Review: Biomutant – Kung Fu Trashpanda

The last several years have seen a curious trend in video games which I can only blame Fallout 4 for truly popularizing. It is the notion that we are able to reuse everything, that given enough trash one will inevitably find treasure (or at least a sweet weapon or piece of armor), picking through the detritus of a world long destroyed to find something which will help you survive in the here and now. It abstracts a great deal of actual tooling and modification work, the tedious stuff which isn’t really “fun.” At the same time, though, it has also led to certain lazy behaviors and habits. At best, you have games like Horizon Zero Dawn, where the trash is so highly advanced you can’t really distinguish it from shiny and new. At the other end, you’ve got Biomutant.

“Onward, BTR-KP! There’s shenaningans afoot!”

Like so many highly anticipated games, Biomutant had a teaser trailer that hinted at an interesting aesthetic, suggesting anthropomorphic characters who weren’t straight off The Island of Dr. Moreau or the thirsty sections of DeviantArt. But that aesthetic didn’t seem to make the translation into the actual game quite as well as one might have hoped. Visually, Biomutant seems to mashup the four-color palletes found in games like Ratchet & Clank with a subdued post-apocalyptic vibe reminiscent of Fallout 4. It’s not a bad combination, per se, but it seems to create a sort of mental fistula, like you’re expecting it to go one way or the other and it never quite does. And while I’ve often said it’s hard to make something look bad using the Unreal Engine, Biomutant doesn’t seem to take particular pains to make things look especially good, either. There’s no denying it’s bright and colorful for the most part, but it’s not especially exciting despite the varied environments that Experiment 101 created for the game.

The major sticking points, visually speaking, are in the character designs and the props. As far as props go, they’re certainly fitting with the cartoonish side of Biomutant‘s aesthetic, but they range from the acutely uninteresting (like a nail add-on for a weapon) to wildly incongruent. Nowhere is this more obvious than when fitting out your character. You have no means of custom crafting items from scratch. All you can do is scavenge and upgrade, which sometimes leads to your character looking absolutely ridiculous. There’s just no escaping the sense that you’re wearing junk and fighting with junk, and sometimes even using cobbled together junk vehicles to get quickly from point A to point B. Gear sets out there do exist which have a unified look to them, but they’re either functionally useless for adventuring or they’re ultimately overshadowed by better gear and character upgrades. At a more fundamental level, your character’s species and class give you a specific look, and while you can make variations during initial creation (which incidentally affect your starting stats), those looks are highly unflattering for the most part. No amount of armor or cool weapons can overcome the sometimes downright fugly appearance certain breed/class combinations produce. Finally, the visual cue of “surprise! cool stuff!” where an item appears with an explosion of color behind it gets very old very quickly. When you’re getting a legendary gear piece in Fallout 4, it’s tolerable because it doesn’t happen as often. Biomutant goes completely overboard with it. As for the NPCs and even the boss monster World Eaters, none of them look especially menacing or companionable. They’re either wide-eyed Pixar rejects or almost literally beady-eyed overstuffed sock puppets. It’s hard to get a sense of threat from a creature that looks like it escaped from the prop room of a particularly shabby children’s theatre.

“What is the sound of one lake oozing?”

Visual shortcomings might be tolerable if there was sufficiently good audio to go with it, but Biomutant makes its audio somehow less appealing than its visuals. Sound effects are, for the most part, decent enough though somewhat underwhelming.  The soundtrack is environmental and completely forgettable, enough to warn you when you’ve strayed into a potential combat encounter, but not enough to stick with you after the game’s shut off. The greatest sin, however, is the narrator. Now, this is a “feature” which you can turn off in the options, although it only affects the “travelogue” moments which point out the obvious like the sun coming up. The narrator will still provide information when looking at special objects or translating the dialog from the NPCs. I wasn’t entirely sure how much actual information might be missed by doing so, but having put some time in, I can honestly say you’re not going to be missing a whole lot by turning it off completely. But even then, having the narrator also act as your translator for all the semi-Simlish the NPCs speak is just excruciating. If the narrator was David Attenborough, it might not be too bad, but it could very likely reach “wearying” after twenty or thirty hours. As it is, you kinda want to punch the narrator out just so he’ll shut up.

“I’m suddenly thankful I can’t hear anything over the screams of dying furries ringing in my ears.”

