s narrator is a permanent, persistent presence throughout the game who vocalises just about everything you do, and also translates every bit of gibberish dialogue from every character, meaning it’s the single voice you’ll hear in its entirety and you’ll hear it often, even with the setting for narration frequency turned way down. It’s a neat spin on the kind of voiceover work you’d hear on 90s British children’s shows but it’s too much, too often, and winds up being more grating than endearing.
Structurally, Biomutant is an interesting take on the open-world RPG format that essentially boils down to a 10–12 hour adventure segmented and spread out across a sizeable map, with the idea that players tackle it in a non-linear order and see as much or as little of the world as they’d like along the way. As you work toward helping your chosen tribe achieve dominance, freeing the lands from the wrath of the Worldeaters and avenging your family, you’ll naturally happen across a wide array of places and faces that can play a part in your version of the game’s fable. Whether they do is up to you, but it’s well worth exploring off the beaten path every now and then to see who (or what) is around the corner before hopping on your mech/jetski/mutant mount to your next main objective.
Of course a lot of this boils down to engaging in combat with Biomutant’s various tribes and other deadly creatures, something that sounds great on paper and can look quite exciting in action but feels clunky and cumbersome to play. The building blocks are all there – Gun Kata-esque movement, a varied arsenal and strange mutant powers – but these elements don’t gel together as well as they should. Everything winds up feeling unresponsive and unwieldy, particularly with a lack of hard lock-on, and it becomes easier just to rely on spamming the same special moves to get through each encounter. It’s never bad, but it never really reaches the heights that it could and winds up discouraging the kinds of experimentation that the game’s DNA is built on.
While Biomutant’s first couple of hours don’t really paint the game in the best light, leading you to suspect that its haphazard combat and undercooked tribal takeover gimmick are all it has to offer, once the game opens up and invites you to roam its weird and wonderful landscapes and meet its lively cast those clumsy initial steps become a little easier to forget. The quest lines leading to, and subsequent battles with, each of the four Worldeaters are definitely the highlight amongst the game’s core content. They work by serving as an introduction to new elements such as the game’s vehicles, as well as its more interesting side characters. Plus, the Worldeaters themselves are a great example of the fantastic visual variety in Biomutant’s world and inhabitants. It’s a far sight more compelling than simply travelling to a bunch of identical tribal forts and taking them over, though mercifully the game gives you the option to accelerate your chosen tribe’s domination and skip ahead to total takeover once you’ve at least gained a majority power.
It’s proof that Experiment 101’s efforts are most felt in the game’s more bespoke moments, where creativity and character shine through and gameplay benefits from sharper focus. For every awe-inspiring moment, some of which change the face of the game world itself, there’s another ‘go here, pick up this’ objective that adds absolutely nothing. It all works best if you can embrace that idea of a short but player-driven adventure within a larger world, as opposed to something that was designed to be ‘completed’ in full. Though admittedly I found embracing the collect-a-thon-esque filler to be surprisingly compelling and comfortable in the end game, where I was content to simply roam and enjoy existing in the world, and I’m sure others will too.
Unfortunately while Biomutant’s strengths go a long way to making most of its less successful ideas more forgivable, there’s an air of incompleteness that threatens to bring the whole thing down. On a base level, so many of its systems lack direction or polish. Even the more interesting ideas like its unique weapon crafting system and character mutations are muddled by unhelpful UI, often incorrect labels and numbers, and a lack of real use for them in the game’s muddled combat. It’s a ton of fun to mash new weapons together from bits of garbage and give your character the ability to spew bile or levitate, but none of it translates to a more interesting gameplay experience. By tasking themselves to fill an open-world RPG with varied and engaging content Experiment 101 has maybe put their fingers in too many pies, leaving them with a bunch of very delicious-sounding but half-baked and half-fingered pies.
More than the flaws in its design though, Biomutant is just lousy with bugs and blemishes that bring the whole experience down. I’ve encountered quests not completing, interactable items not interacting, trophies not popping, I’ve fallen through the world, lost all my upgrade points to bad math, been caught in death loops, you name it, including about 50 crashes in the first 25 hours that I played on PS5. I have no doubt that Experiment 101 is hard at work already on ironing most of these out through updates, as they already have been in the lead-up to release (those crashes on PS5 seem to have stopped now), but the day one experience will still be a rocky one – even more so should players not have access to the internet for the three or four launch patches.
Biomutant is a hotpot of genuinely refreshing and compelling ideas that even the biggest AAA studio on the block would struggle to wrangle into a cohesive whole, so the fact that Experiment 101 has done as much as it has is not only worth commending, it’s downright impressive. That doesn’t take away the fact that so many of its systems feel half-baked and underutilised, nor the infuriating narration and general lack of polish, but it’s certainly helped me look past those problems and find the fun in this weird and wonderful world. It’s far from perfect, but I still find myself jumping back in every chance I get. Most of all it reminds me of the bonkers AA games of a couple generations ago, where no idea was too ridiculous if it could be done by a skeleton crew on a shoestring budget. There just isn’t anything else quite like it.
Reviewed on PS5 (PS4 version played) // Review code supplied by publisher
- Experiment 101
- THQ Nordic
- PS4 / Xbox One / PC
- May 25, 2021