Biomutant tells a cautionary tale about cleaning up your own mess

, | Game reviews

A colorful post-apocalyptic open world populated by intelligent mutated animals.  Tthe usual Ubisoft style open-world with a touch of Gamma World and a Secret of NIMH vibe.  Over-the-top brawler gameplay, intricate stat-based character development, and a hearty crafting system.  Mounts, vehicles, loot, exploration, puzzles, choice-and-consequence.  A robot cricket sidekick!  If games were bullet points, Biomutant would have a lot going for it.  But since games are games, Biomutant is only as good as the realization of these bullet points.

It’s an impressive enough open-world, threaded with roads and tunnels and streams, festooned with collectibles and loot and resources, cobbled together from a patchwork of biomes and ruins and mini-dungeons, populated by critters and factions and monsters.  As you’d expect in an open world, there’s a lot going on here.  And it looks pretty good at first, although a bit unpolished.  Ignoring the seams in the engine, it’s nearly lovely.  If I peer carefully into the middle distance, not as far as the pop-up, but not as close as the glitches, it’s an intriguing art design for a post-apocalypse.

Some of it is pretty clever.  For instance, I like the idea of hazardous areas I can’t safely explore until I’ve geared up.  But like so many other pieces of Biomutant, something went wrong in the transition from design document.  Elemental resistance is a part of the loot chase.  Different components provide varying degrees of resistance to different elements, such as radiation, cold, heat, and toxin.  These supposedly come into play in combat, but they also correspond to the hazardous areas.  It’s as if the game wants me to craft various suits of armor to protect me in different zones, which is why there’s a whole separate screen to save outfits.  So I get a bunch of gear to protect me from radiation, I assign it to one of the tabs in the outfits screen, and now I can explore the ruins of nuclear power plants.  The drawback is that I’m wearing armor suboptimal for combat, because my priority in the ruined nuclear plant is the anti-radiation stat, and not necessarily the armor stat.  Ideally, this makes loot more varied.  It makes different armor relevant for different situations.  It adds a new dimension to the crafting beyond boosting the armor stat.  It even makes geography more meaningful.  

But at some point in the development, it seems Biomutant changed its mind.  Perhaps it realized that putting together different sets of armor was too high a price for exploring a patch of real estate.  And it was right.  The readily visible color-coded hazardous zones are too small a part of the game world.  They just don’t have the weight to justify so much fussing around with my inventory.  The godawful inventory management doesn’t help matters.

So instead of relying on armor to protect me from hazards, I have to find a separate suit for each hazard.  Instead of tailoring my armor for a ruined nuclear power plant, I do a quest to find a hazmat suit that protects me from radiation.  Now I assign its three pieces of gear — anti-radiation hat, anti-radiation jacket, anti-radiation pants — to a separate outfit.  I also have to re-equip my shoulder pads and face mask for this outfit.  Plus any armor add-ons, because they’re a major part of upgrading your gear.    

The result is that different zones have their own hazmat suits.  These hazmat suits are awful for combat, and they’re a lot of pointless busywork on the outfits screen.  Not to mention a real wrench in the works for the crafting system, because now I’ve got six suits of armor comprised of six pieces each, with about 12 add-on slots for crafting boosts.  I’ll use each suit of specialized armor maybe three times, if even that.  For the most part, hazardous zones are optional.  Eventually, I just steered around any hazards the storyline didn’t force me to explore.  

But at least Biomutant still has all those cool elemental interactions in combat, right?  Oh, wait, no it doesn’t.  The elemental resistance system is utterly inconsequential.  But it’s still supposedly a way to differentiate loot.  I can also spend character points boosting my resistance to various elements.  I have no idea why I’d want to do that, but it’s in there, behind a button under a tab for one of the five inventory screens.  

So while the developers figured out that having multiple sets of armor was a pain in the ass, they didn’t rework the game design.  They instead worked awkwardly around it, leaving bits of the original intent like heaps of construction materials without so much as a Pardon Our Dust sign.  It’s an unsightly mess no one bothered to clean up.  A change in direction during the development process, leaving behind something half built on uneven ground, and furthermore jammed into the finished bits.  Did no one have a broom?  This is a constant issue throughout Biomutant, a game about an environmental apocalypse no one bothered to clean up.  Biomutant is to game design what its ecological apocalypse is to the Earth.  Perhaps it’s supposed to be a meta message about environmentalism.