It’s this desire to silence the narrator which leads to my next point: the narrative in Biomutant is a complete and total shambles. While it’s billed as a “kung fu fable,” it’s all over the place in terms of story and characters. You’ve got the big overarching threat of giant monsters called the World Eaters, you’ve got the slightly less overarching problem of various factions which you have to align with and/or beat into submission, you have a bunch of make work quest chains from NPCs to obtain or enhance various forms of conveyance, and the meta-narrative of how the world came to be such a colorful crapsack. Compared to open world games like The Witcher III or Ghost of Tsushima, there’s too much going on, and what’s there is unfocused in its direction and absolutely infantile in its quality.

I’m sure somebody was earnest in their efforts to make a point about environmental responsibility and ethical conundrums, but the actual level of storytelling is about what got left behind when Captain Planet went off the air. Perversely, the gear items and materials needed to improve them only exacerbate the pedantic moralism underlying the story. Even worse, you don’t seem to be able to materially influence certain elements of the story, such as the faction fighting. Basically, you’re forced to pick a side at the start, and it dictates what your potential choices are if you decide to defect later. More to the point, assuming you defect to another faction, it hampers your ability to move around the further you get into the game because the faction you start with will basically have an insurmountable “head start” in territory it controls, which in turn limits where you can rest and rearm. More to the point, even if you’re not actively opposing a given faction at the time, you can’t visit any of their settlements or strongholds while allied to another faction. Neutrality is not a thing in Biomutant. There’s no subtlety, no opportunities to play Yojimbo, nothing but a literally black-and-white morality system which makes Mass Effect‘s Paragon/Renegade system look positively intricate by comparison.

“No wonder this town died. Not a single Twinkie to be found anywhere!”

So now we get to the mechanics of Biomutant. It’s hard to say if the greatest sins of this game are found in the mechanics, but it’s not a terrible stretch to say that the most obvious ones are seen here. In some respects, Biomutant does very basic things fairly well. The combo system is simple enough to pick up, never more than three button presses are needed to get a particular combo off. Dodging is reasonably easy, with a contextual prompt to warn you when you really need to get out of the way. Same with parrying, a warning icon showing up above an enemy who can be parried. But get past those simple things and you see how completely shambolic the whole affair is. You’re limited to four special powers or abilities, broken up into mutations (none of which seem particularly interesting) and “psi-powers” (which are far more interesting, but locked to particular morality alignments). As for the big combo finisher attacks, they’re great, assuming you can hit your target. Which makes the lock-on feature completely useless for any of the big finishers, but the ranged attack ones in particular suffer for it.

Exploration of the environment is easy enough, but the developers seem to have been big fans of jumping puzzles, some of which are incredibly difficult without resorting to certain special attacks to get you across gaps. There are a number of different sites which you can visit and they have a list of what can be interacted with or looted, which is helpful. But there’s no good way to tell where all the items are in some zones, and there’s not any obvious boundary which tells you when you’re going off track. And while mounts can get you from point A to point B quicker than walking or running, some of those mounts are downright useless, particularly the one flying mount that you receive as a quest reward. It’s basically a glorified glider which you can only really control the rate of descent on.

The aerial moves are kinda sweet at times.

The inventory system allows players to save up to five different gear sets, useful for when you need to quickly switch into a set which protects you from a given environmental hazard. But actually sorting through the inventory becomes a ridiculous chore very quickly because it only gives you information about how a piece stacks up to your currently equipped gear. Sorting by quality is not an option, which means you’re going to have a bunch of extra components that you’re either going to have to sell off or dismantle for materials. The color coding on gear is not nearly as helpful as it should be, nor is the numerical value assigned to each piece. Combat is further complicated by the process of healing items. There seem to be more items than there is space on the wheel you call up to use them from, and there’s not an intuitive way of organizing those items on the wheel.

The wheel system also extends to you choice of mounts, where it’s even less helpful. Certain mounts can ostensibly be tamed in the wild by picking up a certain piece of fruit. But that item seems to be vanishingly rare out in the world, which means most of your mounts will either be bought at strongholds or obtained as quest rewards. To manage your mounts, however, you have to go into the section assigned to your map. Truly, your greatest adversary in Biomutant isn’t the World Eaters or the other factions, it’s the user interface.

“I do all my best upgrade work in balloon suspended workbench platforms.”

Putting it bluntly, Biomutant has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up, and it has no intention of growing up. It has cribbed features from better games which have come before, mashed them all together, and hoped it would all gel. Combined with the most annoying narrator in the world, a UI which almost actively works against you, a condescendingly moralistic storyline, and lackluster art direction in everything except the overall environment, and you have a game which isn’t a “Kung Fu fable,” but rather a cautionary tale about how not to make an open world adventure game.

This review was based off a copy of the game purchased by the author.

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