B.I.O.T.A. Review: Retro Vibes (PC)

B.I.O.T.A. is a side-scrolling platformer that intentionally invokes the styling of prior generations. Everything from its story, atmosphere, art direction, to its gameplay is intrinsically tied to this retro feel. Let's see if it holds up, or if it's just a pastiche of a simpler time.

B.I.O.T.A. Review: Retro Vibes (PC)During my time with B.I.O.T.A., one thought consistently went through my mind: this game feels old. Every part of it does, it’s even published by a company literally named Retrovibe. A game feeling old isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the exact goal the developers had in mind. If that was their primary intent, I’d be hard pressed to call this game a failure.

Developed by Small Bros, a one-person team, this retro-inspired side-scroller clearly has passion behind it. For better or worse, it truly does manage to capture the look and feel of games of decades past. The question, then, is whether or not this wistful nostalgia trip is worth your time.

You can buy B.I.O.T.A. on Steam or GOG for $9.99 USD.

B.I.O.T.A. - Trailer

 

Story: Nostalgic Simplicity

One of the most obvious signs of B.I.O.T.A.’s retro roots is its story, down to the way it’s presented. The plot takes place in the relatively distant future, following a paramilitary squad investigating the disappearance of a team of scientists. It’s a simple premise, but the specifics aren’t what matter here.

What’s really important is the atmosphere it gives off. The story of B.I.O.T.A. feels like it could be the plot of a B movie you’d rent at a Blockbuster when they were still open. It has that same nostalgic, fast and loose energy to it. That’s a good thing, and I think it does an excellent job of contributing to the old-school feel of the whole experience. Sure, it’s not exactly deep, but it gets the job done while propping up the game’s greater aesthetic.

The game's intro cutscene has a wonderfully cheesy voiceover

The game’s intro cutscene has a wonderfully cheesy voiceover

Gameplay: Mini Metroidvania

B.I.O.T.A.’s gameplay is a mixed bag, in more ways than one. It feels like it wants to imitate the Metroid series and games like it, and it’s partially successful in doing so. However, it misses quite a few of the things that makes those games special. At the same time, it offers a wholly unique style of gameplay to call its own.

B.I.O.T.A. is a very small-scale game in many ways. Not only is the runtime surprisingly short, but the gameplay itself is split into many bite-sized pieces. Everything in this game is immediate, which has a varying effect on the pacing.

Back to Basics

Unlike many of its contemporaries, this game allows you to play as one of a selection of characters. While they all control the same, each one has their own unique attack and special weapon. It’s likely that the game intends for the player to constantly switch between them to vary their playstyle. Unfortunately, I did not feel encouraged to do this. The vast majority of my playthrough was spent using one character whose abilities I found far more useful than any others.

An overarching issue with the game is how simple it feels. The movement feels like it’s sorely missing something, perhaps some kind of extra aerial mobility. It’s fairly telling when one of the most fun parts of the entire game is just wall-jumping from point A to point B. Some upgrades to movement or combat would have been greatly appreciated. In a particularly baffling design decision, you can’t even shoot downwards while in the air, something that feels like it was only done to prevent certain boss fights from being too easy.

The platforming in the area pictured above is one of the best parts of the game, albeit underdeveloped

The platforming in the area pictured above is one of the best parts of the game, albeit underdeveloped

Regressive Progression

One of the main troubles with B.I.O.T.A. is its length, or perhaps lack thereof. In my opinion, it’s too short to properly sustain a Metroidvania experience. This lack of length is the source of many of the game’s problems. Unfortunately, it’s never fully able to get away from it.

This is best illustrated by how stilted much of the progression feels. Progress is mainly gated by finding a single specific key you need to open a single specific door. It’s exceedingly rare that the game grants you any permanent upgrades. The inclusion of multiple playable characters might be partially to blame for this. The game has to account for you playing as any character at any time, so it can’t get too creative with its set of tools.

One particularly egregious example of the arbitrary lock and key design of this game comes in the form of the wallet upgrades. The game’s currency, Viridium, starts out with a very low cap. However, there are many items you need to buy that are above that threshold. Most of the upgrades in the game are simply locked behind these wallet limits, making it feel tiring to get the same reward for exploration over and over.

Old-School Exploration

B.I.O.T.A. takes us back to a simpler style of exploration, before the age of open worlds or even 3D space. While it’s far from the first game to do this in recent memory, I have to admire its commitment. It truly feels like a classic game, with all the caveats that come with it. There’s something uniquely satisfying about combing through each area. While it can fall into tedium at times, the atmosphere does a lot to ease matters.

This mech segment, while exciting in premise, seriously overstayed its welcome

This mech segment, while exciting in premise, seriously overstayed its welcome

What’s less enjoyable are the various times the game takes you away from its core and has you do something completely different. This happens surprisingly often and is quite a slog almost every time. A mech section roughly halfway through the game particularly annoyed me with both length and unfair difficulty. It’s a shame that a game this short feels the need to have padding, since it really doesn’t need it.

Another curious thing about this game is its handling of checkpoints. You’re free to save your progress at any time, so long as there are no enemies or hazards onscreen. This splits the game into a long series of micro-challenges, which can make exploration slightly tedious. It doesn’t break the entire experience, since the game clearly intends you to save at every opportunity, but it does feel like something of a crutch.

Classic Combat

The combat in B.I.O.T.A. is yet another extension of its retro trappings. It’s your standard side-scrolling shooter affair, complete with a diverse range of enemies and tactics. Each character has their own unique tricks up their sleeve, so there’s theoretically a decent amount of variety.

One of the better boss fights in the game, this fight demands that you learn its patterns to succeed

One of the better boss fights in the game, this fight demands that you learn its patterns to succeed

Unfortunately, the combat tends to fall apart under stress. Namely, the selection of bosses in the game put this problem on full display. They all drag on for far too long, with severely inflated health pools and few openings to deal damage. Usually, bosses are more about finding select obvious openings and repeating them over and over than dynamic action.

Graphics and Audio: Archaic Aesthetics

Perhaps the best aspect of B.I.O.T.A. is the presentation. The entire graphics consist of well-crafted 4 color pixel art. This might sound overly simplistic, but there’s a catch. The game gives you access to a vast array of different pallets to choose from, with the opportunity to unlock more during gameplay. These let you set your own tone for various parts of the game. The pallet swapping was one of my favorite parts of the entire experience, and it was a great decision to include it. While the limited colors can make the pixel art feel muddy and indistinct at times, this was rarely a major problem for me.

The music is also great. Electronic tunes accompany each of the game’s areas, and though they can get slightly repetitive, they were always an appreciated bit of atmosphere. It’s unlikely that I would listen to many of the game’s soundtrack casually, but it makes for a great backing to the gameplay regardless. Both the visuals and audio work wonders to contribute to the comfortably dated atmosphere that permeates throughout the entire game.

B.I.O.T.A. was reviewed on Steam using a key provided by Retrovibe Games.

 

Summary
At the end of the day, despite all of its flaws, B.I.O.T.A. is a game about vibes. It's about that feeling of playing games as a kid, those cozy times when everything was so simple. Sure, it's not the most complicated game ever, but I don't think it's trying to be. Above all, this game has heart. It's far from perfect, but what game is? In spite of a multitude of issues, there's a certain charm to the whole project that I can't help but feel enamored by. I look forward to seeing what Small Bros works on in the future.
Good
  • Fantastic art direction and style
  • A great soundtrack
  • Fun, retro-style gameplay
  • Changeable color pallet adds visual diversity
Bad
  • Can get repetitive
  • Movement feels overly simplistic
  • Progression feels unsatisfying
7
Good
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