I can’t hate Biomutant. It’s too lovely to look at, too earnest to be truly cynical about. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that would benefit so strongly from having all spoken and written dialogue completely removed from it.
For a game so ostensibly concerned with the environment that it barely lets you turn a corner without spouting platitudes at you, it seems utterly averse to letting its world breathe.
It’s too gorgeous a world to drown out, too. Even the creatures trying to kill you are so charming that it’s hard to criticise the game at all for fear of seeing a look of disappointment on their stupid, adorable faces. Life is full of lessons, though. So kudos to Biomutant for teaching me that I could learn to hate a dachshund puppy if it explained the difference between right and wrong to me every time I went to feed it.
Lots of great games have bad writing, and I think that’s something most of us have made our peace with. That Biomutant’s identity hinges so much on the strength of its storytelling is the fault of combat and exploration that could be enjoyable in service of a greater whole, but is too inconsistent to carry a whole game. Think Arkham, sans tightness, and Devil May Cry, sans freedom and fluidity.
It’s passable, and sometimes fun.
An oversized metal rocket-glove called the Klonkfist makes one helluva satisfying clank when it connects, and a fighting staff lets you twirl and lunge like a bin-scavenging ballerina. Animations are often exciting, even if largely limp sound design robs them of weight. But with so many weapons and different enemy types, along with inconsistent parry and block tells, it’s a dice throw as to whether it feels good.
The art design and colour palette do a damn-near heroic job of making exploration worthwhile for its own sake, but even this is soured by a refusal to let you engage with the world on your own terms. “There’s so much more to see now,” says the narrator, ambiently, as I explore. But I know that, old mate. I can see it myself. The world is bright and beautiful enough, the music beckoning and promising enough, that I can feel these things without being told to.
During the writing of this review, a patch was released that lets you turn off the narrator entirely. Previously, conversations lasted twice as long as they needed to. You’d get spoken to in charming gibberish, then the narrator would translate.
Now, you can just opt to have gibberish and subtitles, or just the narrator. It’s a welcome change, but it doesn’t fix the fact that up to five sentences are regularly used to say what could have been accomplished in just one. I don’t believe brevity should always be a hard and fast rule, but so few speakers in Biomutant’s world are interesting enough as characters to justify these monologues.
Most egregious of all is a morality system that Peter Molyneux would find quaint, with consequences so limited they make Fable look like Planescape: Torment. Colour-coded sprites appear and argue with each other about dark and light every time you make a moral decision. It’s excruciating.
I’ve heard the argument that this is a consequence of Biomutant being designed for kids, but being patronised sounds the same whether you’re five or 50. Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl… heck, I was ten when I played Abe’s Oddysee. Morality tales don’t have to be patronising. Please let your world speak for itself. I have never felt the tired writing mantra ‘Show, don’t tell’ as viscerally as I did playing this.
I don’t think Biomutant is a bad game, though – just an ill-considered one. It’s still satisfying to absent-mindedly run about the world, solving simple puzzles and collecting loot. Even the sprint animation made me grin, making your furry little weirdo bound across the plains on all fours. You can ride on a clockwork hand that shoots rockets from its fingers, a mech that shoots squirrels, and you unlock fast travel points by peeing on them.
One mission had me stealing a giant toothbrush from a billboard so I could scrub clean a giant cat-ogre-mutant thing that had got itself trapped in an oil spill. I loved this stuff. It kept me pushing forward, hoping to find more of it, more charming little moments that understood the difference between child-like and childish. Occasionally, I did. Mostly, I just looted chests, hit things, and got talked at.
There’s likely a few weekends of fun here, for the right person, with the right podcast on in the background. Something to shore up the gaps and lulls, the empty hills, the dull tunnels, the same enemy camps we’ve all been clearing for a decade now. Parents, too, might want to take a closer look, especially now the narration issues have been patched.
Otherwise, I’m left despairing at the industry trends that made the developers feel they had to turn such a strange and wonderful premise into such an unremarkable game to make it profitable.
The first encounter with each new creature feels like turning a new page in a wonderfully odd coffee table art book, and each new gadget and gizmo is a real delight to discover.
Charming visual design and undeniable heart makes Biomutant hard to hate, but inconsistent quality and baffling writing choices make it hard to recommend, either.
Genre: Action adventure
Format: PS4 / XBO / PC (tested)
Developer: Experiment 101
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Release: Out now