3.5

Biomutant Never Lives Up to Its Expansive and Expressive Character Creator

Games Reviews biomutant
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<i>Biomutant</i> Never Lives Up to Its Expansive and Expressive Character Creator

I wanted so much more for FIP!

That’s what I named my character. We named him, my partner and I, through the communal act of shouting “FUCKIN FIP!!!” at the TV as I first booted up Biomutant.

I’d seen the cover art, a bit of trailer quickly scrubbed through. I had a gist of the premise. And the intersections lined up hard for me.

You know what I love? The Small Mammal House. Every zoo worth its salt has one. A menagerie of vivarium containing all sorts of critters in replicas of their natural environments, from the aye-aye to the sloth. I like little furry dudes.

You know what else I love? The Borrowers, Watership Down, and post-calamity fiction. I also love wrecking shit.

This is what the initial promise of Biomutant was: wreck shit as a mutant Fiver from Watership Down while doing some Borrowers-style wandering and collecting in a post post-calamity world. I was practically stamping up and down in my editor’s inbox to review this one. And up through the character creator, it was everything I wanted.

My partner sitting next to me, flipping through their phone, occasionally looking up to go “What the fuck, baby?” The dudes you start with as your template are fantastic—little mutant rodents who have all been through some shit and are planning on starting shit in their own unique ways. Each one has stat plusses and minuses, little unique bits of backstory for why their particular species is the way it is. And they’re all devastatingly cute in a loved until misshapen stuffed animal sort of way.

The species we chose was called “Fip.” I kept shouting, “MOTHERFUCKING FIP!” and soon my partner joined in. And that’s how he got the name Fip!!! (yes, the three exclamations are part of his name). After species selection, there’s class selection. Some line up cleanly for min-maxers, others don’t really line up at all. There’s enough seeming diversity and possibility for combination that before I’d even spent any time playing as Fip!!! I had already started planning out my next three playthroughs’ worth of starter builds. Stat allotment allows for a speedy and intuitive way to either make radical alterations to your species core stats, or just blitz through. It’s flexible and fast and allows room for the most ardent min-maxer or the most laid back of role-player. There’s even a somewhat charming visual impact on making your mutant rodent hero pure beefcake, or a glass cannon with a big brain. And each class has a cute little outfit, even if they’re about 40% too much “Mad Max but goofy” (a lot of this game is) for my blood.

Anyway, here’s FIP!!!

biomutant_fip.jpg

This was the most stoked I’ve been in a game all year, basically. This moment. Using the competent but not overly fussy photo mode to take a photo of the goofy little psionic fuzzball I was going to explore the world with…

And like 10 minutes later I was already starting to feel the cracks. Two hours later I would be fully miserable. I pressed on though, putting in another 30 hours of clambering over the reclaimed countryside, sifting through old buildings for craftables and epic loot, giving unsatisfying beatdowns to other mutant furries as day turned to night and back to day and more pop-up checkboxes got ticked off.

Eventually I put it down, unbeaten, to write this review. I’m not going to beat it. I think even if I had more time, I wouldn’t go back to beating it. This is a game that I wanted to put down after an hour. And that sucks, because I was so fucking hopeful. I wanted this to be my game of the year.

The core problem facing Biomutant is that it feels old. Like it’s been in development for a long time, long enough for the systems and ideas around how an open world fits together and works to have been largely abandoned for maybe not “better” ideas, but ones that don’t feel like a PlayStation 4 launch title, at least.

Traversing the landscape and running into Loot Pillars made of Crafting Resources? Minimap exposing points of interest (which thankfully aren’t towers, and have the amusing-the-first-few-times animation of peeing to mark your territory)? Zone name pop-up text that lists off the activities to complete in the zone (which almost always break town to “get the rare loot hidden somewhere here” and “get the five uncommon loot items hidden somewhere here too.”) It makes the game feel older than it looks. And honestly, the game looks pretty stellar.

The land is voluptuously febrile with flora. Pulsing and swaying to an eternal wind that never makes itself known, grasses and trees vibe to unseen music. The tallest grass can never be trampled, trees neither chopped nor exploded. It’s weirdly eternal. No Velvia slide filed at National Geographic ever knew Amazonian greens this saturated or Fijian blues so beckoning. There’s a child-like imagination of Eden quality to the landscape at times in Biomutant. And it’s one of the very few things that absolutely works. Which is why the verbs allowed are so unfortunate.

Kill and scavenge are about 90% of what this game has decided you’ll be allowed to do. Solving rudimentary puzzles really just opens pathways to loot or exhausting lore dumps, and sometimes more killing in service of loot and lore. Quests break down to either Get Thing(s) or Kill Thing(s). Sometimes they’ll make you go very far to get/kill thing(s). Sometimes it’ll be in the same room. Sometimes you’ll have to operate a radar antenna to toggle a waypoint to direct you to the next thing(s) to kill/get. When you’re getting a thing, you’ll have to kill things along the way. When you’re killing things, sometimes you’ll have to stop to get things. Sometimes you’ll take vehicles or use alternative modes of transportation like teleporting or conjured mushrooms or a gooey hamster ball to get to things to gather or kill.

Killing things sucks in this game. No matter how cool the bosses look, even those fights are tedious. There’s such a loose meaninglessness to the combat that it made me want to jump back into Nier and actually engage with the combat system manually. Just to make sure I wasn’t being unnecessarily unfair to the combat system, I cleared out enough space on my PlayStation 5 to install The Witcher 3, Nier: Automata, Ratchet & Clank, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Kingdom Hearts 3, and DMC5.

All of them play leagues better than Biomutant, even a game that’s absolutely translucent like Automata. No matter how big and lumbering my two-handed sword looked, it never felt heavy. Humans fled the planet and took gravity with them. Biomutant has sponge-y, clumsy feeling combos in a game that makes its fake kung fu (it’s called Wung Fu, I’m not joking, this game has batshit orientalism blooming from every surface like “Asian-inspired” lichen) such a huge part of the game’s world. None of the core weapon types ever feel appreciably different; the Unique Tribal weapons unlocked through story progression are different enough, still but uninspired. Changing weapons up with various crafting options can make them look kinda neat (I’d have rather they look much more makeshift and “Borrowed” feeling), but it doesn’t change up the rudiments of combat in any real way. The numbers just get bigger, and sometimes status effects or environmental numbers are applied. What I was hoping would be at least an abbreviated version of a Caves of Qud-inspired idea about how mutation works just ends up being predictable. The game leaves space for being truly weird, but never lets mutations be truly random or out there. Most of the systems in this game operate through point-buys: get points to buy new psionic powers from a list, get points to buy new mutations from a list, get points to buy new perks from a list, and combat abilities from another list.

There’s a lot of lists and a lot of points, so much so that your initial decisions on how to build your character is effectively undone by the halfway mark. By the end you’ll more or less have a character that is everything and can do everything—unless, I guess, you just…don’t spend points?

But it’s fucking beautiful at times. It’s the most beautiful and empty world I’ve experienced in a game. Even Genshin Impact and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla feel like they have more soul. This game can be such a visual delight, but underneath it always hides a feast of ash. For every beautiful hyperreal acre of overworld, every dungeon or hazard zone (whether it’s hypoxic, radioactive, etc) becomes a punishment cobbled together from the royalty-free Fallout: New Vegas Collection. You’ll never want to go through them, but the game is going to make you, because the specters of the old world in the form of laboratories, abandoned towns, and power plants are (aside from the repetitive kung fu fortresses of rival tribes) the only contrast this game can muster.

There’s so many borrowed ideas and repeated assets from games I’m already tired of. I keep saying I want to go back to Breath of the Wild, but I don’t, I’ve done that already. And if I really wanted to see this game through to the end and give its new game plus mode a try? I’d just play Breath of the Wild.

Sure, Link isn’t a customizable furry. But his world is crafted with more care and more intent, and you can literally engage with it beyond pre-approved points with specifically defined interactions. The Hyrule Link wakes up to is imperiled, was devastated, but it’s learned to live and move forward and it communicates this in both large and small strokes. The world of Hyrule exists without Link. It has persisted before he awakes, and it will persist the next time his ass goes to sleep for a millennia. And when you interact with the people who have made the aftermath of Hyrule’s glory days work for them, there’s no David Attenborough narrator doing pass interference.

Biomutant has none of that. No part of Biomutant feels like it exists outside of the player-protagonist’s perception, turning on only when the hero steps into the space and suddenly, like a Google Home version of Epcot Center, the automatons turn on. And each time you talk to one of the freshly-awakened robots, a booming loudspeaker describes what they would ordinarily say to you.

There’s a world where I kept going, and saw the ending of this game despite my gameplay criticisms. Where I cared enough about the world where Nature Healed Itself (after humans destroyed it with nuclear power) only for Nature to get Sick Again to see the story out, to help all my little furry bros. But I never got to have a relationship with any of the characters. All of the generic pilgrims I met, the townsfolk I helped: 100% of those relationships were mediated by the Narrator who told me “this is what this character has said to you” rather than letting me speak to the character directly.

Sure, the animals all speak “Gibberish” (that’s what the audio settings call it), but even the subtitled text is purely the Narrator. And it sucks. If this is the experience I wanted, I can just watch Blue Planet. As much as it’s trying to lend the game a weird storybook quality, it doesn’t. This isn’t a storybook. It’s not set up like one, and it’s way too long to only hear this insistent old English guy describing a game to me with all the relentlessness of a London bus tour guide who still believes in his job.

Not every game can be fully voiced. Not every game should be fully voiced! This is a time where the desire to voice every interaction and have an unseen commentary track narrator was a mistake. This is a game that’s billed itself as a “kung fu fable” so having the cloying voice of an Attenborough-alike persistently laid over it as the arbiter of all things definitely dredges up some uncomfortable comparisons to the British empire’s history with China. But mostly, it just forced itself between me and embracing the game. Creating an unnecessary dead zone (see what I did there) that disconnected me from having the experience they literally want me to have. The designers of this game want you to actively enter into this world and experience awe and wonder and joy and excitement. They want you to care about the decisions you make, and the tribes you align with. And filtering the entire experience through the Narrator absolutely ruins that. And I want to engage with this world because it looks dope, and the mammals that populate it range from goofy to fucked up to adorable—every creature model in this game is a delight! Also, I need to want to save this world, or destroy it. The binary decision tree that Biomutant operates on doesn’t allow for ambivalence. Really, games are too long and too expensive for this kind of ambivalence.

Games aren’t meant to be dire. Getting furious at a videogame after you’re 10 in an arcade and the CPU took your ass apart in Street Fighter and it was your last quarter isn’t dignified. But my time actually playing Biomutant after even a comparatively short window (this wasn’t Final Fantasy XV) of anticipation had me mentally replaying the clip of Tyra Banks yelling at Tiffany Richardson. You know the one. Where Tiffany begins to speak back and Tyra snaps, culminating in thousands of overused gifs exclaiming, “I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you!” Tyra begins that moment by explaining how she has never yelled at a girl like this before. That when her mother yells like this, it’s out of love.

I wanted to love Biomutant. I was rooting for Biomutant. I wanted to embrace this game, and it just wouldn’t let me.


Biomutant was developed by Experiment 101 and published by THQ Nordic. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for the Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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