But this carelessness meant I constantly felt like I was playing a beta or an early access release.  If I didn’t know Biomutant had a looming release date, I would have uninstalled it in disgust and waited for the developers to tidy up their mess.  For instance, I found a duck helmet early in the game that was better than any of the dozens of other hats I would find later.  Dramatically better.  I never needed another hat.  Dozens and dozens of variously weird, cute, and bad-ass hats made their way through my inventory.  Beanies, top hats, cowboy hats, knit caps, fox ears, luchador masks, motorcycle helmets, football helmets, sombreros, turbans.  None could compare to my duck helmet.  It was the same with my jacket, my pants, my shoulder pads, and the gas mask I wore under my duck helmet.  Yes, I’m wearing a gas mask under my duck helmet.  Don’t ask me how it fits.

So the loot chase ended before it had barely begun.  I spent dozens of hours tolerating a torrent of garbage that I would either scrap for crafting materials I didn’t need or to sell to vendors for cash I needed even less.  Surely this was something the developers would fix, right?  Because I can’t imagine undermining a game’s entire loot system this quickly and summarily.  Surely this is something that just needed that last bit of tuning before the release date.  You’ll have to tell me. 

And that’s not just armor.  Weapons suffer from the same situation.  Early on, I build a weapon I like, and then I spend the rest of the game ignoring 95% of the loot I find because I don’t need it, and I furthermore don’t need the resources I’d collect scrapping it or the money I’d make selling it.  

The crafting system lets me combine components to make a handful of different weapons.  Basically, slash or crush for melee; shotgun, automatic rifle, vanilla rifle, or pistol for ranged.  I can stick add-ons onto them to improve their stats.  I can upgrade the base components.  I can also use consumable ammo packs in ranged weapons.  This is all relatively straightforward, despite a tortured interface (Biomutant has one of the worst inventory management interfaces I’ve seen in a long time).  

I can do all this crafting from my character screen.  But then there are all the crafting stations around the world, hoisted aloft by balloons to make them readily visible.  You’d think they occupied an important role in the gameplay.  On the contrary, these are just places where you upgrade an item’s rarity and material.  For some reason, the bulk of crafting takes place on the character screen, but these two minor parts of the crafting system are restricted to crafting stations in villages around the world.  Why?  I never once felt the need to upgrade an item, partly because it’s a huge resource drain, but mainly because I have no idea what the game is trying to communicate.  This is a recurring problem with Biomutant’s cute-animal-post-apocalypse lexicon.  Weapons are crafted from materials such as ano, bipp, and meso.  I have no idea what these are supposed to mean, so fortunately, they’ve also got numbers.  Ano is level 3, bipp is level 4, and meso is level 5.  I can pay resources to upgrade an item to better material and improve its stats.

But then there’s an item’s quality, where the numbers seem to be broken.  I can pay resources to upgrade an item’s quality, which is indicated with words like lousy, decent, defunct, rik-rak, and pow-wow.  There are numbers attached to these words, but I have no idea what they mean.  For instance, if I want to upgrade the quality of my Wrenchcurve Flatsaw, I have to pay ten of each resource, which is an expensive proposition.  This upgrades it from quality Decent IV to quality Pow-Wow I.  So, uh, Pow-Wow I is better than Decent IV?  I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, and Biomutant isn’t interested in telling me.  I do know, however, that the weapon will do eight more points of damage, which isn’t much given its current damage range is 353-589.  It will also add about five pixels to the weapon’s Armor Pierce rating.  Apparently there’s armor piercing in Biomutant.

