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Kung fu, injuries and delays: Catching up with Biomutant

The last o' fuzz.

There's something very Saturday morning about Biomutant that has always really appealed to me. Where other open-world games can be grim, this is exuberantly colourful; where other games can be bogged down in grit, this is light and full of energy.

It looks like a child's imagination exploded all over the screen. Mutated animals tear about, kung-fuing gigantic monsters with three heads, which are also adorable, and there are outlandish contraptions, DIY guns and vehicles to use. There's one vehicle that looks like a hand and moves around like Thing from The Addams Family, and finger-guns enemies dead. There are others that fly through the air or speed across the water, as you whizz around over-saturated and kaleidoscopically vibrant worlds.

That's not to say I ever thought Biomutant would change the world. I never really thought of it as a blockbuster. But does everything have to be? They can be so timid. This feels reckless, charming, and it abounds with a kind of breeziness I am totally here for in 2021, with all this going on, gestures at everything.

But where did Biomutant go? I remember the announcement in 2017, and I remember the original 2018 release date. That obviously didn't happen. Nor did the subsequent 2020 release date. And each time it slipped, it slipped from memory too. But now, Biomutant is back, firmly on the release schedule for this year, 25th May 2021. What kept it? I sat director and Experiment 101 founder, Stefan Ljunqvist, down for a chat.

The latest, and most extensive, Biomutant trailer. From 2020.Watch on YouTube

One thing that makes immediate sense when you meet Ljungqvist is where the game's love of kung fu comes from. It's him - it's him all over. He is all about kung fu, Sanshou in particular, a kind of Chinese kickboxing. He's been practising for nearly 20 years. He goes off to muay thai camps in Thailand to train in it, he spent a year training intensely with a Shaolin Monk, and during his decade at Avalanche making Just Cause and Mad Max games, there was a time when he was training five times a week for two-and-a-half-hours a pop. He's serious about it. How good is he? "Well, I... I can do it," he says, in that self-deprecating way people who can really do something do.

Stefan Ljungqvist as I see him. He's a very smiley fellow.

Sadly at 48, his body has other ideas, and in 2019, it rebelled. He ruptured his calf, got his cheek crushed by a knee, and he has something called 'boxing wrists', which is micro-fractures in the tiny bones there, and one swelled up like a golf ball. "Those three things alone was like a sign that I had to stop," he says. But - well, we're our own worst enemies sometimes - he didn't. And then he "destroyed" his back. I don't know exactly what happened but it left him requiring surgery - spinal surgery - and months of rehabilitation. And that, on top of everything else, was his 2020.

It goes a small way to understanding why the game has been delayed, because when your writer (and director) can't finish the script because he's laid up in bed after back surgery, there's not a lot you can do. Especially when you're only 20 people - I didn't realise that. That's a much smaller team than I thought.

But Biomutant's doesn't seem to be a story of troubled development, which surprised me. I don't hear about cut features or about a publisher brute-forcing a game out. Instead I hear about a script quadrupling in size, a crafting system multiplying in complexity, and features like the factional tribe system being beefed up and moved centre stage. If anything, I hear about embellishments, and about THQ Nordic, the publisher, apparently being supportive of it.

"I don't know if that's troubled or not," Ljungqvist says. "Was it more complicated than we thought? Yes. The part where there are so many interconnected features: that's where we kind of underestimated the challenge."

What is so complicated about Biomutant, then? Because from the footage we've seen, it looks fairly simple, excluding maybe the crafting system. We certainly don't get a sense of where a 250,000 word script is being used, or what the tribe system is, or what the aura system is that glues it all together. And that's a shame, because it sounds like these are really what shape the game.

Take the aura system: it's a kind of glow that you - that everyone - has around them. Think of it a bit like a BioWare good/evil aura. It helps you tell the intention of tribes when you meet them. A tribe with a light aura will likely want to unite everybody and protect the Tree of Life, and mend the world as it is, whereas a tribe with a dark aura might want to smash it all to pieces and then build it back its own way after.

Working for these tribes will focus your attention around the world, and you can talk with them, using a dialogue system, and learn kung fu from them. How they react to you depends on your own aura, and the kind of interactions available to you will depend on it too. And the choices you make there can have far-reaching effects throughout the game, even on the endings you receive. So you see, it's all tied together, aura and dialogue and actions. And bundle it into a 15-20-hour story, with an open-world playground offering plenty more play-hours besides, and you begin to see where all the hours of development went.

A lot of work has also gone into making the game work well on the machines it was announced for: PS4 and Xbox One, as well as PC. PS4 was apparently the lead platform for development, and getting "really solid" performance there was top priority. Then, a high-end version was built up for PC. As for next-gen consoles:

"I cannot really go into any depth," Ljungqvist says with a cheeky grin, "but let's say that when I got the question 'will the game be playable on the new consoles?' I said 'yes'. So let's assume that there will be more communication around that soon."

As it stands, though, Biomutant will of course be playable on PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, and make free use of the extra power there (there are no limiters in place). You'll apparently see improvements on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, too.

So here we are, a few months away, with only really bug fixing left to do. Will Biomutant find an audience in 2021? I hope so.

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