This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Biomutant.
Hey, now that the post-apocalypse is starting to feel less like an overused setting in fiction and more like a fucking dress rehearsal, want to play a game about small, furry animals retaking the Earth after the human race dies out? Well, then play Tokyo Jungle, genius; it's got cute Pomeranians ripping the throats out of bunny rabbits, and what kind of monster can't find joy in that? I guess there's Biomutant now, too, but you don't get to be a Pomeranian in that, so I don't know how it had the balls to show its face. Actually, that does raise the awkward question of what the fuck kind of animal we are playing in Biomutant: best guess, a sort of hyena-cat-leopard-raccoon-lemur-sloth, like we got conceived at the Lion King wrap party and nobody was willing to claim parentage.
Anyway, Biomutant is an RPG, you know what that means: "Stats, stats, stattity stats. Character creation time! Let's randomly combine seven zoo animals to create your physical appearance, and then choose our favorite stat." I hate when a game forces me to make a whole bunch of character-building decisions before I know the first fucking thing about the game. "Do you want to put points into intelligence?" I don't know; do I?! I mean, how much intelligence does it generally take to hold a big knife by the non-ouchy part and stick it in everything softer than a tree trunk?! "What about charisma? It makes it easier to pass persuasion checks." But how often does that come up? Is this one of those RPGs where high charisma is the secret easy mode, or one where any build not specced for combat is going to get chumped like a concerned parent at an after-school knife-fighting club? Spoiler alert: it's the second one.
Biomutant is an open-world RPG that's trying to do a lot of things, none of them well. This is normally the point where I'd summarize the story, and I assume the game has one, in the sense that I assume a teenager's bedroom has or, at one point, had a floor. What certainly doesn't help is the slightly insane decision to have the narrator be the only one capable of speaking; every character you interact with only talks in animalistic grumbles, like dogs upset that you stopped rubbing their tummy, and so the narrator has to summarize what they're saying. And this is an RPG; you talk to characters all the time! It creates the vibe that we're experiencing the story second-hand: "Grumble grumble, whine whine." "He says you are this kingdom's only hope, brave adventurer, and his tone of voice was assuredly very inspiring." This isn't the story; this is the fucking CliffsNotes!
But even if they'd gotten in the fucking Royal Shakespeare Company, it wouldn't help, 'cos the plot comes at you like a two-foot-high sandwich to an unprepared jaw; you start off in a bunker, and then you rescue a dude from some standard enemies, and he informs you that your parents and home village were murdered by a monstrous villain, and you want revenge. Oh, thank you for jogging my memory; you know how these things slip my mind. Except, I don't think that's actually the plot; the plot seems to be, "You have been volunteered to save the world by restoring the Tree of Life, or possibly by destroying the Tree of Life." Oh, yes; we have to pick a path on the ever-unsubtle black-and-white moral spectrum, where the choice is either friendship and hugs or violence and power-bombs, and every single fucking character in the game feels entitled to judge you on which path you're heading down. That is, assuming the narrator is to be believed; they might all be taking the piss out of my eyepatch for all I know.
So the Tree of Life is important, somehow, and it has four roots, and one to the west is being ravaged by the evil Fluffynuffy, but Pongo is building a nutbanger device that you can use to wrongle the binkybonk, before going to the second route in the north, which is being splapplopped by the Knicky-Knacky-Noo-- Hold the fuck up! Your story, Biomutant, could at least have the decency to buy me dinner before it spooges all of itself over my face at once.
So absorbing the story in Biomutant is like trying to translate a badly-written message on the top of a speeding custard pie that's being thrown at someone else, but what do you actually do in the game? Well, it's an open-world RPG, so usually, what you do is go to where the icon says to go, where some kind of sentient hedgehog-otter-weasel thing will give you a mech-suit and tell you to use it to gather five squeaky ducks that you can use in the next boss fight to win, somehow, and you know what? I'm just going to stop trying to get my head around all this. Another thing you're obliged to do is take over territories for your tribe, which ties into the "moral choice" thing, 'cos at the start, you have to choose whether to side with the tribe that wants you to murder all its enemies and let the world burn in chaos, or the side that wants you to murder all its enemies and then get all judgy at you about it.
Obviously, I went with the second lot, 'cos I'm not fucking fifteen, and then, just before every stronghold takeover mission, your dudes are all like, "Try to avoid violence!", and I'm like, "Well, tell that to the fucking mission, because as soon as I kick the door in, it's going to spawn a bunch of lads and tell me to defeat them to proceed!" "Oh, you can go to fucking town on them; I just meant violence against people who count." Yeah, so it's only when you confront the leader of a stronghold that you have the option to try to persuade them to give up without a fight, which is the only place where the charisma build comes into things, so I wouldn't bother, frankly, 'cos on the few occasions it's effective, its main purpose is to make the game marginally less interesting.
I say "marginally", 'cos the core combat is only slightly more engaging than clicking a single dialogue option and getting the subsequent tense diplomatic negotiation summarized for you by the narrator. The combat is like a paddling pool full of refrigerator parts and white bread: not much fun... and shallow... and for babbies... and overcomplicated. You've got your one-hand weapons and your two-hand weapons, which can be fully customized with different hilts and blades and various add-ons, customizable armor parts, ranged weapons, combo attacks, magic attacks, parries, ripostes, wedgies, holding them down and gobbing on their face, and it all goes to waste, 'cos the moment-to-moment action just doesn't have any satisfying weight to it; it's just watching bouncing furballs waving sticks around, like Ewoks holding a rave inside a tumble-dryer. And then you realize your stamina comes back way too fast, so you might as well just spam your favorite magic attack over and over again, like you're sick of babysitting and it's the button that turns on Sesame Street.
In microcosm, the combat displays the issue that runs through the entire game: that it's thrown too many ideas into the pile without thinking about how it's going to fit them all through the door. The story and mechanics needed to be paced out better, or indeed, at all. I can't engage with the plot, and none of the mechanics are fun; there's no solid core here to bring everything together. It's like they kept adding stuff to a shish kebab and then ran out of skewer, so they started hot-gluing chunks of meat and bell pepper to the end, and needed to realize that there are much more elegant ways to get someone to leave your barbecue.
- Small furry thing: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I mean, what else can you do with a Charisma stat unless there's a whole core gameplay loop revolving around entering beauty contests
- Boy how about those opposable thumbs