Retro Revitalised in B.I.O.T.A.
What's old is new again with this stylized retro shooter
B.I.O.T.A. is a game that modernises and polishes a retro-styled experience until it shines, and yet in the time I played, the Metroidvania never reached heights that would have granted it a lasting impression in my mind.
Pairing the CRT filter and the retro pixel art with the modern movement and design created an experience that fulfils what the developer Small bros set out to do. It plays how you remember the retro games of your childhood playing, so that's well done, as that's a compliment often given out to well-made remasters of older games.
It's a game dripping in style. Amidst the crunchy audio and archetypal characters is a story straight from a 90s action movie. You play a team of mercenaries sent to a mining colony where a plague is afoot, turning everyone into mutants. The accompanying soundtrack is fantastic, just another touch to a well-polished retro package.
The characters all have unique styles of play in both their primary weaponry functionality and "special skills" such as grenades or health packs. I found these options offered variety when approaching obstacles, where if I was stuck it provided a fresh perspective, but generally didn't feel remarkably different. This meant I stuck to the same character 90 percent of the time.
What really stood out to me was the save system with its elegant simplicity. Press the save key in a room without dangers and the game will save. In practice, this complements the mechanics of the game, making for a very streamlined experience cutting out the backtracking, but also one that felt like a more refined version of save states from an emulator. It made B.I.O.T.A. a more genuine retro experience, a really impressive one at that. Instead of being reminiscent of the era in sound or pixel art, it unifies these things with mechanics both old and new to create something more than the sum of its parts.
B.I.O.T.A.'s homage to the past continues with fine attention to detail. From the single-screen levels to the sprites loading in after the tiles within the transition, it really succeeds in creating an escape to an older era of games.
However, I found the simplicity of its visuals undercut the experience for me. While it stays true to graphics of the past the somewhat repetitive environment art made exploration feel like motions toward a goal instead of being rewarding in and of itself. This has been alleviated somewhat in the recent update by adding "Palette Auto-Mode" which automatically chooses the palette from a small set considered most suitable for the level. B.I.O.T.A.'s strength is in its style, it's the reason to play the game. Palettes are a collectible you can discover, and using them to enliven the environment breaks up my initial impression of the zones as monotonous by adding much-needed variety.
The game loop is tied to exploration, but areas are opened up by acquiring “airtight containers” within the levels that allow you to carry more money. This allows you to buy progression items that are just out of reach when you found them 30-odd minutes ago.
This gameplay loop was fun. When paired with the snappy movement and robust map, backtracking very rarely felt like a chore or even something I needed to do. The ability to teleport to the surface makes for quick resetting of supplies and the use of elevators for fast travel makes this process a short pause before returning to the zone's entrance. It's all very streamlined.
It's the map that makes this possible, one that feels distinctly retro but not archaic. It tells a lot with very little, just dotted lines for unexplored rooms, solid lines for explored rooms, and a barebones system of notation for key locations. But that’s all you need to remind yourself where things are. It makes going back to buy that alluringly expensive item that much more direct.
Following the first boss battle, which is a simple but engaging affair, there is a section that changes the way you interact with the game. Keeping it broad to avoid spoilers, I found the movement of this section to be clunky and the enemies overwhelming. When I did finally overcome the challenge it wasn't because of skill, or anything I learned, but instead brute-forcing the area until I overcame it. Being hit by enemies I can't seem to avoid due to controls that had gone from intuitive to clunky was frustrating, not fun. In the grand scheme of the 50-odd percent of the game I played, it is a minor misstep, but it was one notably unlike the polished experience I had grown to expect.
Overall though, I had fun with B.I.O.T.A. and the retro experience it provides. Between the fine attention to detail and fun movement there was a lot I enjoyed, but a slow start personally dampened the experience for me. This along with a need for more variety meant B.I.O.T.A. didn't hold my interest as much as I hoped. But switching up the palettes and playing with the CRT filter is an experience I will absolutely be revisiting. If a streamlined retro experience is what you're after, with clear goals and progression, then this is the game to try out. It certainly doesn't falter in those areas.
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