What will remain of us, when we are gone? According to Horizon Zero Dawn, we can look forward to a clanking array of robotic dinosaurs. The wastes of Fallout, meanwhile, are patrolled by mutants, while the airwaves are haunted by the twang of rock and roll, like the light from a long-dead star. If, on the other hand, The Last of Us is to be believed, then we won’t so much have gone as bloomed—our bodies overtaken by a deadly fungus, until we resemble angry plates of porcini risotto. Sobering visions all, to which Biomutant, a new open-world action-RPG, makes a thoughtful contribution: raccoons.
Or foxes, perhaps—with a definite dash of cat, and I’m sure I detect a hint of hare around the ears. Such is the hero, at any rate: a cross-blending of creatures who, while we were alive, were happy to scamper at shin level, but who now occupy centre stage. “Records tell of the ruinous devastation the Toxanol Corporation inflicted on the land,” we are told, by a sagely otter in a wheelchair. “The apocalypse sparked a re-evolution; the second coming and our lineage.” At the outset, you have a hand in this re-evolution, tipping and diverting its course in a kind of unnatural selection. Aside from adding ranks of serrated teeth and bestowing a vulpine blush to its pelt, you can boost your character’s psychic aptitude, or bulk up its muscles for a more melee-focussed strategy. Plus, you can choose its class; I went for the saboteur category, not just for its heightened sleuthing ability but for the roguish leather jacket in which it wrapped my critter.
After a prologue, in which your mother is bumped off by a rampaging beast—a lionish lump, with tufts of rhino-grey fur—you are loosed into the wild. Your mission is to slay four enormous animals, called World Eaters, and, if you can track down your mother’s killer and indulge in a dose of vengeance, much the better. It’s a dark start to a game that looks as bright as boiled candy, and resounds with a lyricism that seems culled from a children’s book. The brute from the beginning is called Lupa-Lupin; later on, as we find the rusty carcass of a railway, the trains are referred to as “Chugga Chuggas”; and a typical objective reads, “Ask Gulp about Gumquacks.” In writing Watership Down, Richard Adams brewed a similar concoction: a dialect, spoken by the rabbits of his tale, called Lapine, which he described as having a “wuffy, fluffy sound.” Adams’s story, however, was earthed in frightening imagery—visions of blood flooding through fields, and of frenzied violence—whereas Biomutant is fear-free, leaving the wuffy and the fluffy to quickly grow tiresome.
The adventure is narrated by David Shaw-Parker, who also translates the chirps and burbles of its characters. He has the toasted, avuncular tones of someone recording an audiobook that you can imagine tranquilising a carful of kids on a long trip. The trouble is that, after an hour, it had the same effect on me. It doesn’t help that the script (which was written by Stefan Ljungqvist) gives him irritating material to work with—“That’s a Bangplant, where Toxanol used to make all sorts of splodey things”—and has him popping up at odd times. At one point, I was riding a goat (or, rather, a “gnoat”) down a hill, and the voice-over warned: “This could be the beginning of the end—of everything.” I left the goat to its own devices.
In fact, in large part I left the story to its own devices, happily zoning out whenever the Chugga Chugga of the plot hammered on. What fun there is to be had here lies partly in the combat and mostly in the landscape. The former is a comic affair, for a number of reasons. First, the sight of a raccoon engaging in something called Wung-Fu isn’t to be missed, unleashing special moves and nippy dodges in a blur of flying fur. Second, the action is splashed with sunbursts of onomatopoeia (parrying a foe: “DING!” landing a hefty hit: “KAAA-POW!” and trying to fire an empty gun: an anticlimactic “KLICK!”). And third, though you are given an armoury of splodey things to work with—pistols, machine guns, etc.—each looks as if it began life in a garage. My long-range rifle, for example, bore the handle of a power drill, with its square clump of battery pack, and, though it hit its intended targets, it often seemed on the wheezy brink of collapse.
Indeed, one could say the same for Biomutant itself, which has apparently been made by a team of twenty, at developer Experiment 101. That is an astounding feat, considering how comparable the game is to others in its genre—spliced together by far larger studios (the Bangplants of Ubisoft or Bethesda, say) and, I’ll wager, with more heavily mutated budgets. As such, its rough patches—the occasional grinding frame rate, and a camera that swivels with a graceless clunk—are soothed, if not entirely smoothed, by its ambition.
Experiment 101 wheels out the usual apocalyptic to-do list. We get quests, both main and side varieties. Tribes, to whom we may pledge our loyalty or lodge a violent complaint, with colour-coded swathes of land to be won. There are no-go areas, clung to by a slime-green smog, that tempt you in to explore. And there are collectibles, delivering scraps of mythology. None of which is terribly compelling, I have to say, but, if you’re poised on the edge of purchasing Biomutant, wondering whether to take the plunge, do it. Why? Because what turned your head in the first place also happens to be the best thing about it: the flair of its art style and the oddity of its setting.
The art direction, lead by Ljungqvist, favours colours of near-nuclear saturation, and the architecture of its ruin mixes East with West. One moment you spot the shells of cars, beached on the cracked river of a freeway; the next you are surrounded by a bamboo forest of unfathomable lushness, or loomed over by the curved roof of a temple. And check out the Tree-of-Life, which you have to heal, its twin trunk swept into a double helix; it’s a creaky trope, with roots in The Legend of Zelda and recurring roles in the Ori games, but here it’s been genetically reengineered into a sprightly visual pun. Elsewhere, the adventure offers up pleasing diversions—battling a marine monstrosity in a makeshift submersible, and the chance to strap into a clambering mech and stroll through a scrapyard whose air is as breathable as tar. We need more of this strangeness in our AAA open worlds, and, if the DNA of Biomutant sparks a re-evolution of some of the genre’s dull spots, perhaps we can forgive the dull spots present here. The story? KLICK! The combat? DING! The world? KAAA-POW!
Developer: Experiment 101
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 25, 2021
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