How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. Each branch is a bit linear, but looking at the game as a hybrid story and world exploration game, there's a good argument for inclusion as an Unorthodox Metroidvania.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~12 hours
Review Info: Biomass was played on Windows PC using the Steam version.
Buy Biomass if you like…
- Artistic Exploration
- Souls-like Mechanics
- High Risk High Reward Combat
- Obscure Storytelling
- Low-Res Pixel Art
▼ Review continues below ▼
Biomass is a haunting game, one that I’ll probably be thinking about on and off again for months after completing it. Part of that thought process is going to include mulling over exactly where it fits into our inadequate way of categorizing games. It has elements of a souls-like, but that factor quickly becomes irrelevant as its mysteries unfold. At its core, Biomass is more similar to games like Yume Nikki or Dreaming Sarah, where the point is to explore different images and situations and come up with your own interpretation of what is happening. Biomass is more grounded than those dream simulations in the sense that you’re operating on a similar static timeline, but nevertheless after your first playthrough the idea of leveling up and trying out new weapons starts to become less important. If you’re just looking for another Souls-like to play then Biomass may come off as sub-par. However as a work of art, Biomass offers a unique dystopian world to explore that will potentially be haunting your thoughts as well.
The mystery box of Biomass hooks you in from the very first moment of the game. You’re dropped naked into a room with no other information about who you are or what your goals are. There’s a menacing man in the subsequent tutorial area that gives you some idea of the dangers that lurk in the game’s world, but you’re still not likely going to understand your goal even after first play through.
Without a story-given objective, the goal defaults to “kill more bosses and level up”, so that’s what I set out to do. Levels are purchased using a currency called “biomass” which is represented by number displayed in the corner of the screen. We could just as well call them “souls” since the function is the same as any souls-like game. When you die, you lose all the biomass you are carrying and you have to go back to where you died to retrieve them. Die twice and you lose that biomass permanently. Unlike the souls-like games this system was born in, it’s actually surprisingly slow to level up in this game. Even after several cycles of “new game plus”, I only reached a little over level 20. It’s almost as if the game was balanced around the lowest level, and leveling up is intended just to make things easier, which as the game unfolds the design makes sense. In a lot of souls-like games leveling up and trying different builds is sort of the point of the game for some players. In Biomass you’re meant to play the game multiple times to see it all, so while the leveling system gives you options to express yourself, those options are slightly muted perhaps in service of how open the game can be.
There are basically two ways to play the game. You can focus on melee combat, which has the highest damage potential while putting you at a high risk short distance between you and your enemy. Or you can focus on ranged weapons, which let’s you keep your distance but you’re completely at the mercy of your stamina bar – which replaces ammo – and some weapons even still include reloading as a requirement. You have a dodge that gives you generous iframes so I ended up going pure melee for my playthrough. After leveling up, while ranged weapons still did have their use for poking enemies, the kill potential still did drop off significantly compared to my melee might. I suspect that a more balanced build would have resulted in a harder game overall.
Biomass has a wide variety of weapons for both playstyles. For melee you can have up to two weapons equipped at once which allows for on-the-fly versatility if you equip complementary move sets. Not every melee class weapon is for attacking however. There’s reflector staff that sends enemy shots back to them, and another item that turns on and off a temporary buff. Guns are treated the same as the consumable items, so you’ll have to switch off of your healing tool in order to use them. However, you can only have three items equipped at a time so this isn’t a major issue since switching through them on the fly doesn’t take very long. The amount of weapon variety is certainly intriguing, but it didn’t take long for me to find a favorite weapon combo. With as risky as the combat can be, sticking to staples that I was comfortable with trumped having to learn a new moveset. The game never forced me to explore different options, which is admittedly a very souls-like thing to do.
Something both interesting and wonky that Biomass did to change up the formula is that you don’t heal just by using items in this game. Instead you have a “streak meter” that fills up as you combo enemies. If you fill it up to the halfway point you can heal 33% of your HP, which naturally makes increasing your HP more valuable than it otherwise would be. Filling the streak bar is actually a kind of difficult thing to do since enemies don’t stun easily, so keeping your combo going is a challenge. To make it even harder, until you hit that halfway point the meter degrades gradually if you aren’t attacking things. Once you hit halfway it never drops below that point, but it will never “stick” at the maximum level. Max streak lets you get a full-heal off, but thanks to how the meter decays it’s usually better to just heal for the 33% to keep yourself alive. The so-called healing item doesn’t actually heal you, but instead it fills your streak bar up halfway. This leads to some awkwardness since you have to crush the item and then use the streak heal button to get any effect, making this method extra dangerous to use during a boss fight. The most awkward thing about using a streak heal though is that it’s mapped to the same button you use to interact with objects and NPCs. If you’re fighting around a control console, then you have to remember to hold up when pressing the button or you might start interacting with the console instead of healing. This control mapping also resulted in me wasting my halfway filled bar on numerous occasions as I just naturally try clicking on things when I play these games. Eventually I found a character mod item that boosts your defense at the expense of making it so the streak bar doesn’t fill with regular attacks, and I ended up using that for the rest of my time with Biomass because I ultimately found streak to be unreliable.
