Picture this for a second: the opening moments of a game centered around exploring a vast, seemingly post-apocalyptic open-world in which some form of calamitous event has occurred. Or may in fact occur once more if you don’t do something about it. You emerge from below ground into a grand, vibrant space; the camera pans up and out to reveal but a sample of the wider breadth of the game you’re now at liberty to explore. Cue title-drop. Tasked with dealing with four distinct, hostile, potentially world-ending threats — all of whom are located in one of four compass directions right at the edges of the world’s perimeter — the game follows this up by suggesting, but not flat-out declaring, that the “main” quest may not be all there is. That there may be more to what one can experience upon taking that first, curious trek forth. Does any, or all, of what I’ve just described sound a little familiar to you? If it does, it may also surprise you to hear that this direction isn’t the main drive to one’s time with Biomutant.
As it turns out, it ends up playing a supporting role, at times easily dismissed for more interesting endeavors. Endeavors that have come to define the [at present] 25-30 hours spent with one of its many branching endgame story routes. But what a rather wonderful number of hours they have been. Hard as it is to pin down just how much (if at all) developer Experiment 101 have borrowed from Nintendo’s book here — the game was originally unveiled around five months after Breath of the Wild’s release — it doesn’t take long for Biomutant to occasionally revert into a little meta-game of “spot the influence.” There’s shades of Far Cry 3 and Shadow of Mordor, just as there’s a call-back to the stylings of Fallout, Borderlands, Max Payne and Devil May Cry of all things. There are games that fling as wide a net as possible in what ideas they want to capture and encompass…and then there’s Biomutant. A game that does this, one assumes, with little care for just how cohesive — let alone enjoyable — these many design choices may end up becoming. Ah yes, we haven’t even tackled the artistic direction the game takes here too. Arguably Biomutant‘s key piece of marketing that has drawn many an eye since its announcement.
Going in, you’d think (rightfully so) that all signs are pointing to disaster. Already the idioms come flooding in: the game has bitten off more than its bi-pedal, player-created, rodent-like warrior can chew. Jack of all trades, master of none; wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle, etc. How surprising it is to find that Biomutant — despite that figurative juggling act still ongoing, like some towering stack of boxes the game is hoping to keep in check — not only pulls this off, but only amplifies the joy one has once again in the very act of exploring its rich world of multi-colored flora and mutant creatures that would sit right at home in a children’s picture-book. Perhaps that’s why Biomutant is so perplexingly-charming to want to see more of. Even just the sight of a group of seemingly-innocent, cartoonish characters wielding guns/melee weapons and beating each other to death is off-kilter enough to be regarded as inviting. Or having the omnipresent narrator offer another not-so-subtle jab at your combat proficiency, though the option to alter just how much a running commentary is provided, is also welcome. Biomutant makes sure to paint the post-apocalypse in a not-so-dreary light, but isn’t shy of having you stumble across a cel-shaded, low-poly human skeleton on occasion. One minute you’re sprinting across a lush field of green, the next you’re navigating what must be a landfill littered with nondegradable plastic waste. The shifts both visually and tonally are as much frantic as they are frequent.
But it’s admirable just how unafraid X101 (I’ll be shortening the developer’s name from hereon) are at being unconventional with this juxtapose, presenting one tonal mis-match after another. Scavenge this toxic section of the map; also, look at how goofy these enemies appear. How Biomutant, if you’ll pardon the rather cobbled-together comparison, feels like the result of the following pitch: “post-apocalypse…but for children.” That’s not a slight against X101, yet not for the first time do you ask yourself: surely, this isn’t going to work. Yet Biomutant absolutely does work. How, you may ask? For starters, Biomutant — like recent favorite Genshin Impact — understands that part of the joy of exploration is in the discovery. Whether it’s the spectacle of reaching the top of a hill to marvel at the near-distant plains before you or the curious little emergent moments of an underground bunker or side-quest that just may provide you with a helpful bit of clothing. Granted, Biomutant isn’t entirely open, as its namesake may imply. In that at any one co-ordinate one can physically traverse without restriction. Nor is it as puzzle-engrained as these recent highlights of the past few years, though the sprinkling of move-limited puzzles (requiring you to line up colored dials in a given fashion without resorting to brute-force) do provide a welcome break in proceedings.
