It’s easy to sneer at games like Mutazione. It doesn’t fit many people’s definition of a video game, as it’s more concerned with walking and talking than it is with tossing obstacles at you. It will turn people off the moment they’re locked into a dialogue tree on a claustrophobic boat trip. But if you have love for games like Night in the Woods or Oxenfree, then Mutazione will hit all of the same beats and then some.
You play Kai, a student who has lived with her mother, brother and grandmother all her life. She is used to city life, but finds joy in the quiet moments. One day, a letter is delivered from her estranged grandfather, who lives on the island of Mutazione. He is sick, perhaps fatally so, and he asks that she come visit for the first and – probably – last time. Her mother gives the nod and, as the game starts, hugs her goodbye as she boards a ferry to the island.
You don’t really know what to expect from the island of Mutazione, but the ferryman, Graubert, begins to fill in the gaps. It’s not your average island: many decades ago, it was hit by the ‘Moon Dragon’, a meteorite that killed most of the inhabitants, but mutated the rest. These people haven’t lost their humanity – they are people much like anyone else – but they look different. True to this, when the boat arrives, an eight-foot green giant called Tung helps your bags off the boat. As you make your way through the island, there are sausage-people who bounce business ideas off each other; a young boy called Bopek, a fish who loves hot sauce; and small circles called Dots, who chatter away without making a whole lot of sense.
One of the joys of Mutazione is its mundane weirdness. Most other games fall in love with their own fantasy world, and waggle the beautiful, surreal elements in your face. “Look at our world-building! Look!”. In Mutazione, the world is undeniably beautiful, but its residents have lived with it for decades. They’re bored with it. It’s not just the people on Mutazione: even your main character barely responds to the otherness. The residents of Mutazione are unusual shapes and colours, but at heart they are normal people. You will soon forget that a main character is a cat, or another is a fungal growth.
The world plays across all the senses, too. It’s wonderful to look at, with a watercolour, screen-printed look to the environment, created on Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Animate. While you don’t get to explore a huge area, the town is skirted by the sea, a swampy bayou, a jungle and the large ‘Papu Tree’, and they bustle with insects, the rustle of leaves, and the movement of water. Everyone in the town seems to sing to themselves. A bar on the island has weekly band nights, and residents play their music loud to drown out their sorrows. Everyone shares meals together, and talks languidly about the flavours.
It smothers your senses and it’s an absolute joy. Mutazione wants you to feel part of its community, and uses every sensory trick to make you feel like you’re there. It’s a small thing, but there are few scene-breaks: you walk everywhere on foot, and you’re not suddenly teleported to locations. This is a town that is immersive to walk around, and feels thoroughly lived in.
On meeting your grandad, Nonno, it’s clear he’s not well. He moves in and out of consciousness, and when he is cogent, he requests that you tend his garden and play music to the plants. This becomes the gameplay heart of Mutazione. As you walk around the island, handprint icons will indicate that a wild plant can be harvested for its seeds. You’ll find yourself wandering over to any frond or flower to see if it will offer up a seed, and it adds a nice layer to all the rambling. It’s not onerous, just a bit of flora hide-and-seek. Once gathered, these seeds can then be planted in a garden.
There are multiple gardens, and after chatting to some of the locals, you will learn a song that relates to each of them. Spread seeds that correctly relate to the garden and its song, and it will flourish. There are five or six plots in each garden to fiddle with, and a certain amount of freedom to plant in them but, if you want the best results, then you’ll need space for each plant to grow. You will also need to place them correctly (mushrooms in the dark, moss on walls, flowers in plots, etc).
While the gardening sections of Mutazione are the closest you’ll get to a conventional ‘game’, they’re not exactly Stardew Valley. Gardening is the weakest of Mutazione’s links: it gives the impression of offering freedom of expression or strategy, but it’s mostly an illusion. There are rules to what goes where, and not following them means failure. Yet following them is blindingly obvious: each plant has a label that tells you which garden to plant it in, and the plot has a red outline if it can’t be placed there. You are railroaded, when gardening could have been a bit of a sandbox, and once you’ve grown a garden, there’s no real reason to return. The developers clearly do want you to return – the Gardens are even available separately on the game’s main menu – but we were never once tempted.
After salvaging a garden, it will offer up a fruit that a villager needs, which helps them resolve a personal conflict. The first fruit peps up Nonno, your grandfather, giving him the opportunity to explain what is happening on the island. Revealing much of the core narrative would be tantamount to spoiling it, but it takes in magic and science, your immediate family and the ones still on the island. Mutazione goes to great places, and touches on themes like the duty you feel to others, and the weight of being a leader.
Mutazione’s closest neighbour is Night in the Woods. It shares a structure with the 2017 game, as you wake each day, explore the same surroundings, and see who is out and about. There’s a clear ‘main quest’ trigger, a character who has a clock above their heads to represent that they will cause time to progress. So, most of the time, you are making sure that you’ve completed all the ‘side quests’ each day, talking to every character aside from the one you’re actually meant to. You’ll do this in the morning, afternoon, evening and night, and then it’s into bed, where – again, like Night in the Woods – you may well be subject to a nightmare.
While Mutazione isn’t as unpredictable, dark and witty as Night in the Woods, it’s got its own tone, and absolutely owns it. Mutazione is wonderfully relaxed and has little interest in escalating things particularly. It’s got a slacker vibe, and that puts less pressure on you. Take your time, enjoy the sights, gather some flowers and maybe progress the main story.
But where Mutazione wins is with its cast. It’s the friends you make, and the sheer warmth that you feel for all of them. They have been together as a community for a long time, and you’re gatecrashing that. But instead of pushing you away to make you earn your place, or position you as a fish out of water (all very easy and obvious tropes), the community embraces you from the off. They let you in on their secrets, are emotionally available to you, and you want to spend time with them all as a result. As Cheers said, “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”.
The characters all have their melodramas and – if there are faults with the interactions you have with them – it can feel a bit voyeuristic, as you’re skulking about and watching from behind trees as they smooch, and it’s slightly unbelievable that so much drama is sparking just as you have arrived. Undoubtedly you are a catalyst, but it verges on a Mexican telenovela.
But when it works, it works so, so well. Partly it’s because of the warmth: everyone wants the best for each other, and they are all helping one another out, even when they should be harbouring grudges. Another reason is because it’s all so down-to-earth, which is a lovely contrast to the dreamlike surroundings. But mostly it’s just because the dialogue is great. It’s not aiming for the wittiness and clever-cleverness of Night in the Woods: it wants to be believable, to create rounded characters, and make you care for them, and you absolutely, definitely do that. We actively sought out every last scrap of dialogue because it was so effective.
You won’t want to leave. The five or six hours that you spend in the community won’t be enough, and you will be just as sad to leave as Kai. You will have your favourites in the community – we’ve got a soft spot for the judgmental cockroach Dennis – and it’s a credit to the writing that every one of the cast could be a viable favourite.
It’s taken a couple of years for this acclaimed talking-simulator to arrive on the Xbox, but time has not worn it down. Initially pitched as a farming game, Mutazione is far more interesting as a mutant soap opera. This is one of the warmest, most likable cast of characters you will come across in a video game, and you’ll want to relish every moment with them. Key into its languid pace, ignore the lack of traditional gameplay, and you will find a chilled vibe that is hard to beat.
You can buy Mutazione for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S