Bosses are a highlight of the game as they should be. The usual pattern recognition that most of us are familiar with is still the basis of how Biomass works. However, each boss also has a unique second phase style set of patterns that can be subverted with the right attacks. As I mentioned though, the game seems to be balanced around the base level, so leveling up – and especially specializing – can make some of these fights too easy. Even when I was giving up streak healing there were a lot of bosses I was able to just face tank before they could do anything threatening. For every boss that I could do that with though there was another boss where I had to pay very close attention to their pattern in order to make any progress with them at all. These became some of the most satisfying bosses in the game. The first playthrough was of course the most challenging, but considering the game is meant to be played multiple times with some routes being completely inaccessible on your first time, it’s safe for me to say that the bosses aren’t exactly balanced. There are enough great fights in the game to satisfy those who crave it, but with the right build you may feel slightly disappointed in the long run.
As I have been hinting at for this entire review, the bosses eventually fall off as being the focus and end-goal, and instead you’ll be focused on figuring out how to break the cycle. What I mean is that you won’t even see ending credits until you do multiple playthroughs. Each playthrough doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the same as the first though. You can change how you interact with NPCs, and more importantly you can avoid NPC interactions completely. You keep all of the tools that let you access new areas every time you loop the game, and with those tools you can try new routes and see different angles to the game’s story. The first playthrough is going to be very confusing, and maybe even seem a little incoherent, since things will be happening that you won’t fully understand until you see those other angles.
Figuring out where you’re supposed to go based on where you haven’t been can be somewhat frustrating. I keep using the word “route” because once you access certain pathways, you’re pretty much locked into that direction for the rest of that playthrough. Trying something new in a route you’ve already done will often result in meaningless repetition, sometimes forcing you to fight a hard boss you may not be interested in doing again. There are some missables in each route though – namely specific achievements for getting something right the first time – so the completionist may still want to undergo the trouble.
The most striking thing to me about the way Biomass conveys its story is how relatively few words are used to tell it. From start to finish grappling with what the main character’s identity is going to remain something of a mystery. The same can be said about the motives of key NPCs. Enough lore is dropped in passing dialog that you can come up with your own interpretation, and I think that’s part of the point. Biomass is like a fever dream, with plenty of events and situations to for the player to fill in the blanks themselves, assigning attributes of good or evil to its actors based on their own biases. It’s the kind of game that you want your friends to play so you can discuss what they got out of it and learn more about them and yourself as a result.
Biomass’ unique presentation style also inherently makes the game very niche. For every player that finds something meaningful there will be an equal number of players that will claim any deeper meanings are merely pretentious. Such is the dilemma of any work of art. Unlike some other art games though, Biomass has a strong enough combat system to support at least its first playthrough, and there’s just enough build variety to entice a complete reset for those that just want to enjoy the gameplay. For me though its strongest and most unique feature is how intriguing its mysteries are, and that’s the basis for why I recommend it. There are other games that I’d recommend first for gameplay reasons, but no game is quite like Biomass when it comes to its narrative presentation.
Enemies could telegraph their attacks a bit better, but overall the combat is fast and exciting, and pattern recognition will take you far.
You can't jump in this game and unlike games that have done a similar thing there's no ''Platformer'' substitute here. Thus tricky platforming is non-existent here.
Wander the wrong way and you may end up in a story route that gets repetitive, but find new pathways and get rewarded with entirely new revelations. This is the most unique part of Biomass.
There are a few knowledge-gate style puzzles needed in order to find new routes or solve the game completely, but overall not a focus.
Biomass is best described as a work of art completely open to any interpretation, and thus the story is either deeply profound or profoundly disappointing depending on how you look at it.
There are some instances in the game where platforms blend into the background, but that's rare. Overall the graphics present a hauntingly melancholy atmosphere.
The music does a great job amplifying the atmosphere, and while some tracks are a bit repetitive, others are straight up beautiful.
''Replaying'' the game is half the point, although you may end up with some dull repetition if you do the wrong things twice.
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