There’s spots of invisible walls and working out just which parts of the environment are climbable and which ones are simply walls disguised as such. Players will no doubt find themselves funneled at points into a route as opposed to making that choice on their own, but that’s not to say that such moments — making a two/three kilometer trek down some beaten road — are deprived of more quainter enjoyment. Basic an execution it may appear, there’s joy to have in simply setting off on one’s journey across plains and plains of lush art design — not unlike last year’s Ghost of Tsushima in that respect. The trick, once again, is in suggesting rather than flat-out telling its players what may be out there. As hard to ignore the game’s use of that dreaded “Ubisoft open-world” formula, is at times — one of the main story quests requires you capturing rival outposts dotted about the world — there’s consolation in that Biomutant allows you to ignore this for a large stretch of one’s time. You are unfortunately required to complete them to see the end credits and it’s odd that the game, after a certain period, essentially gives you the option to skip the rest of the quest. As if, by its own admittance, conquering outposts is there just to pad time. Even so, formulaic — and a touch aggravating with the whole “go here, get this, come back, go somewhere else, come back” fetch-quest repetition in another part — the more story-leaning sections may seem, it’s easy enough to discard these moments in favor of Biomutant‘s greater appeal: the freedom to go off and explore at your leisure.
Even if, again, one’s time exploring are met with momentary instances of systems not properly explaining both their place and relevancy in the grander scheme. Namely, the Aura system and the fact that certain choices or dialogue options instigated over the course of the story can add to either your “Light” side or your “Dark” equivalent. This isn’t a morale system a kin to something like Fallout — there are no reputation levels to consider, outside of a tribe affiliation that boil down to which settlements you can access, or not. Nevertheless, Biomutant can falter briefly from lack of explanation or indeed elaborating on the importance of such systems at times. Specifically, why one should even bother making a character as good or bad-natured as they want. Without spoiling the details, there’s a point during one’s chosen quest where a crucial decision must be made. A decision that is limited on the number of times you can make a given choice. Unfortunately, not only does the game force you into a binary choice there and then, but there’s little warning on when that critical choice is going to be instigated. The game states it comes at the end of a given NPC’s string of quests, but it’s never made clear if that point has even been reached prior to interaction. A little head’s up would’ve been preferred.
But to reiterate, Biomutant lets you freely tackle (or completely ignore, albeit to a degree) these moments at your leisure. It was a while before I even considered tackling the next Worldeater quest, or even capturing the next outpost my aligned tribe, required of me. And the reason for that is of course how well X101 sprinkle the world with visual cues and oddities that may turn a curious few minutes in countless hours. From reaching a required point on the map, to acquiring higher-level loot, add-ons, tools that helped me buff my stats, or even just another novel dial-turning puzzle. It’s less a case that Biomutant has plenty to do or invest in, but rather the game’s strengths lie at how well it off-sets its momentary “mandatory AAA open-world” stylings in favor of a more novel and attractive alternate to a world’s back-story and present state. Even if some of that backstory is a little too on-the-nose at times. Biomutant‘s world exists, because a corporation called “Toxanol” excessively-polluted the world and made it this way? OK game. Thankfully this is as eye-rolling a pro-environmental message the narrative gets. Better still, it’s not forced on the player; the backstory is there for those who are eager for exposition, but entirely avoidable for those who aren’t. What themes or ideas X101 themselves may be wanting to express are fortunately left to the world design and environmental details themselves.
So what of combat then? Well again, this is where another one of Biomutant’s bafflingly-cohesive traits comes into play with surprising effect. Following in the wake of games like Shadow of Mordor and even Marvel’s Spider-Man to a degree, Biomutant is all about keeping on the move — mixing-and-matching a steady stream of melee and projectile strikes to keep the accompanying group of foes at bay. While groups of hostiles vary constantly, the usual rhythm is relatively the same. Frantically shift from attacking one enemy to the next, making sure to time one’s parry so that you initiate a juggling of that same stunned foe to land a few crucial strikes mid-air. Oh and you can also initiate bullet-time by jumping Max Payne-style. There’s even an ability to fire more rapidly by sliding, then firing. It’s a touch ridiculous, but again Biomutant‘s pace and its encouraging to be on the move, means it’s a welcome fit. Getting the timing right to initiate a combo move — whereupon landing three combos in one encounter without getting hit mid-animation, enables you to pull off some stronger-powered “Super Wu” abilities for a short time — only heightens the incentive to act accordingly.
