KarmaZoo - Play It Forward
It was my fault, having lost sight of the overarching goal and selfishly wanting to press forward that led to my fellow players doubling back to rescue me. After all, no blob is an island – going it alone is a sure-fire way to end up a floating, disembodied spirit in KarmaZoo, the upcoming, spiritually infused co-op title from Paris-based developers Pastagames and publisher Devolver Digital.
Both meditative and therapeutic, KarmaZoo is ostensibly a puzzle platformer which requires up to 10 players to co-operate wordlessly as they devise ways around the various obstacles that bar progress across each level. The titular Karma is an in-game currency, earned when players assist others; holding a switch to keep a gate open, using an ability to help another player traversing an obstacle, or simply dying to provide a platform – yes, corpses have utility in KarmaZoo, meaning a mid-air death from a spiked projectile is oftentimes a purposeful move. While such an approach could result in chaos as ten players charge in different directions, KarmaZoo implements a simple system to ensure closeness and co-operation, as each player has a literal bubble encircling their avatar which starts as a tiny blob. Flying solo, and this bubble shrinks down until it kills the player. The only way to stave off such a fate is to maintain proximity to at least one other player. As players congregate, their bubbles become entwined and grow exponentially, sometimes even crossing level geometry. Smaller bands can break off together when needed for more involved puzzles, but no player can finish a level in KarmaZoo by themselves by design.
Nadim Haddad, designer of KarmaZoo, explained some of the reasoning behind the design in a poetic anecdote about a particularly heavy subway door in Paris, forcing people to interact when one deigns to hold it open for the next commuter just behind them, receiving effusive praise often exceeding the small act of kindness itself, or instead judges the distance sufficient to leave them to the task alone. A return to work, alongside ongoing after effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide all feel baked into KarmaZoo, a stark reminder that isolation takes its toll. This is a theme that has been touched on in many games, from Journey to Nier: Automata, but the high player-count, higher complexity of puzzles and near constant need for close proximity in KarmaZoo leads to a particularly effective end result – players all striving to be the most helpful and considerate. The Karma system, used to purchase in-game abilities and character skins is an effective method of incentivising such behaviour.
KarmaZoo features two main game modes, Loop and Totem. Loop is the heart of KarmaZoo, a pseudo proc-gen online system that strings together a series of levels based on player count and also what characters are present in each party. For instance, in the game myself and fellow Aussie journalists played with Nadim, he took the role of a Cactus amongst our lowly blobs, which has the ability to extrude spikes from nearby platforms helping our blobs make it across larger gaps and up walls. There are a huge number of characters in game, many based on animals with unique abilities to boot. A matchmaking system and private codes are both present so friends can work together, however chat functionalities are not provided in-game and go against the spirit of proceedings, players encouraged to communicate wordlessly instead. By completing a Loop, players earn the combined Karma of all participants, not just their own. By working together more effectively, each player becomes richer as a result of their reciprocated kindness. With Loops lasting upwards of 30 minutes, they feel just the right length to jump into on a weeknight and still feel rewarding.
The Totem mode goes in a completely different direction, an online or couch co-op implementation that has more in common with Mario Party. Up to 8 players compete in a series of minigames which rotate through biomes, characters and objectives. One match saw us take on the role of owls gliding through the air as far as they could, another as raptors racing through a series of tunnels filled with spikes and crumbling platforms. Simple enough to understand for the most casual of gamers, the Totem mode is a great way to blow off some steam in shorter bursts as an alternative to the Loop mode which requires at least 30-45 minutes to complete successfully. It also strikes me as a rather wry take on the concept of karma, a way to show players who are being selfish in Loop that what goes around comes around.
Whilst playing through the tutorial for KarmaZoo before the online preview session, it became readily apparent it is a game more suited to a controller than keyboard and mouse which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has played a platforming game before. Targeting PC and all current gen consoles, Pastagames are also including support for 22 languages and cross-platform play. Such decisions will no doubt be vital to the success of KarmaZoo, which will live or die on the basis of the community it can build around the game. Based upon my experience thus far, I certainly hope KarmaZoo finds a large audience receptive to its bright pixel-art design, relaxing soundtrack and comforting gameplay Loop.
KarmaZoo is set to launch in 2023 across a range of platforms.
KarmaZoo was previewed on Steam for PC with a preview code kindly provided by .