Review: KarmaZoo

4 Dec 2023

As I’ve spent the past several years as a reviewer, I’ve increasingly grown to think of games as broadly belonging to one of two categories. The first category are games that basically wear their hearts on their sleeves. Within the first half-hour you have seen most of the game’s core loop and ideas, and you can expect it to just keep iterating on that content. This does not mean the games in question are bad, it just means that you’re not going to suddenly unlock a new system that recontextualizes everything you have felt about the game up to this point.

The other sorts of games, however, are going to recontextualize themselves. Often they start oddly simplistic, but then something blossoms that forces you to re-examine everything, and then there’s another blossoming, and it becomes a fractal dive into new systems. What you thought you knew has been rewritten and become a palimpsest, a glimpse into a deeper layer of the game.

KarmaZoo is definitely in the latter category of game… which is why it’s kind of weird that each new layer didn’t make me like the game any more. Let’s talk about this a bit.

Karma Books

The plot of the game is quite simplistic, right out the gate, but it does have one. You start out as a blob. As a blob, you can do a few basic things. You can double-jump, adhere to sticky walls, yell at things (the game calls this singing), and die… which leaves behind a tombstone that you can use as a platform or to stick to. Your goal is to accumulate Karma, because you are trapped in the eponymous KarmaZoo.

Now… this is an excuse plot. It is presented cutely with charming voiceover, but it is an excuse plot through and through. The actual thing that’s going on is that the developers thought of this game mechanic and then came up with explanations to justify it. There’s not really much more to be said about this, so what matters more is getting into the basic gameplay loop of acquiring Karma.

You queue up for a random Loop of randomized stages with random other people (or specific people with a fixed room code). In each stage you have to run, jump, and collect your way to the end. Each stage features various challenges, and each player can either be a blob or a single unlocked animal or non-animal concept. Each animal is unlocked through further Karma expenditures, and the lore justification is that once you unlock all of them, you may be permitted to leave.

That’s the premise and the core mechanics. Unfortunately… things get a bit more dicey after that.

We Bought a Karma

Remember how I mentioned that the stages are randomized? Now, you might think that this could be a problem in an obvious way, because with randomized stages you can’t always be sure that your power of, say, rolling across spiked surfaces or breaking glass walls will actually be useful. This is a valid concern. However, to the game’s credit, the idea is that every randomized stage takes into account what players bring into the stage. Therefore you should never run into a puzzle that you can’t complete, and you should also always run into a puzzle you need your animal power to complete.

Unfortunately… this causes an inverse problem, because once again, your animal pick doesn’t matter.

Let’s say that I bring an owl with me as my animal form, which means I can glide long distances horizontally. Now, in a fixed platformer, being an owl would mean that I could traverse gaps easily, and that would help me in certain places. It would also mean that some other challenges would be impossible for me to clear, so I’d have to go around them. The whole point of having these different characters to select is precisely that.

Here, however, my power will be useful at some point… but it has to be, and it will be an aesthetic decision from there on out. If no one can break glass, we will not run into glass, and thus we will not have to face greater challenges by being thusly limited.

The actual stage puzzles are at least halfway decent, insofar as you need to keep working together and feel rewarded for doing so, but it isn’t helped by the fact that you have to unlock the ability to communicate with people through symbols through leveling so the first couple of new runs can feel… oddly quiet. Then there are the various constellations which serve as specific quest lists for each animal, things that are nice in theory but come down to being kind of counterproductive. The goal is to be working together, but a lot of the goals require you doing something distinct with specific animals regardless of what the rest of your team is trying to do.

And the worst part of it all is that it doesn’t feel sticky. You don’t feel that urge to unlock some new animal because it’ll let you explore stuff you previously couldn’t; it’s just a new skin, for a goal that doesn’t seem all that valuable. You have to vote on the next stage’s modifications, but what does each modification mean? You can’t know until you experience them, and then it’s too late.

KarmaZoo is pitched as you having a narrative reason to keep exploring, but you don’t actually have one, but there’s no other reason given. It feels… oddly hollow, all things considered.

Zoo Chameleon

One thing that KarmaZoo cannot be faulted on is visuals… mostly. In broad strokes the monocolor animal sprites are lovely, the pixel-art stages are lovely, and the painted parallax backgrounds are gorgeous. The problem is that you only have a very limited insight into the stage, mostly centered around the halo that surrounds your character, so it feels like you’re glimpsing the stage through a periscope. It’s an interesting idea, but it ultimately doesn’t quite work for me.

The sound, thankfully, is excellent. Every animal has its own separate song (or, as I like to think of it, its yelling and screaming for no reason) which is fun to do and also required for some puzzles. The soundtrack is also calming and meditative while still pushing you forward, so that’s a pleasant aspect of the gameplay worth leaning into.

Zoo Debt

I don’t want to come off as overwhelmingly or unnecessarily negative about KarmaZoo. At its core, this is a weird game trying a weird new idea in a way that I can respect. The problem is just that I think most of its swings don’t actually work, and the net result is more mildly frustrating than innovative. It keeps unfolding new ideas, but each new idea strikes me as kind of mid-tier. It grows in depth, but none of those new depths ultimately work for me.

I think that if you have a dedicated group to play the game with, you might get a fair bit more out of it. If you don’t have that, though? You can probably keep this one locked in its cage.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.