Even the more RPG-leaning mechanics find a way into combat. A highlight being your player’s Ki meter, which for all intents and purposes is Biomutant‘s equivalent to something like Souls’ magic meter. One of the interesting things is the way you can “borrow” MP to initiate an attack. For example, you may want to unleash a Ki-powered attack on a group of foes, but may only have a small amount of Ki in your meter. You can still perform said attack, but what it means your meter then goes into the negative values. Meaning that for a few vital seconds, not only are you without the ability to perform special attacks — as your meter slowly fills up from its -40 or -50 value — but given that the Ki meter also governs your ability to dodge, there’s always that possibility you’re left vulnerable for a fair few precarious seconds. Of course, this is just one area of the extensive combat potential and it would be misleading not to cast some light on the minor parts that don’t quite work. Namely the reliance on an auto-targeting system, as opposed to one dictated by the player themselves. Your player-character at times focusing on the wrong target — bullet-fire and weapon strikes aiming in the direction you necessarily didn’t intend.
It goes without saying that both inside and outside of combat, there are a lot of systems to consider in Biomutant. Some of which leans even more into the general lack of care for just how silly aspects such as your gear and weapon load-out can get. Not that this works against it in any way. That said, while not every one of the ability tabs or unlockables especially are essential, the game still finds a way to have all these potential avenues work in tandem. Or at least prove a viable, helpful compliment to just spamming away at standard attacks. Combo tricks, weapon types, ailment-inducing abilities, even the fact you can switch weapons on the fly, all of these gel together sufficiently enough that it doesn’t disrupt the regular flow of battle. Instead heightening it without making later encounters feel too much like an eventual power-fantasy. Better still, the RPG side of Biomutant is one players will eventually find themselves more and more invested in for more than just the arbitrary increasing of numeric stats. The loot economy and self-serving loop of finding/upgrading gear is another one of the persistent staples and thankfully Biomutant does enough with its variety to make this detour feels worthwhile.
Just like its art direction, there’s something oddly appealing at the way Biomutant presents this on top. And not just because the menus and general UI has this minimal, colorful, almost mobile game-like attire to it. How add-on attributes to one’s gear are presented as having literally been stuck to one’s clothing. Before long you’re resembling a walking lump of recycled goods whose arsenal is itself a cobbled-together, modular set of components that just so happen to be sufficient melee weapons. Again, this is another area where X101’s clear environmental themes are presented in anything other than a preaching or pretentious manner. Credit where credit’s due (even if that may sound at times like unnecessary praise) to a studio that recognize that not every potential message needs to bludgeon its players to death. Yet to steer this back to the game itself, none of this investment — this strive to find better loot or simply enough currency to purchase it from a stumbled-upon merchant during one’s travels — would have anywhere near the staying power were it not for the world. And more importantly, how great it feels at times to simply ignore all objectives, decide upon heading towards a blurred-out part of the map and going straight for it. Voluntarily following the winding roads or rivers at times. The journey is as much, if not more so, satisfying than the destination itself.
As satisfying its exploration is, the most striking take-away from Biomutant is just how astonishingly well it pulls off its intended tone. More so its seemingly endless and mismatched assembly of influences. The feeling that it’s one mechanic or idea away from disaster — likely to collapse into a confused mess of what was once an aspired open-world, action-adventure. But X101 have seemingly achieved the unthinkable in threading that most unfathomable of needles that is Biomutant‘s pitch. Whose upfront, visual attraction is met with both a satisfying RPG progression and a near-endless supply of let-loose combat sequences. Complimented on top by a world both familiarly ruinous yet entirely fresh in its vibrancy. Sometimes that former familiarity can work against the player — the game occasionally lacking some much-needed fleshing out of its more dialogue-focused moments of choice. And the less said about the delivery of its main/story quests, the better. Even so, Biomutant‘s highs owe a lot to just how stacked against the odds it appears. And how over the span of an average twenty-or-so hour single-run it comes out not just unscathed, but victorious. Experiment 101 finding a way to incorporate the surreal and the strange, yet maintaining a consistent thread wherein the gameplay loop is both satisfying and intriguing to engage with. All of this, despite such continued reveling in its own eccentricity. But it’s that very eccentric attitude that marks Biomutant down as an unmistakably curious, but more importantly, entertaining open-world adventure to lose one’s self in.