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Biomutant

Biomutant

Written by Rob Larkin on 5/24/2021 for PS4  
More On: Biomutant

"Biomutant is an open world post-apocalyptic kung fu fable...in terms of structure it's like Zelda: Breath of the Wild...a strange, weird, good mix between Ratchet and Clank, Devil May Cry, Batman Arkham..." Art and Creative Director Setfon Ljungqvist sets the bar high in the Explanation Trailer released last week and embedded below.

The good

There is so much to like about Biomutant. The game has been in development for years, announced with footage that has had fans anticipating this release since 2017. On so many of those fronts, it delivers. The first and best thing to dive into is the gameplay and combat. There are three distinct mechanics all rolled into one: kung fu...erm...wung-fu, gunplay, and magic casting or psi-powers. It all blends together into intricate dances against foes small and large. At times you will be confronted by a host of foot soldiers, at other moments face to face with a mini-boss, and sometimes even a mix of the two.

The three combat styles compose a dance to flutter around the battlefield and mix in and out of ranged assaults, up-close-and-personal punches and slashes for better damage and furious combos, and simply navigating the horizontal and vertical space, often with the psi-powers. Everything is mapped well to the controller. You moves are aided by jumps, double jumps, and dodges, as well as the melee strikes, all mapped to the thumb buttons. Guns on the triggers. And psi-powers unleash with a combo of a shoulder and thumb button. It is easy to pull it all together, and the RPG elements of the game let you build up your own skills and new weapons. Abilities are slowly unlocked as you progress, giving you time to master the basics before putting the more complex together into the choreographed and rehearsed set of moves you will favorite. 

Now, early on, it did seem entirely possible to use cheap tactics to sleepwalk my way through all of these encounters. The first mini boss I went up against, I literally just strafed in a circle and fired my pistol until they fell. Ammo is unlimited. While reloads do happen, an occasional dodge roll away from any danger makes the strafe and fire tactic nearly unbeatable, even if it is a bit painstaking in how slow it chips away at the health bar.

I'm not ashamed to admit that sitting back and relying on those guns like a crutch was a tactic I would employ often. The first encounters were a bit underwhelming as far as difficulty was concerned, but things did ramp up and, with it, my health bar often seemed to ramp down. So that ranged crutch was always a good way to keep the battle going while I figured things out with a new enemy, or just caught my breath when the numbers were against me.

But I think the true credit to the game is, even pressed with a review deadline, that learning the other points of the triad was both easy and rewarding. That crutch was used less and less as time went on. Melee combat not only brings the risk/reward of both getting hit and doling out much greater damage, but the various weapon types and combos inherent to them unlock more and more enjoyment from each encounter. And psi-powers are there to to really shift the tides, or more importantly, shift the entire way the battle is approached by launching your character in the air, or closing distance to a ranged enemy in a blink.

Unlimited ammo aside, it is balanced by a blue stamina meter that sprawls across the screen right under the green of your health. When it all comes together, the game really clicks. The following bit of PS5 gameplay is a great example of demonstrating the ballet that a skilled player can conjure in the combat loop.

The next best thing to the combat mechanics is simply the sprawling world you get to practice them in. The world is rich, diverse, and hostile. There are enemies in pockets, locales to explore, NPCs to meet—some well off the beaten path. Even flora and fauna add to the atmosphere, even if they serve no purpose in the particular quest step you might be on. The world itself is the best storyteller, invoking a caution about mistreating the fragile earth we do inhabit and warning us about our fate is we don't respect her.

The world of Biomutant has been raised from the remains of ours that came before, and some of those corners are still toxic to any who would dare cross the borders without environmental protection. However, pushing your limits to survive these challenges ends up being just another part of the mutation to adapt and overcome this harsh reality. There are elements of fantasy because, while the world is post-apocalyptic, it does dwell on the grit and realism of other series who share the timeline, but focus on the rebirth and aftermath of life finding a way. Life always finds a way.

This is also a game that takes a stab at humor, and sometimes lands, if crass is down your alley. You unlock new fast travel points by, um, marking your territory (you pee on the signpost). There is also an extensive crafting and customization, both of which also reflect this humor.

