We often associate karma with jerky people getting their comeuppance after a prolonged period of being a jerk. As a concept, though, karma boils doing to cause and effect, with someone’s actions (be they positive or negative), having some direct correlation to what the world offers them in return. So, yes, you can laugh and say “karma” when your friend stubs their toes after flipping you the bird, but keep in mind that projecting positivity into the world will see it reflected on you. If you believe in it, of course. This pay-it-forward mentality is at the core of KarmaZoo, a co-op platformer by French studio Pastagames, that wants us all to come together, get along, and sing while we do it.
As with us humans, in KarmaZoo you begin life as a blob. Squishy and small, this form has no remarkable abilities or definable features, only able to move and double jump, like any garden-variety platforming character. Guided by a disembodied, bellowing voice, you’re given your purpose – earn a place your place in Nirvana by way of kindness and good deeds. After a short introduction, you’re welcomed into the hub area known as the Sanctury, where it becomes evident just how you’re going to achieve your lofty goal of ascension.
Your aspirations will require more skill than the blob form can offer, so you’ll need to enlist the aid of the avatars, a range of 50 playable characters, each with its own adorable pixel sprite and platforming ability. From the expected dog, cat, and duck, through to the less conventional flowerpot, raptor, and pear (which sprouts little cursed legs to walk on), every avatar is endearingly cute, with the animations alone making you want to unlock all 50.
He has other abilities, but the seal mainly provides excellent vibes
The abilities that come with the avatars add a new wrinkle to your platforming exploits, and then combining them can introduce even more depth. The owl can glide in the air, the cactus can create stick handholds for fellow players to use, the seal can smash breakable blocks on the ground, and the turtle (my personal favourite) can withdraw into its shell to avoid damage. While some abilities are shared between avatars, there are a substantial number of unique skills to test out as you unlock new characters. I enjoyed the vast majority, however not all are made equal, and some avatars only made it out of my Sanctuary once. Sorry blowfish, you’re hilarious to look at, but breaking glass isn’t my jam.
Your ultimate goal is to use karma, the game’s currency, to unlock all 50 avatars and ascend. To do that, you’ll have to enter the Loop. The game’s primary co-op mode, the Loop is a gauntlet of five back-to-back platforming levels that two-to-ten players can attempt. Levels will have you and your teammates collecting keys to open doors, activating pressure pads, and moving platforms to progress as a unit. There’s no reward for those that tear ahead, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Just like receiving a dopamine boost when someone thanks you for holding open a door, you’ll earn extra karma for actions that benefit others on your team.
Ensuring that no camel, lantern, or elephant gets left behind, each player is surrounded by an aura that can only be sustained when in the proximity of another player. Blasting ahead and thinking only of your own personal gain will see your aura shrink and eventually disappear, effectively taking you out of action until the next round. Cooperation is baked into every aspect of the game, as even in death you can serve your squad. If you land on spikes, you leave behind a tombstone that your friends can safely land on.
You’ll want to avoid the Naughty Eyes, primarily because they’re called Naughty Eyes
The direct focus on cooperation is refreshing, especially in a medium that’s built on competition. To stay welcoming and avoid any toxic behaviour, KarmaZoo has no in-built voice chat, pushing players to interact solely through movement and a limited array of emotes. Admittedly, I did join a voice chat outside of the game when playing with a few friends, but there is something special about conveying your intentions and sharing ideas visually, even if it can lead to moments of frustration when the frog refuses to understand that my incessant jumping means that we need to go left, not right.
Between each level, several rule-altering cards are offered up, with a round of majority-rules voting deciding which mutator will affect the next round. Some cards are harmless and helpful, such as granting additional time on the clock or giving everyone an extra jump, while others are a little more interesting. Low gravity and complete damage immunity for one player are both common, while some cards change everyone into the same avatar for one level, be it a wolf, whale, or music box. You can even expand the cards on offer by collecting fruit scattered throughout each level, with additional cards revealed depending on how many your team finds.
Insanely, there are over 300 levels to play through, each hand-crafted and curated for the team dynamic. Your Loop will always include levels that make the most of your unique group of avatars, though you’ll still occasionally run into obstacles you can’t overcome depending on your player count. It never stopped us from completing a level, but with fewer players I did notice a few paths were blocked off to us. Regardless, the levels are well designed, with each one feeling unique and interesting, blending in various mechanics, layouts, and colour palettes to keep each Loop feeling fresh.
So much for being lucky
If all the positivity and good will is making you feel a bit lightheaded, you can always balance the scales in Totem, the game’s cheeky competitive mode. A mix between Mario Party and Sportsfriends, this mode is a collection of quick, easy-to-learn minigames that do away with karma and encourage a bit of friendly competition. Racing raptors, collecting the most fruit as pigs, and lighting sconces as flames, it’s all good, fast fun. There’s not as much depth to be found on the Totem side of things, but there doesn’t need to be, as I found it best as a means to bring the gaming session to a laughter-filled close after working together for the previous few hours.
The elevator pitch of a cooperative platformer that promotes positivity might not immediately draw you in, but the true magic of KarmaZoo can’t be understood until you jump into a Loop. Effectively encouraging genuine cooperation is a difficult task, but the various mechanics and painfully endearing presentation made me want to help my fellow blobs, and not just to bump up my karma reserves. Slightly uneven abilities and some oddities surrounding player count can easily be forgiven when the game is this wholesome and this enjoyable to interact with. Be kind to one another, and be kind to yourself.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Devolver Digital
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / Switch / PC
- November 15, 2023