Breaking the Mold
Video games are a medium where it’s easy for the creator to invent any kind of wild, crazy, fanatical world he or she wants. Unfettered by the real world, the creator is free to bring forth their vision to the canvas of our televisions and monitors, introducing us to things we might not have even thought of in our wildest dreams. There is no limit to what can be created…except for technology, of course.
So then why is it that we can (generally) break down the aesthetic of most modern games into a few categories? There are three that I came up with. The first is realism – using technological power to create graphics that look as close to real life as possible. It doesn’t matter if the game is set in some fantastical world, the design will still be grounded in reality. Secondly, the anime aesthetic. Unavoidable, due to Japan being a powerhouse of the gaming world, massive amounts of games and even entire genres focus on this style. Lastly, the retro style, creating graphics with varying-yet-low pixel counts.
While there are definitely outliers – like I said, that list is a very general breakdown – I truly believe most modern releases can be put into one of those three categories. There have been some other popular aesthetics, such as cel shading, which was all over the place in the 2000s. However, even that once-popular style fell off at the turn of the decade, and modern cel shaded releases really could fall under the “anime” category.
When something that actually manages to break this mold, even somewhat, comes along, it’s always enough to pique my curiosity. For example, the game we are looking at today doesn’t really fall neatly into any of the above-mentioned categories. Neither realistic, anime, nor retro, this title instead goes for a bold high-contrast style infused with psychadelia.
Developed by AuraLab and published by Other Kind Games, Karma. Incarnation 1 was released on October 19th, 2016 for PC and Mac via Steam.
Tell By Showing
The plot of Karma is your standard everyday love story. You are a sentient ball of light birthed from a god-like black sphere thing floating in space. You fall in love with another sentient ball of light. Said love of your life is immediately eaten by a giant flaming space slug and dragged down to a ruined planet below.
To rescue your love, you must travel down to the planet, take control of a recently-born creature…blob…thing, and collect three artifacts to restore the planet to its former glory. In your way, though, stand the things that fever dreams are made of.
To say the game’s storyline is unusual would be putting it lightly. However, despite the odd specifics of it, Karma‘s plot really is a damsel-in-distress adventure story at its core. The real intriguing part, though, is the setting. Learning about and experiencing the game’s world is much more interesting than the backbone plot, and some of the turns in the latter half of the game can be pretty surprising.
One of the more interesting things in story presentation is that there are no words used, spoken or written. Conversations between characters are represented in a doodle art style, giving you the basic concept of the interaction without literally spelling it out for you. The relationships between NPCs are revealed and developed through their physical interactions, rather than any dialog.
For those that prefer a straight-forward plainly-presented story, this may be a negative point. While the presentation did lend to some parts of the story being a bit obtuse, the overall experience was interesting and relatively easy to understand.
Karma is, at its base, a relatively simple take on the point-and-click adventure genre. You’ll be navigating through various fields and landscapes, interacting with the environment, and solving puzzles, all at the click of you mouse.
However, unlike many games of the genre, you won’t be doing too much item collection and inventory management here. Outside of a couple of puzzles, items and inventory are nearly never used, and even when they are, usage is contextual and occasionally automatic. I believe this was probably done so that the player’s focus is kept on the environment, rather than managing what they’re carrying.
You also won’t have to worry about doing annoying pixel hunting like in many other adventure games; everything you can and must interact with here is big, bold, and obvious. Most of the time, if there’s something important in the environment, a large icon will appear over it or your character when you pass near it.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a real adventure game without puzzles to complete, and
Karma has…a few. During a playthough, you’ll explore seven or eight different environments. Each one acts as its own kind of puzzle, most of the time revolving around performing actions in the correct sequence.
While some of the early puzzle are quite creative, if somewhat on the easier side, things kind of fall apart near the end of the game. While the plot and setting gets more intriguing as the game progresses, the puzzles begin to get lazier and more tedious. Hell, the entire back half of the game is built around a chain fetch quest (bringing items to NPCs to get other items to bring to other NPCs, etc.).
There’s one more major system to the game, and it’s what the game is titled for: a morality system. Starting around the halfway point, you’ll begin making decisions that affect your character’s morality, or karma if you will. Performing “good” actions allows you to keep your soft and squishy blob form, while performing “evil” actions will cause you to grow horns across your body. Your morality can also affect the way NPCs react and respond to you.
Unfortunately, Karma falls into one of the major traps of a morality system: a harsh and stringent dichotomy. There is only good and evil, nothing in between. Moral choices are at hilariously opposite ends of the spectrum, usually amounting to “save this character” or “kill this character.” While its effects on the story are interesting, I wouldn’t call this system developed enough to warrant naming the game after it.
Drop Some Tabs
There’s a reason the intro to this review revolved around graphics and aesthetic: Karma is an absolutely gorgeous game.
Out of the many many advertisements I got for games on display at PAX West a couple months ago, Karma was one that I knew I had to see. The game is done in a hand-drawn, high-contrast, psychadelic style, and its that last part that really caught my eye. Psychadelia isn’t a style much seen in any media anymore, and it’s never been much of a popular one in video games…presumably because they didn’t really exist until after the 70s had passed.
Background art is amazingly detailed and vivid, with no two environments looking the same. Most of the characters are solid black with a few color accents, contrasting strongly against the backgrounds. Animations are fluid, detailed, and suitably bizarre. The sheer number of animations impresses me as well: nearly every item you can interact with elicits a different animation from our blobby protagonist.
There is nearly never a moment where things are standing completely still. NPCs and various weird creatures are constantly moving about the environment and interacting with each other, giving a sense of life to the areas you explore. Even things like a burned out desert or icy wasteland are still full of energy in their own ways.
Really, I have nothing negative I can say about the graphical design here. Karma is simply a beautiful game to look at.
Real and Surreal
The soundtrack for Karma is suitably experimental, psychadelic, and occasionally ambient. The various tracks prominently feature tribal drums, synths, chanting, and occasional didgeridoo, greatly enhancing the atmosphere presented by this title.
These tracks are provided by the Russian band ZmeiRaduga, who focus on experimental aboriginal-style music. The music here is incredibly well-produced and interestingly composed, and even outside of the game makes for some interesting listening.
Much like the game’s art style, this kind of soundtrack isn’t one that I really hear in video games, and it really helps this title to stand out from the crowd.
Work of Art
Overall, Karma. Incarnation 1 is a game with an incredibly strong and attention grabbing presentation with some unfortunate disappointments in the actual gameplay department. The graphics and music are absolutely stellar. The plotline, while starting relatively slow and simple, picks up into something greatly enjoyable. However, while the gameplay has a strong start, it winds up becoming tedious and uninspired by the endgame.
Unfortunately, I also have to bring up the issue of game time vs. cost. According to Steam, I completed a playthrough of this game in 108 minutes. Some of this time was spent with the game running in the background while chatting with friends, or while taking screenshots, so I’ll round this time down to 90 minutes. The game is priced at $8.99 – a budget title.
It’s not as bad of a ratio as the previously reviewed point-and-click title Resette’s Prescription, but I do still feel that it is worth noting. On the positive side, comparing to Resette again, Karma feels like it has a lot more work and care put into it, which I believe can help justify the price.
Depite my issues with the endgame, Karma was an absolute delight for the senses and truly standout in graphical presentation. While the game may deserve a lower score if just gameplay is considered…as a sensory experience and work of art, I feel this title very much makes up for those shortcomings.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by AuraLab on PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.