Republished on Wednesday 30th November 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of December's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Biomutant could have released a decade ago and it wouldn't have looked out of place. By stimulating the open world formula of old with new takes on the RPG genre, studio Experiment 101 appeared to be living up to its name. The final product does indeed prove that a lot of trial and error was going on behind the scenes, but Biomutant is more misstep than anything else. Its original ideas fail to leave a mark in what is otherwise a very routine open world experience.
It's the potential that kills you — this is very much a "what could have been" type deal. While many of its mechanics are rooted in mediocrity, it's clear Biomutant wanted to go big on RPG systems. You catch glimpses of that throughout the 20-hour or so adventure with speech checks that detract from your overall stats should you fail them and hard decisions which dictate who makes it to safety while others are left behind. The problem is they amount to very little, opting to be mere footnotes in a colourful but decidedly sparse landscape.
And it is scant, for the world of Biomutant is often muted despite its bright shades and tones. The vast post-apocalyptic environment crafts itself out of rolling green hills and dilapidated buildings from a bygone era, divided across multiple regions each with its own climate and resistances. Except there's little to connect one landmark to the next. Long stretches of grass and rudimentary housing provide nothing in the way of captivating reasons to veer off the main path — neither does actual optional content as basic fetch quests litter our journal. Later biomes introduce a small slice of cosmetic variety, although their drawbacks are much the same.
It all amounts to a pursuit for either chaos or tranquillity (the choice is yours) that manages to feel both basic and overwhelming. Simplistic in that modern open world design has it beat by a considerable margin, but also formidable outside of the action. The game is so overflowing with systems and mechanics that its menus are fit to burst.
Balancing three different upgrade trees, a morality system, very in-depth crafting opportunities, various tribes to keep track of, and long lists of Wung-Fu moves, Biomutant threatens to topple under its own weight. There's simply too much going on — so much so that it's very easy to get lost within menus. Without comprehensively explaining what every option and mechanic has to offer, Biomutant feels like a reach for the stars that ran out of fuel before the ozone layer. Far too much feels like it either wasn't ready for lift-off or could have been approached in a better manner.
What isn't quite as so overly ambitious is the combat itself, which can feel somewhat satisfying depending on the weapon you use. In what almost appears to be luck of the draw, some bats and big hitters will gratify when contact with an enemy is made while others lack any real oomph. Basic combos will see you subdue most combatants and customisable guns can deal damage at range — they always feel and sound like a pea shooter, however. What gives engagements some personality though is comic book-style text that pops off whenever a combo is successfully performed. Damage numbers then litter the screen to convey just how much of an impact you're having on an enemy's health bar. In tandem, they add a sense of style to proceedings. Nothing that will considerably elevate the combat system beyond mediocre, but at least they're something cool to look at.
A long list of abilities then endeavours to expand the scope and capabilities of combat, except they never really amount to much. It's a snag that affects the entire game actually; enemies are too much of a bullet-sponge (or melee-sponge in this case?) and so powers feel largely inconsequential when they're having such little impact on a health bar. You'll need to really wail on foes before they meet their demise.
Fuelling hostilities is the intricate crafting system, allowing you to customise every single piece of your get-up with add-ons. It's probably the most impressive aspect of Biomutant — developer Experiment 101 really went to town with the sheer breadth of possibilities on offer. You can arrange seemingly random household objects into a weapon of mass destruction, and then improve it with upgrades further down the line. If there's one thing the title nails, it's this. The results could be questionable when applied to combat, but what the system actually has to offer is mightily impressive. The number of weapon combinations you could come up with must be off the charts.
Attempting to bring all these mechanics together is a flimsy story about the Tree of Life and the tribes which take refuge next to it. While it's all fairly uninteresting, the real kicker is the narrator. He's essentially the only voice you'll ever hear in the game, conveying what other characters are saying and their meaning instead of letting them speak for themselves. This strips them of any personality they might have. Their expressions fall flat, possible unique quirks lost, and mannerisms impossible to convey. The narrator takes away the possibility of forming a bond with another character as their chatter is absorbed and then spitballed back at you through the lens of a third party.
What further trivialises any attempt at conversation is the dialogue options you have to choose from, the vast majority of which are presented as questions instead of statements. It's an odd design choice that robs you of many meaningful decisions, especially so when there's a morality system that likes to make itself known as often as possible. If anything, the two work against each other — why should you care whether the game considers you to be light, dark, or anywhere in between when interactions are mostly devoid of proper choice? Sure, it's abundantly obvious when one of these morality-affecting decisions appears, but the discussions in-between don’t seem to matter. Although, when there's maybe five to six NPCs populating an entire town and just one of them has anything even slightly noteworthy to say, it hardly feels like a system worth actively engaging in.
Stopping the game short of complete condemnation is the frame rate, which is in a reasonable state following patches issued during the review process. A 60 frames-per-second mode is available on both PlayStation 5 via backwards compatibility and PS4 Pro, with the former console achieving that target for the most part. Quick stutters break the flow of combat and traversal on occasion, but they're few and far between. Except for fairly regular texture pop-in and glitchy light sources, it's pretty smooth sailing on the technical front. Just be sure to download and install all updates to make that happen.
Biomutant could have been something special, but the ambitious project fails to capitalise on what it does differently. Trapped in the clutches of an open world from a generation past, its own ideas are thwarted by an overload of other mechanics and overwhelming menus. By trying to do so much, Biomutant skipped the part where it built a solid basis to work from. While there's still potential here, Experiment 101's first attempt hasn't realised it.