Focus your stat points on strength and your character's build automatically beefs up. Focus on intelligence and the head grows accordingly. Weapons and armor focus around that which was scavenged from the world before. So, that damage modifier might just be a pair of scissors strapped to your sword, which itself was made from a vacuum nozzle and a cricket bat. Most of this didn't actually land with me, but full marks for giving it a go, and there is a great depth in customization available. 

The bad

Where things start to go off the rails, however, is when you begin to focus on the main quest. I feel like much of my disappointment in the game really centers around a simple letdown. I entered the world of Biomutant with an expectation that the story simply failed to deliver. I literally wrote to our editor when the review opportunity came across my desk, "I can make my own Rocket Raccoon!"

That was my first reaction to simply viewing the game's cover art, something about the squirrelly little character with the eye-patch got me going. Then reading up on the game and discovering this promise of a king fu quest, I shifted gears from Rocket to Master Shifu from Kung Fu Panda. I even manipulated my starting stats in my character build just to best emulate Shifu's body-type and look. If I was going to go kung fu/wung fu, I was going all in. 

But I was all in on a tale that would never really deliver. There is an attempt to make the story ingrained in path of the character, but it constantly feels forced. For no apparent reason you begin the game with no memory of your past, and rather than revealing it like a slow burn it just gets laid out before you fairly early—but done so in such a start/stop way as to be frustrating. You quickly choose to ally with one of the six existing tribes and then are sent back to your home village for a flashback fiesta. Every three steps is another cutscene and lengthy flashback with a new NPC. You're being harried along to meet your mother the whole time, chided for taking so long to get to the end, and three steps later pulled into another exposition with no option but to follow. It plays out without even internal consistency. 

There are three main plot lines that don't so much weave in and out, as much as they just start and stop at random intersections. You have to ally with a tribe and defeat all others, fight a big bad that hounds you from the tutorial, and save the World Tree which is slowly being attacked at its four roots by four giant monsters. The main quest giver of the overarching narrative instructs you to end a tribal war, then criticizes you for spending so much time on a tribe war while the fate of the world is at stake. Well then quit telling me to go on tribe quests if you're so concerned about this World Tree. Sheesh, buddy.

Dialogue trees branch but don't matter. Whatever choice I made seemed to elicited the same response. The game was very good at introducing combat concepts but in another early mission required me to chase after and catch an object on the run, but never actually explained what the catch button was. It was frustrating, to say the least. Especially for a game that initially seemed so very good at bringing in gameplay elements, until it isn’t.

Other times I kept missing quick time events because I was meant to hold a button, not mash it repeatedly, even though in an earlier interaction with practically the same on screen indicators it was a mash button event. Then there are side quests that aren't very clear either. I spent a good bit of time chasing down loot boxes for my mech exoskeleton assuming it would function like scrap or eventually upgrade my rig, only to later discover it was all useless cosmetics. 

The worst bit was the simple repetitiveness of the plot. There are four monsters gnawing on four roots of the world tree, and every encounter plays out just about exactly the same: meet this person, go find this vehicle or mount, go meet this other person, go use a butterfly net to catch five of this random creature that is inexplicably going to upgrade the vehicle, go slay monster and hope you don't get pooped out their anus (that's literally how I died on my first attempt at the first monster). The only variation is the fourth and final monster, which adds an extra mindless fetch quest loop to the mix, so now you have two before your vehicle is upgraded instead of just one.

I experienced a few bugs as well, many of them crashing the game. But I was on early builds and there were frequent patches incoming, so I'm not too worried about most of them, except when I would whittle a mini-bosses health down halfway or so and then the battle would take me just out of their range and they would promptly disengage from combat, run back to their starting position, and zap right back to full health... Grumble grumble. I think that will all get fixed, probably. 

What probably won't get fixed is just how simplistic the puzzle challenges are. Throughout the world, and in certain dungeon type settings, you run into these little puzzles that mostly boil down to "line up the white lines and line up the yellow lines by rotating knobs." Honestly though, I question why these were even included. There is zero difficulty and the only guardrail is that you only get so many rotations based on your intellect stats. It's idiotic and annoying just how bad these puzzles sequences are. Bad, but not necessarily ugly. For that...

The ugly

The game dialogue is terrible. Like, the worst I've ever played type of bad. No, check that, I played Dropsy the Clown. This is the second worst. It's not just that the dialogue is long and drawn out. It's not just that the choices I make in these long, drawn out trees don't seem to matter. It's not just that the dialogue is filled with overly cutesy jargon in these meaningless choices of long, drawn out dialogue trees. It's not just that the whole dialogue is performed in nonsense babble and only translated by a narrator's voiceover filled with overly cutesy jargon in these meaningless choices of long, drawn out dialogue trees. What really grinded my gears was the simple fact that on top of all this, the babble was presented nearly in its entirely and had to be skipped separately from the voiceover. So you have to mash the skip button at least once in between every single dialogue interaction just to get past meaningless babble and into the narrator's voiceover translation of overly cutesy jargon in meaningless choices of long, drawn out dialogue trees. 

And it goes around in circles, too. Halfway through the game we get to face up with the big bad. But even after defeating him, the dialogue trees for meeting him and deciding his fate remain tied to the characters encountered in the future, same as if it were the past. Every NPC wants to force you through conversation even when they have nothing relevant to offer. Everyone you meet has an opinion of everything, and you have to listen to all of it before getting to the quest. It got so bad there is an endgame mechanic where you are supposed to chose your favorite characters for the ending but I got to the point I left seats at the table blank simply because I was tired of engaging in any more dialogue to even recruit them. 

The conclusion

There are so many things to love about Biomutant: the combat is exceptional, the world is breathtaking, and there are customizations and crafting galore. What the game lacks is the glue to tie it all together with a compelling narrative. As such, it feels almost like something less than the sum of its parts. I had an expectation that I was walking into Kung Fu Panda, but because of the inane dialogue and storytelling choices I ended up instead in a bad Compare the Meerkats commercial narrated by a low-rent Stephen Fry channeling their best Little Big Planet impersonation. And it wasn't just the cover art that deceived me. The opening tutorial is centered around the cinematic trailer below. It blasts onto the stage with a mighty roar and great visuals and incredible emotion, then whimpers along from there, never even coming close to attempting anything so grandiose, even down to its finale. 

That is the true missed opportunity of Biomutant. It's not that the narrative itself is so bad—the quests themselves are repetitive, but a few minor changes and the story would be fine. It's that the delivery, locked behind only having to pay a single voice actor and never building any rapport with any of the characters, made me not only not care, but annoyed at every word. The painstakingly skippable gibberish underneath the voiceover made moving the plot forward downright tedious. 

Occasionally this game can be incredible. I can't forget one such moment, a musical crescendo accentuating shapes shifting at my feet, formed by shadows of moonlight as that celestial body peeked past desert mesas and shone in the horizon before me. It was a gorgeous, unscripted moment that brings to life this wonderfully crafted world, only to be let down by the speaking parts of every character within it. The Yin and Yang of Biomutant I suppose. A game that, if you let yourself simply get lost, you can discover a gameplay and exploration loop imminently rewarding. But if you choose instead to follow the path laid before you by the light of the shiny objective markers dotting the map, then its one that ultimately disappoints. In the end the final verdict has to reflect this Yin and Yang, the fantastic gameplay and the frustrating story. I'm going to settle on simply marking this game as Good. One that could have been class leading missed the mark in one major way, but still holds a grip on redemption because of the way the open world, or even New Game+, can become a sandbox to instead forge a better path.

Biomutant attempts to channel many inspirations into a compelling package. It does much of that extremely well, excelling at world building and creating a fluid combat system to drive the experience. The one area it falls short is in tying it all together with an engrossing narrative. It not only fails at the narrative, but even worse, fails at the very mechanics of delivering the story. Wander the world on your own initiative and experience a great game; follow the path of the main quest and suffer the letdown of a mediocre tale, told poorly.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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