Review: B.I.O.T.A.

Perhaps we’ve reached that inevitable, figurative singularity of sorts where even the most minimalist and straightforward of pitches finds a way to remind you of other games. That even with such an intended, stripped-back aesthetic as this, familiarity and similarity with other games is sure to pop up one way or another. Maybe it’s just par the course for this sort of job; it’s always beneficial when you can draw on other games to give readers a better idea. But even with said comparisons naturally emerging, if there’s one thing a game like B.I.O.T.A. is likely to stand alone on, it’s pre-release promotion leaning less on its gameplay promise. More so its deliberately duotone aesthetic and further to that how one can go about tweaking it. As with any and all the kinds of game B.I.O.T.A. slots neatly into — the blatant but fond throwback to an era of games, maybe not just 8-bit, where developers had to do so much with so little — the novelty of its visuals is one its developer wants players to gravitate to. And here, the ability to switch palettes seemingly on the fly.

Alas, this is all seemingly cosmetic and one that naturally won’t appeal to everyone. So it’s initially promising that a game like this, during its introductory hour or so, can remind you of games similarly straightforward in their premise, but who inevitably went on to provide a clever-enough hook that meshed well with said set-up. So putting the palette-swapping focus to the side and for the first hour or so of playing B.I.O.T.A. your mind begins to conjure positive but justified reminders. Regardless of whether or not that was the intention from the developer’s side, the idea of burrowing into the setting; involving one’s self in platforming, gathering resources, asking that pivotal question on whether I want to keep going at the risk of losing a severe chunk of one’s progress, inevitably call it quits and return to the surface to save, refresh and go again. SteamWorld Dig 2 is the game you think up in the introduction. And perhaps personal history is helping to color things, but said restrictions on visual complexity reminds one of a similar early trudge through something like Gato Roboto.

This immediate reminder is why B.I.O.T.A. inherits such a curious start. The game isn’t exactly pulling any new or original tricks. If anything it’s borrowing from a few sources — old-school precision-platforming and lite Metroidvania explorations are the obvious two — suggests it’s content in working with proven formula. But sometimes simplicity is a hook in of itself. There’s elegance to be savored, as much respect on top, for a developer that doesn’t try something too substantial — making sure to cover every base of every type of player. What’s that saying about trying to cater to everyone? Perhaps it’s this stern commitment to a minimalist aesthetic where its genuine tricks and traps to look out for are effective in their execution. B.I.O.T.A. can be a challenge — a reasonably-poised pain too — and it’s because the game comes across sufficiently-researched where its bright spots reasonably shine. So it’s during these early parts that the game is at its best. When you’re cursing both yourself and the game for that subtle instant-death trap or enemy projectile you hadn’t quite dealt with. Further proof that great game design needn’t be dictated by excess or show of technical power. Just as I felt with the early parts of Gato Roboto, B.I.O.T.A. is a game that plays its hand early and whilst everything is still relatively new, it just about keeps that peril and anxiety of slipping up all that more enticing.

B.I.O.T.A. Review Screenshot

Then proceedings continue and the sheen of something new to star quickly subsides. It’s a shame then that that early promise — the intrigue with how this premise could build, what unholy death-traps were waiting for me further down the road — is not only the peak, but in a way seems like a mistranslation of what B.I.O.T.A. actually entails. Contrary to assumption, this is not a SteamWorld Dig-esque loop of burrowing one’s way into the map. Popping back up to surface level due to encroaching risk or safety in banking what resources I’d gathered. Neither is this some quirky spin on the Metroidvania formula — or one that feels adequately built to be seen as such. Those scarce save points you initially assume as your only means to prevent ample progression lost upon death? No, you can just auto-save the moment a room is clear of all foes. The promise of picking from one of several characters with varying weapon types and specials? After settling on the guy with the close-range shotgun, there’s little reason to experiment. So what kind of game is B.I.O.T.A.? It’s a game plotting its own course, if what I’ve discussed up to this point is any indicator, right?

Well here’s the thing: that trajectory doesn’t necessarily lead to anywhere spectacular or noteworthy of highlighting. There are moments to consider, optional side-content to challenge one’s self with and outside that first hour or so, B.I.O.T.A. does rustle up a neat sequence or two. One has you racing through the interior of a reactor against the clock, another raises the precision-platforming stakes to eleven in a wonderfully Celeste-like timing of one’s jumps. But the more these comparisons come up, the more you wish you were playing said other games over this. And part of the reason is the inconsistency and that for every enjoyable or challenging section, B.I.O.T.A. somehow finds a way to cancel it out with a sequence or mere design choice that is anything but. A repeated segment that has you piloting a mech suit to get from one sector to the next is a long-winded exercise. As is the weird decision to have you reach the end of a figurative linear section only to begrudgingly retrace one’s step out of realization you don’t have the necessary item. Or worse, the necessary amount of currency to purchase said item at points after successfully getting through that perilous platforming bit.

B.I.O.T.A. Review Screenshot 2

It may be a stretch to claim B.I.O.T.A. doesn’t respect its player’s time, but at the same time it’s reasonable to conclude that a sizeable chunk of what makes a good Metroidvania is sadly a miss here. Moments in the game that require too much directionless wandering — praying that the desired objective or quest item lands up nearby. On top of this, because the game is this half-and-half of retraced steps and precision platforming, that lack of proper commitment means that any joy to find in either corner seldom lasts for long. Even the satisfaction of surviving, even if on a slither of health, becomes frustrating when as noted, you’re hit slap-bang in the face with a locked door or a sealed exit near-devoid of context. If nothing else, the game — like so many as of late — carries with it a spring in its step that makes simply moving about its 2D space a breeze to control. Even if that very movement on its own, in contrast to something like Kunai, doesn’t find a way to make the feel of movement a fun little investment on its own.

If anything wins out on the basis of repeat enjoyment, it’s the platforming side of B.I.O.T.A. One that relies on deception and utilizing visuals to camouflage the environment. When the exploration aspect is left to the side, B.I.O.T.A. is satisfying in what it offers up. Tight it might’ve been with seconds to spare, feeling as if one is forcibly speed-running a winding, snaking maze of a level — all while lasers lurk about ready to end my run — is something the game could’ve leaned more heavily on. Of any of the more nostalgic tendencies, that anxiety with timing and knowing when to move/jump is one B.I.O.T.A. gets right. At best, providing moments that do find a way inside a player’s head, a place where amateur mistakes inevitably take hold. There’s just that other part to the game — the needless back-and-forth down corridors, not to mention the worry that one won’t even have enough currency to properly progress, that sullies what should be a clean-cut reminiscing on good old-fashioned 2D platforming.

B.I.O.T.A. Review Screenshot 3

Closing Comments:

The scale of one’s enjoyment with a game like B.I.O.T.A. depends entirely on what kind of game you’re expecting and more importantly, what area of game you end up gravitating towards coming out of it. For those in the Metroidvania camp, the game is an inoffensive if not entirely unique interpretation on the template. But on the platforming side, fortunes are far more favorable, playing host to sequences that are both well-executed and challenging on top. The fact these bright spots are so tucked away, though — caught between needless back-tracking and a general world design that can feel too linear — can lend itself to B.I.O.T.A. feeling too uneven and demanding on one’s patience to warrant seeing it through. Even so, it’s these precision platforming sequences, working together with the hyper-retro leanings, that just about pulls it from out the doldrums. It might not be posing any original ideas, but for better or worse, B.I.O.T.A.‘s know-how on old-school traits just about keeps it afloat.

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