Years in the making, Biomutant – a mashup of action RPG with open-world exploration – pushes all the right button combos.
If you’re a fan of open-world action RPGs, there’s been no shortage of big, sprawling games to sink dozens of hours into, across genres ranging from traditional fantasy adventure (the Witcher and Elder Scrolls games) to the creature-slaying chaos of Monster Hunter World and Horizon Zero Dawn, to the sleek but gritty digital future of Cyberpunk 2077.
None of those games, however, let you play as a mutated miniature fuzzball creature with giant swords, a fear of water and a knack for an alternate-universe form of kung fu. Until now, that is.
Developed by Experiment 101, a tiny Swedish studio of less than 20 people (some of whom used to work on the Just Cause explode-a-thons), Biomutant approaches the ARPG from several directions at once, mashes them all together and somehow, unexpectedly, gets away with it.
You play as a little furry creature of unknown origin, living in a world that’s gone to hell somewhere in the past, resulting in genetic mutations occurring in both the native population of fuzzballs, and in the various other creatures that roam the world causing havoc – not least the dreaded World-eaters. Feeding the world’s existence is the Tree-of-life, but it’s been poisoned by the bio-disaster that’s reshaped the world, and it’s dying. Your fuzzball will set out on a quest to save the Tree-of-life – or to ally with the darker side and use it to shape the world in a more menacing way. Decisions are made from early in the game about which way you’ll play out the story, starting with which of the tribes you decide to align yourself with.
The idea there is, of course, to enable multiple playthroughs to deliver very different experiences. As with most RPGs, you pick a “class” (basically a breed of fuzzball) at character creation – with a different physical appearance for each option, that appearance further changed based on the skills you choose to emphasise from the outset. It’s the sort of thing that gets RPG fans poring over the details for way too long to create the perfect character, but neither your abilities nor your looks are set in stone – so it’s best to pick skills that match your preferred play style, jump in and experiment.
Created in Unreal Engine 4, Biomutant is jaw-droppingly gorgeous at times, with its vivid, colourful world looking especially lovely in HDR, with elaborate use of depth-of-field effects giving everything a kind of surreal lushness – much like a down-the-rabbit-hole version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which this game shares much in common with. But the combat here is far more interesting – it’s fast, fluid and immensely customisable via skill points as you progress throughout the game. Yes, you can button-mash your way to victory, but the combination of two different skill upgrade paths – one giving you a choice of up to four powerful alternate abilities, the other unlocking potent combo moves – makes things a lot more interesting. Even better, combat is punctuated by cartoon-style “WHOOMP” and “THWACK” pop-ups as you whoomp and thwack your target, something that instantly recalls the ill-fated but gloriously cartoonish action MMO Wildstar – which surely was the inspiration for this, along with the narrator’s excited responses to a particularly good whack.
That narrator, by the way, is terrific. A constant presence as you progress through the world, his crisp British voice gives you information about you and your place in the world, as well as translating all of the character dialogue throughout (in this fuzzball-filled world, everyone speaks a generic language that is, like the game world itself, a little bit Asian and a little bit alien.) There’s a section early in the game where you remember the days before the mutations happened, transformed into a baby fuzzball in your home village with your mother, father and relatives, and the narration guides you through it with suitable nostalgia. It’s actually one big tutorial on the game’s more advanced systems like crafting, but with story flavour neatly woven in.
“Biomutant is jaw-droppingly gorgeous at times…”
There’s a lot of emphasis on choice in Biomutant, and very few limitations – in theory your little fuzzball can eventually learn every skill in the game and switch to whatever weapons or gear works best. You might have picked a “class” at the start of the game, but your choice isn’t set in stone. What is unchangeable is your progress through the Aura system – basically dark side versus light side (quite literally – the game presents little “conscience” NPCs to tempt you over to one side or the other) or “Renegade” versus “Paragon.” This directly affects how the game’s story plays out, as well as the availability of some powers later in the game – and it’s great to see systems like this interwoven into what might otherwise have been a straightforward RPG-lite adventure.
All of it runs at a mostly butter-smooth framerate (we played on Xbox One X) with admirably short loading times, the entire game packed into less than 14GB – remarkable when it’s almost routine these days to have to find space for 100GB or more for games far less ambitious than this one.
As an RPG, it’s not necessarily going to scratch that gear-and-stats itch that some gravitate towards – the user interface is big, bright, flamboyant and fun, but that can make searching out the right crafting elements more of a chore than it needs to be and comparing weapons and gear harder than it should be. But that’s a minor niggle – you do get used to it, and having the ability to make and use such a wide variety of stuff is refreshing in a genre where your choice of class at the outset often locks you to a certain type of gear.
It’s quite the achievement, this game. Made by a tiny team over the course of years, it’s brilliantly crafted, humorous and heartfelt. With gorgeous open-world exploration and smart action combat (Breath of the Wildstar, anyone?) along with some of the most adorably weird furry protagonists you’re likely to find, Biomutant is a welcomely weird bunch of cleverly crafted fuzzball fun.
Biomutant is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.