Everything that I want to say about Mutazione, and every feeling that I have about it, is going to be hard to express in the following review without ruining the experience. So I guess the best place to start would be to say that I absolutely adore this fucking game.
I’ve always had an appreciation for stories that anthropomorphise animals or creatures in order to tell otherwise human tales. Abstracting these characters and situations creates a sense of disbelief that is perfect for emotional storytelling that isn’t held down by a need for believability. Mutazione knows this, and so it’s about as abstract as can be. Kai, the game’s main character, is a regular human girl whose sickly grandfather just happens to live among and care for an island full of ‘mutants’. These mutants, themselves descended from a thriving human society that suffered a meteoric disaster, still live very human lives in their tiny community. Believing that her grandfather is on his deathbed, Kai goes to visit for a week in an attempt to learn more about him and hopefully mend some of the broken branches in her family tree.
It’s at this point that I really hesitate to say more about Mutazione’s story, because so much of it is a joy to experience the first time that I dare not ruin it for anybody. Each of the island’s inhabitants is brilliantly written, with their own rich backstories (some more harrowing than others) and consistently engaging dialogue. In no word of a lie, whenever I would take a short break from the game I’d wind up gossiping to my partner about everything that was going down with the villagers – who’s dating, whose father/mother issues are causing them to isolate themselves, the latest ridiculous get-rich-quick scheme that the sausage tribe are cooking up (trust me, these all have equal narrative weight). By the game’s frankly jaw-dropping finale, I’d grown incredibly fond of each and every one of these characters, which just lent the (again, seriously incredible) climax even more emotional weight. Developer Die Gute Fabrik have an incredibly talented team of writers on hand and they should be commended for just how wonderful their narrative is.
Over the course of the few hours it takes to play through, most of your time will be spent strolling around the island community and checking in on each of its inhabitants while waiting for important story beats to play out. Kai’s week on the island is split up into seven chapters, one per day, and each of those is broken up into smaller sections based on the time of day. As you progress through each section, the other characters will go about their day, and you’re mostly free to talk to them in whatever order you like (or not at all). Neglecting to speak with everyone at each new opportunity would be a waste though, as each of their journeys (both overall and in the context of the week that you spend with them) is as interesting and emotionally engaging as the next. I’m not ashamed to admit that there were multiple moments that saw me shed a sneaky tear or two, particularly as everyone’s experiences started to come together. This is where Mutazione might wind up being a little divisive, as enjoying the story to its fullest necessitates wandering the same handful areas of the island half a dozen times every day hoping to find each character and chat with them before moving on. It didn’t bother me that much, but without any kind of fast travel (it’s a small place) or any indication of where everyone is at any given time, it’s sure to put some people off. The game as a whole is quite relaxed and slow-paced, especially in the early days, so it’s definitely not going to appeal to absolutely everybody.
The one unique gameplay wrinkle in Mutazione is gardening. Alongside the game’s events, Kai will plant and cultivate several gardens using seeds found around the island or given to her by the villagers. Again, I’d rather not go into too much detail about these gardens and their place in the story, but they’re a lot of fun to put together. Each garden has a musical theme, and the seeds are classified by those themes as well as a host of other variables. Based on what plants are grown and where, the soundscape they create differs, and it’s really nice to just sit back in a finished garden and enjoy the ambience. The sheer number of different plant varieties is really impressive, and there’s even an in-game almanac that catalogues and describes each one in detail. Aside from usually having one or two specific plant materials that a character asks Kai to produce, the way you plant your gardens is completely up to you. Much like the player-driven responses during character dialogue, the freedom of choice here doesn’t affect the way the story plays out, which definitely feels like the right choice for this game. Mutazione is a serene and meditative experience throughout, so the possibility of adversely affecting the narrative with your choices would’ve just added some unnecessary anxiety.
The thing that I can talk extensively about, and will, is how goddamn fucking beautiful this game is. As if the incredible writing wasn’t already enough, Mutazione is a showcase of the astounding visual and auditory artistry from Die Gute Fabrik. The game’s heavily stylised characters ooze charm and personality from their masterful designs to their energetic and expressive animations, and the world they inhabit is a lush, detailed and skilfully realised work of art. The whole thing is like a sumptuous picture book brought to life and I just can’t stop looking at it, or listening to it. Between the ambient score, the modular, garden-based tunes and some frightfully catchy faux-punk jams, I want nothing more than to own and play all of Mutazione’s music on an infinite loop. The whole thing looks and feels how I imagine a Wes Anderson-directed Where the Wild Things Are video game adaptation would turn out. It’s not often that I feel so heavily invested and entranced by a fictional world that I feel legitimately sad when it’s over, but that’s exactly the case here.
Mutazione has come out of nowhere and blown me away with its endearing, engrossing and emotionally rich tale set in a gorgeous, vivid world full of unbelievably real personalities. As storytelling in games, and in particular the indie scene, continues to raise the bar it’s studios like Die Gute Fabrik that are still somehow able to waltz up and leap right over. This might just be one of my favourite indie video games of all time.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher