Biomutant Is an Ambitious Mess

By 2 months ago

Biomutant is a fascinating and frustrating game. On paper, it’s an open-world RPG that’s a bit of Zelda, Fable, Fern Gully, and Redwall all mashed together. It had me marveling as it introduced new idea after new idea, only to find them not quite melding together. It’s a game that’s oftentimes clunky to play but hard to stop talking about. And while it has a litany of problems, I continue to think about this title from Experiment 101 long after having rolled credits, thanks to its wildly impressive scope and ambition.

And that ambition kicks off right from the start with the character creation screen. Being able to choose the shape and size of my critter, make its fur the color of blue raspberry bubble gum, and tweak its specific stats made it feel like I was about to set off on a grand, Bethesda-like adventure. It feels all the more impressive coming from a development team that only totaled 20 members as of January 2021.

And once you’re thrust into Biomutant’s big, colorful, post-apocalyptic open world, you begin to see just how much the team crammed into the game. Wander in any given direction and you’re bound to find towns packed with merchants, hidden bunkers filled with resources, mysterious environmental puzzles, roving bands of creatures, and an endless population of NPCs in need of some assistance.

But that initial wonder quickly wore off when I realized that the incredible number of things to do in the game ultimately felt kind of meaningless, because I was never given a compelling reason to do any of them. At first, stumbling across abandoned homes and gas stations and rummaging through the cabinets for scraps of crafting material made me feel like a cartoon animal version of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. And initially, I wanted to grab every single shiny bauble I came across.

Those materials can be used throughout Biomutant’s upgrade system, which is admittedly robust. The amount of options available to build new weapons, tweak damage modifiers, and mold unique armor to change the look of your character makes an excellent first impression. The problem arises once you’ve gotten a few dozen combat encounters under your belt and realize that the depth just isn’t there to necesitate all of this.

Combat is Biomutant’s weakest element, which is a grievous issue considering just how much of the game is filled with combat. Its loop is a familiar mix of melee weapons, guns, and special abilities, but none of them feel good on their own — and they certainly never gel into a satisfying rhythm. There’s no friction or inertia to your swipes, no satisfying crunch to your bullets, and no sense of power or imagination from your magic. Likewise, enemies rarely throw anything surprising or exciting at you. Every encounter felt like a clumsy slog until their health bar was fully drained. This was especially glaring coming off of Nier Replicant and Returnal, both games where the combat systems kept me captivated the whole way through.

Thankfully, there were some moments that creatively worked around the combat’s failings. After taking over half a dozen enemy outposts in one small corner of the map, I assumed that this would be something I’d have to do for the next several hours. But thanks to a charisma check and my affinity for making decisions that leaned towards the light side of things, I was able to bring the leaders of every tribe together to unite in the common good. And just like that, a major questline was nipped in the bud, and it felt like something that happened because I authored those decisions.

But even that rare instance felt like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound because I still didn’t have any real motivation to continue growing my character. Without combat compelling me to upgrade my gear and gain experience through sidequests, I was left with little to no reason to do much outside of the critical path. While I dug the sense of discovery that came from finding a new biome and getting a fresh glimpse at what the world used to be like — and seriously, I really loved those moments of awe and wonder — the shallow systems made it hard to connect with the game.

That’s a bummer because there are so many interesting ideas and features crammed within Biomutant. There’s a morality system that features a tiny devil and angel who pop up at certain decisions and argue with one another. I found a ton of different optional vehicles and mounts that made exploring by land, sea, and air a smoother experience. And there was even a spaceship-cum-ark with limited seats that I could fill by befriending various NPCs around the world. But ultimately, Biomutant could not drum up a motivation to indulge in all of its content.

The game’s pace also often grinds to a halt when you go to talk to an NPC. Conversations in the game — and there are a lot of them — are presented as an odd mix of fictional languages, followed by the narrator explaining what a character just said. While kind of novel at first, by the time I was wrapping up the story after 25 hours, each exchange felt like an uncomfortably long trip through international customs.

As much as I didn’t gel with its execution, I can’t help but admire Biomutant’s ambition. I like how it subtly dances around the idea of a world destroyed by the greed of corporations — it’s a great example of “show, don’t tell.” I was also floored every time it introduced yet another system, mechanic, or idea onto its already wobbling Jenga tower. And even though that tower toppled over on several occasions, Biomutant still had the confidence to continue building it up right through the very end.