All these stats seem to imply a serious combat game, but I’m playing no such thing.  This is a splashy brawler based on combos with absurdly generous timing windows.  I just learn the sequence of buttons to mash and I’m good to go.  Weapon upgrades?  Pshaw.  What do I care about another eight points of damage for a weapon that does 353-589 points of damage, especially in a game that puts a premium on me pressing X, X, and then Y to trigger a beatdown animation?  Biomutant introduces its simple brawler gameplay early on, and then leaves it untouched for 20 hours or so of playing time.  As long as I can learn to spam a few combos, I’m good to go all the way up through the final boss.  And while I’m no brawler savant, I can tell when one is holding my hand instead of coaching me to get better.  I know the difference between letting me win and helping me climb a power curve.  I can feel when something is sloppy instead of just forgiving.  

Consider Fenyx Rising, another splashy brawler based on combos with absurdly generous timing windows.  Fenyx Rising is a simple game.  It’s a forgiving climb up a power curve, with an emphasis on learning combos.  A stat-based progression system loiters discreetly in the background.  But it’s constantly developing old moves, as well as introducing new ones.  It’s a carefully cultivated bag of tricks that leaves the choice of tricks up to you.  Fenyx Rising is a polished, consistent, and carefully integrated system for combat, loot, and upgrades, built to be accessible yet interactive.  Biomutant is a wasteland of design leftovers clogging its own systems.

Which then gets into the character progression system, based on a messy collection of stunted upgrade tracks.  Once I’ve unlocked the two special moves for the weapon I’m using, that progression track is done.  I suppose I’ve freed up points to use on perks of minimal consequence.  Gosh, I might even go ahead and throw a few points into elemental resistance.  So, sure, I’ll add 10% to my fire resistance in case I whiff a dodge against some fire-wielding beast.  Then again, did I ever once meet a fire-wielding beast?  If I did, it sure didn’t matter that it was wielding fire.

The inspiration seems to be the Fallout games, and not just for the post-apocalypse aesthetic.  As with Fallout, you’re supposed to pick a character build from a number of viable options, then focus on your build and ignore the other options.  They’ll be there when I replay the game, because Biomutant thinks it’s a game I will replay to explore its choice-and-consequence system.  This is based on a good/evil scale and six competing factions squatting in castles around the world.  But these are just bullet points struggling to find expression.  The scale for good and evil is just a prerequisite for a couple of powers.  The faction system unlocks weapons I don’t need because I have the one I crafted.  And that’s it.  When it’s all done, an ending cinematic reminds me of choices I made that didn’t matter except for the ending cinematic.  “Remember when you did this?” it asks. “And this?  And then this?  And you did this?”

Not really, I reply.  Because I stopped paying attention to the cloying storyline and its babytalk worldbuilding early on.  The enemies have names like Wufflepups and Fuzzle Doogs and Biffy Baffbops and Lupa Dupa Doos.  My weapons are a Tizzlepink Duffleboop, a Wrechsaw Jazzlerattle, a Boombomb Bapplefrapp, and a pair of Blamknuckle Brackplows.  Characters have names like Whiz Tinkletonker.  My health potions are called things like Tongueticklies.  I’m doing quests like “Train with your Mooma”, “Find Pebble to Stronken your Klawbar”, and “Buy the Boom Poo from Moog.”  A narrator reads everything aloud in his best Stephen Fry baritone, observing in third person whatever happened and what someone just said, because the inhabitants of Biomutant mutter furry animal Simlish, which must have saved a bundle on localization.  But this narrator has none of the insight or playfulness as the narration in Bastion or Fenyx Rising.  It’s as if I’ve got a smarmily quirky translator chip lodged in my brain.  Fortunately, I can turn the narrator’s voice all the way down and just read subtitles.  Or not, as the case may be. 

Biomutant is what happens when someone makes an Ubisoft game, but without Ubisoft’s resources, experience, talent, or even willingness to take risks.  With the exception of the art design, everything about Biomutant feels safe and familiar, but without the confidence or polish needed to make it effective.  Safe, familiar, and hopelessly lost in the detritus-littered wasteland between design document and actual game.

  • Biomutant

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A colorful environmental post-apocalypse stocked with weird/cute animals, tons of pointless loot, sloppy combat, stunted character progression, and more babytalk than you can shake a Bangbump Hurkjuls at.
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