A few weeks prior to its announcement at Gamescom, we paid Swedish developer Experiment 101 a visit to have a closer look at their first game, BioMutant.
Far from a game you'd expect to see from a new studio with 14 employees, BioMutant is an action-RPG set in an open world setting with deep gameplay systems underpinning a game structure that is closer to Breath of the Wild than say the more linear Horizon: Zero Dawn.
The studio was founded by longtime Avalanche Studios art director Stefan Ljungqvist and a couple of fellow Avalanche veterans with backing from Goodbye Kansas, a studio that works on visual effects for movies as well as CG trailers and in-game art assets for games. You'd be forgiven if you thought that games like Just Cause and Mad Max would be the foundation of BioMutant, but even if there are sure to be lots of design decisions made on the back of that experience, this is a very different game.
"BioMutant is a post-apocalyptic kung fu fable," says Ljugqvist when asked to describe the game. "By that I mean, you play as an animal. If you really want to give the elevator pitch it's a Kung Fu Panda, it has a touch of, you know, Mad Max in it, but it's not brown or dystopian in the same way. It's more like Zelda in a way, but the game is semi-realistic looking and it's about player freedom and choice more than telling a linear story."
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In fact, the first prototype was a top-down action-RPG design, but 24 hours before flying out for a meeting with Sony about the game, the three people who made up the studio at the time made the decision to flip the perspective and that proved a major change for a game that, apart from the setting and theme, has little in common with the original prototype.
We got to sit down and spend some quality time with the Gamescom demo, which basically features a somewhat altered start of the game and lasts for about 30 minutes. We start at the character creation screen where you get to customise the look and attributes of your mutant pirate racoon (or whatever it is we're playing as). Basically, a longer, thicker character means you're slower, but deal more damage, whereas the opposite is true for a short slender one. You can also customise the fur, fangs and other attributes, but just how this will influence your character stats is not decided. It may or it may not. We opt for something fairly mid-range, giving us a bit of extra survivability while not being overly sluggish.
Even if our build wasn't extremely quick the combat was still fast-paced as you dodged in and out of melee range, firing your gun(s) from a distance and unleashing various combos up close. The basics sees you jump, slash and shoot, with the shoooting being semi-automatic where you'll hit enemies as long as you're facing the right direction. It's more RPG than action game in this sense.
You will be able to pull off some rather fancy moves, juggling enemies, using various mutation powers to stun or cripple them as you chop down their health bit by bit. For the purpose of the demo we were a bit overpowered, and unlocked new mutations faster than you will in the proper game where mutations will be unlocked as you gather resources and chose them from an ability tree, and it's easy to see how larger mobs with mutation powers of their own could present a challenge later on. Overall, the combat feels fast, fluid and accessible.
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Some of the abilities we got to try included sending a swarm of flying critters to confuse an enemy, using telekinesis to throw objects at enemies, conjuring up mushrooms that work like jump pads, and sending bolts of electricity through the tips of your fingers Palpatine-style. In addition to the mutations, you'll also be able to equip your character with "cyborg reinforcements" that include cybernetic wings or a jump pack.
The demo also introduced us to the ying and yang-themed karma system that's reminiscent of what you might be familiar with from Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. This system will play into your interactions with the various factions as well as filling a role at the end of the game. In this demo, it was represented by a few different paths you chose at the very beginning, but in the game, it will revolve around your interactions with characters, your choices, and how you deal with the situations you're in.
The story in BioMutant is one of an environmental disaster and of a world where the people are divided into factions (six to be precise). It is the role of the player to try and heal the world, or rather the Tree of Life that towers at the centre of the map. But you can also choose not to heal it if that's the path you'd like to wander. Each of its roots features a monster at the end that's gnawing at it, and you'll need to defeat them to allow the tree to heal. There is also oil that needs to be cleaned away ín order to heal the tree, and of course, you'll have to deal with the six factions. The idea is that three of these will start on the ying side of the karma system, with the other three on the yang. Your interactions with them can alter this, but basically, you'll have a choice of picking a faction and leading them to conquer the rest, unite them all, or perhaps wipe them all out. The third thing that will play into your ending will be a wolf-like creature, the only meat eater in this world, who you'll meet at certain points in the main story. His role and ultimately your role in the world is key to the plot.
Speaking of the plot, you're not really following a linear path, but instead, the story will be experienced through your encounters with various characters. We were introduced to some of them during our time with the game, and you'll encounter them in bunkers. There is Gizmo Greasemonkey, who can create mechs that will allow you to enter the contaminated area (the dead zone) of the world; an area you can also explore using, for example, a gas mask, although mechs will let you stay longer. And there's the BioMutant equivalent of James Bond's Q, Wiz, and he'll set you up with some rather unique gadgets including an insane-looking mechanical hand that you can ride that also packs a rather hefty lead-filled punch in its index finger. You'll also meet a character that will set you up with an airship, and there's a character in charge of boats or jet skis.
"Again, trying to steer clear of a completely linear interaction with the game, linear exploration. We are character-focused. There's a number of quirky characters in the world that are all, I call it centric-designed, so they're all emanating... so you meet a character, he will start to provide quest lines that are emanating from his area. So the more you actually interact with him or work with him, the wider the arc becomes."
Experiment 101 was founded a few years back and BioMutant has been in full development for a year and a few months with a release targeted for 2018. In many ways, BioMutant is the logical game to make for Stefan Ljungqvist, who prior to being a game developer spent many years producing pen and paper role playing games, including Mutant Chronicles at Target Games back in the day. Open world. RPG. Mutations. Did we mention he has a long background in full contact kung fu too?
How is it then that a team consisting of just fourteen people, a few of them veterans of massive productions like Just Cause and Mad Max, others fresh out of university, can create such an ambitious game? It's a good question, but part of the answer is the system that is in place that spawns enemies and mobs. Another part could be the choice to go with an established engine like Unreal Engine 4. The game world is another area. It's not the largest open world game, instead, it has been cleverly designed so that certain areas can only be reached if you interact with certain characters, so it's got an element of almost Metroidvania design. If you'd ask Experiment 101 themselves they'd likely point to the lack of hierarchies and producers and the multi-disciplined approach that allows them to iterate more quickly and to focus on making the game rather than meet the demands of often fickle publishers and producers.
We were impressed by what we experienced of BioMutant, though it only gave us a glimpse of the freedom we'll enjoy with the full game, as we basically played until the world opens up. The promise of fun vehicles, mechs, gadgets, and mutations along with the karma system and the deep crafting and loot system tells us there's much here to be excited about. And who wouldn't want to play as some sort of mutated pirate racoon on a quest that could just as easily end with you as king and lone survivor of a doomed world as it could see you unite everyone and save it from disaster?