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One of my favorite styles of RPG is “Eurojank.” As the name implies, these are games from European studios that, well, aren’t as well-polished as those we get from triple-A dev houses. They’re ambitious, often overly so. And with the execution on these, some of that ambitiousness often just misses as well.
Think of games like The Witcher 2, the Gothic series, or the RPGs from Spiders — all of these have a great deal of ambition, have interesting worlds … but also suffer a bit from too many features that aren’t fully baked and lack polish. I’ve long loved Eurojank — they’re some of my favorite RPGs. It’s a term of endearment at The D20 Beat, not a pejorative.
Biomutant is prime Eurojank. And I love it. It’s from Experiment 101, a small studio in Sweden. Its team includes folks who worked on Just Cause and Mad Max, two well-regarded projects in the industry. The studio started work on Biomutant in 2015, and it took a few years to get to May’s release (Experiment 101 does have 20 employees).
I’ve been playing Biomutant off-and-on for almost a month now, with my kids watching as I do so. And I’ve had a blast with it. Yes, it does have some problems. But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying it.
Where Biomutant shines is its world-building and crafting. This Earth-like world (maybe it is our planet?) is full of vivid colors and inhabitants. Its people are anthropomorphic animals, and they’re living in a world centuries after an ecological disaster wiped out a previous civilization.
But those poisons are back, and along with world-eating monsters, they’re attacking the Tree of Life, the key to all life on this lush planet.
I enjoyed some of the people that fill this word. Best Before/Out of Date is a hoot, especially when he’s in his Elvis-like form. I know some folks have complained about the characters’ gibberish language, but I find it cute. I don’t mind it one bit.
The world-building also appears in your gear and quests. You find castoffs and spare parts in boxes, crates, and other hidey-holes as you explore. You can combine some of these. A handful of the cobbled-together weapons look like guns inspired by super-soakers. Armor looks more like souped-up clothing than protective gear. Some of your melee weapons look like items you’d expect in a postapocalyptic setting such as Biomutant, such as modified baseball bats or knives-on-sticks.
Then there’s your vehicles. You clomp around in a mech or ride the waves in your Jet Ski-like craft. An element of your quests are to find parts to get these working again. And they have that cobbled-together feel the other gear has, except this time, you’re expected to take on giant monsters that threaten the world inside these claptraps.
Lots of narrative, crafting, mutations and skill points for character builds, different classes — as you can see, this is a lot of systems for a small indie studio. And some of it works well, but other things (like combat) don’t.
Now, I don’t mind Biomutant’s combat, but it can be a bit wonky. The lock-on is the biggest issue. It isn’t smooth and doesn’t switch from one foe to another easily. Weapons deal different kinds of damage, and you have a combo system as well. It’s a lot to absorb, and I found myself not even caring that much about the different combat moves I could do — I just tried to use acid or other kinds of damage.
As I quested around, encountering some bugs and beautiful landscapes, I started thinking about two other open-world RPGs from Europe: Gothic and Two Worlds. Both of these are like The Elder Scrolls in that they’re fairly open worlds in which your character gets better at things by doing them. Gothic 3 might be the first Eurojank game I ever played — an ambitious open-world adventure so buggy that fans ended up patching it. And Two Worlds never ran right, even if I spent more than 200 hours with the series’ two games, mixing skills you learn on the fly (it doesn’t have classes) to become a bad-ass polearm mage.
Yet Biomutant is far more polished than those games. It’s also charming, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in it. I hope Experiment 101 gets a chance to make another game in this world.
Critical Role: The franchise!
Last month, Critical Role’s Exandria Unlimited debuted. It’s the company’s third show, and its first episode had 120,000 concurrent viewers at its height. It was also the No. 1 trending topic that night as well.
With this third show, I asked Critical Role if its shows were a franchise now.
“Are we a franchise now? Strange to say, but I think we might just be,” CEO and cast member Travis Willingham said over email. “We’ve always approached our game and our show as something that’s only limited by our imaginations. That’s the inherent beauty of roleplaying games. We quickly realized that kind of untapped potential was ripe for the creation of not just multiple characters, but multiple storylines. Every new player and character that comes to the Critical Role table helps shape the next evolution of what the CR Universe looks like, and further defines and deepens Matthew Mercer’s creation of Exandria.”
I also asked if this also means that Critical Role, the media company, is also a production studio … or even a new emerging model for a traditional TV or cable network?
“A production studio? Absolutely. Not only measured by the professionalism and attention to quality that the entire production team inhabits, but also by the heart and ownership dedicated to each and every project we produce. Whether it’s a goofy promo, a one-shot, or a new series, we treat everything like our creative ‘babies,’” creative director and cast member Marisha Ray said. “Beyond that, I’m a believer that a good production studio must always have a dedicated focus toward innovation, always attempting to have one foot in the present and one in the future. And on that note … a network? I guess we’ll see.”
It may seem weird to be asking one D&D actual play show-turned-production company if it’s becoming a franchise or a network, but few such broadcasts have its following and reach. For the Mighty Nein campaign’s finale, Willingham said it maxed out at 150,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch and YouTube, and the company estimates the campaign had 380 million video views and podcast downloads since its 2018 debut.
That just shows the draw of actual-play shows and the worlds they create, places of nigh-unlimited stories just waiting to be told. And so far, Critical Role’s shows have been great successes.
I asked just how difficult it was to keep that momentum up, in terms of telling captivating stories and engaging acting when doing a new show.
“Bottom line, so much came down to the players and our new GM, Aabria Iyengar. Everyone here at Critical Role adores Aabria, Robbie [Daymond], and Aimee [Carrero]. We knew a huge part of our job was making sure our fanbase loves them as much as we do while also doing our best to welcome people into the fold that might be new to Critical Role,” Ray said. “That’s why so much effort was put towards showing how lovely the new kids are, and how much everyone here loves and supports them. It’s always easier to feel comfortable around someone new at the party if you have a friend who can vouch for them.”
The D20 Beat is GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson’s column on role-playing games. It usually runs every other week, but like wandering monsters, it can appear at any time. It covers video games, the digital components of traditional tabletop RPGs, and the rise of RPG streaming. Drop me a line if you have any RPG news, insights, or memories to share … or just want to roll a digital D20 with me.
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