Genotype is an original VR sci-fi narrative experience, newly released on the Quest. The player takes the role of Evely, an Antarctic weather station intern who gets lost in the snow and crashes into a mysterious research base, losing her partner in the process. With only a mysterious benign stranger called William to guide her, she scavenges a pair of snazzy gloves that can 3D print genetically- engineered creatures to use as weapons and tools. Evely must make her way through the base, shoot the weird creatures that infest the corridors, and upgrade the gloves’ abilities to unlock new areas. Will Evely die infected and alone with only an alien penis gun for company? Or will she save herself and the world from inevitable infection? We can’t answer that without spoilers, but we can tell you if you should care or not.
TALENT BORROWS, GENES STEAL
It’s very clear from the outset that Genotype has purloined a considerable amount of DNA from Nintendo’s eternally wonderful Metroid Prime. Apart from being reminiscent graphically, the explore-upgrade-shoot-explore-more format is clearly more than inspired by the first-person adventures of Samus Aran. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that; when you’re attempting to clone something, you should start with very strong genes. And in the opening sections of Genotype, it’s really quite a promising love letter; the graphics are solid and smooth, the premise is intriguing, and the base promises to be a treasure trove of mystery, adventure and discovery; a futuristic setting slowly being reclaimed by organic matter in the shadow of twisted experiments gone wrong.
WAKE UP, SLEEPY GENES
The player’s interface for everything that happens is Evely’s ‘GRAID’ gloves. Inspired, perhaps, by Half-Life: Alyx’s glove system, these handy hands act as an inventory, weapon and tools system. A ripcord acts as the selection menu; pull the cord from the right glove and let go when you’ve selected the creature you want to use.
You start off with a lowly worm Spitter gun, but soon acquire more blueprints for weapon-creatures, and all of them can be gradually upgraded by acquiring genetic matter and upgrade tokens. It’s a good, well-wrought system that feels good to use and you can get to become quite slick with it; as a way of interacting with the world, it’s definitely one of the less janky affairs on the Quest. Whilst it doesn’t really compete with Half-Life: Alyx, it’s mostly fun and rewarding to use.
When I started Genotype, with no prior knowledge or expectation, I was very impressed indeed. It’s always puzzled me that Metroid Prime hasn’t been more widely aped directly like this, and it’s excellent to see it happen. The presentation is excellent, the graphics are lovely, and the performances are solid.
The combat seemed a little slight and inconsequential at first but not exactly bad – I expected this would be something to scale with Evely’s abilities. However, what happens over the next couple of hours is that everything becomes more and more annoying, and less and less interesting. Cracks open in the structure and direction of Genotype, and then everything that you like about it starts to fall through them.
First off, there’s no pacing at all. You have a laundry list of stuff to do in each area, and it’s never anything more than mundane. Find security keys, find a gizmo, use the gizmo, and upgrade the gloves. Nothing feels like it’s ramping up or raising the stakes, it just feels like doing actual maintenance on an empty base. The combat is all over the place. Genotype randomly spams waves of enemies at you to pad things out, and despite some interesting creature designs you beat them all honoured way. Strafe, shoot. Hitboxes for damage are ridiculous as if to compensate for an intrinsically easy system. Dodging incoming projectiles and attacks in VR should feel intuitive – in this, the player has a field that extends beyond the physical space the character should inhabit, making it easy for creatures to get cheap hits in, and it feels infuriating. Bosses are ridiculously easy compared to the occasional waves of grunts, and there’s just no smooth difficulty curve of any kind. Your inventory will easily become filled with disposable injectors that might sound interesting – haste, invisibility and such – but you’ll never find the need or desire to use them in combat – it’s unnecessary, fiddly and pointless.
So combat quickly becomes an uninteresting chore, but this isn’t leavened by clever puzzles or an interesting narrative. There’s literally a beige list of dull tasks to do in each area, a checklist that needs ticking. I honestly don’t find that any of it is ultimately interesting. Exploration is hampered by the fact that the environments are repetitious and massively dull. After the initial spectacle and promise falls away, it’s just a collection of corridors, crates and doors that are all so unmemorable that the map becomes essential in a way that it shouldn’t. Often, the rewards for exploration and progression are so minimal, or even non-existent, that it is completely demotivating. Why fill three identical rooms with cupboards to open, which are all empty?
Everything about Genotype is uneven, and this extends – or perhaps begins – with the writing and performances. Evely and William are played by competent and engaging voice actors, but the script and direction are erratic and poor. Evely is in a desperate situation; she is lost, her colleague is killed quite gruesomely at the start, and she is struggling to survive in a mutant-infested facility while a fatal genetic aberration is killing her from the inside out. Rather than this giving her an air of urgency or determination, most of the time she sounds like she’s having a mildly interesting day at the office.
Look at the cover art; Evely even looks like someone has interrupted her using the photocopier to ask where the stapler is. The stakes of the plot couldn’t be higher – the entire world could be destroyed by the infection escaping from the base, and Evely is dying. But that urgency is lost in what’s actually presented to the player. There are some silly attempts at wit and irreverence which don’t land at all, and I think are meant to be gallows humour from a desperate character, but don’t work on paper and the direction isn’t there. It’s a shame because I think with better guidance and a stronger script the actors would certainly have been able to hit on something special here; the moments of genuine connection that work really work, and this is to the performer’s credit. I just wish they’d have had more to work with. If the living genetic mutations that function as the weapons were part of Evely’s infection – like she was mutating herself to progress, but it was slowly consuming her, then that puts us back into high stakes, Metroid Prime territory.
As it is, all of the DNA, gene splicing stuff is just scripting novelty flim-flam. It might as well be alien or advanced tech; there are no overriding themes explored or written into the genetic code of the narrative, as you might reasonably expect from its title.
Everything in Genotype conspires steadily to remove the player’s connection to it, from the uncertain and uneven tone to the pointless combat. Either give me a narrative strong enough to forgive any deficiencies in gameplay or a game that’s so good to play that off-scripting or performance can take a back seat and be ignored. Best of all, give me a little bit of both – it’s not an insane ask. I know that somewhere in the empty corridors of Snowdrop base, there’s a far better game waiting to be hatched. It’s a crying shame because a bit more time incubating could have begat something memorable and special.
TLDR : Summary
In attempting to splice Metroid Prime with VR, Genotype has unfortunately climbed into the cloning machine with some very boring tropes and come out the other end hollow and infected by terminal dullness; over the course of play, it will bore you into submission. It might interest you until after the refund window closes, but by then it'll be too late.