Released: October 17th, 2023
Publisher: October 19th, 2023
Systems: PC, PS4/5 (reviewed), Switch, Xbox X/S
The speed with which Karmazoo went from cute little impulse purchase to one of my favorite games of the year is unparalleled.
I’m not sure any game has won me over so decisively and so swiftly, but between the elegant simplicity of its concept and the excellence of its execution, this cooperative puzzle-platformer won me over in record time. The fact it’s utterly adorable didn’t hurt, either.
Karmazoo forms teams of up to ten randomly gathered players and has them complete four sidescrolling puzzle stages, collectively known as Loops. This team has to stick together, both to ensure mutual success and to survive, since any player left on their own for too long becomes stuck as a borderline useless ghost until the next stage. There’s a central gimmick tying this cooperation together - selflessness.
At least, selflessness is the way Karmazoo tries to sell it, but it’s more like politeness. In order for everyone to progress, players have to hold doors open for each other, use their characters’ unique skills to advance their allies, and even throw themselves onto spikes so their tombstones can act as useful platforms. Provided everyone sticks together, death is just a slap on the wrist - it’s like throwing your jacket over a puddle for someone to cross, only pointier.
Like I say, it’s all about being polite.
When cooperating with random players, the lack of vocal communication becomes a big part of the challenge. While you can unlock simple emotes, and those emotes are damn useful, much of the team’s success relies on intuiting each others’ behavior and finding ways within the restrictive mechanics to demonstrate a strategy to the group. It’s the kind of thing that could prove a nightmare, but the fact Karmazoo is itself a fundamentally intuitive experience makes it work shockingly well in practice.
It’s the kind of game in which you can have self-contained emergent experiences. Staying behind to keep a straggler alive, escorting an obvious newcomer through a level, helping the team realize they missed a hidden “Karmabox” full of rewards, there’s plenty of personal victories you can have for yourself throughout a Loop.
Karmazoo’s assortment of puzzles fall into a few broad categories revolving around a smattering of traps and tricks. While navigating spikes, darts, and droplets of acid, players will have to find ways to chain electricity between themselves to light sequences of bulbs, take turns singing at special wheels to make them activate devices, and stand on little buttons to keep doors open or make elevators work, all while being sure to act harmoniously.
It doesn’t always work out - sometimes a team member just doesn’t get it, and a handful of puzzles are a bit weird to wordlessly suss out - but for the most part you find that most players figure out what to do quickly, and the fact you start cooperating seamlessly without even speaking to each other is just a really pleasant feeling.
Of course, rewards are on offer for those who prove helpful in the form of Karma Hearts. These serve as currency for unlocking content, and they’re given out individually to players performing useful actions - you hold a door open, you get a Heart for everyone passing through. To keep the politeness from getting too competitive, while each individual earns Karma Hearts, successfully completing a Loop pools all earnings together and awards the total to everyone.
Hearts are important, because they’re needed to buy new Bodies. New players start out as a little Blob that can do nothing but sing - the one ability every player has. By spending Hearts at the Sanctuary hub level, you can unlock Bodies that serve as new characters, each with their own special action. They’re also incredibly cute!
Some of these Bodies are very straightforward - the Frog can do a triple jump, the Owl can glide, and the Pig serves as a magnet for certain item pickups. Other Bodies have very specific uses - the Umbrella can open up to shield allies from acid drips, the Music Box sings in a 360 degree radius to activate more things at once, and the Flower Pot can grow a plant to create a ladder.
A few synergies are discoverable too, the most obvious being the aforementioned Pot and the Watering Can. The latter can make flowers grow, and therefore give the Pot’s ability even more height.
There’s a ton of characters of offer, some way more useful than others, and the level selection of a Loop weights itself to increase the likely usefulness of the characters in a team. If someone is a Lantern, there’s a high chance a level will include lots of secret passages for its light to expose. If there are Whales or Clams on the team - Bodies geared around creating extra platforms for players to jump on - there’s a likelihood of levels designed to call upon their services.
It isn’t guaranteed that a situational ability will see use in a Loop, but the odds are pretty good. To that end, while each Loop may be randomly sequenced, the levels themselves aren’t randomly designed. Every Stage is explicitly static, and after a few Loops you’ll start seeing the same ones. However, because each team is different, multiple goes on the same stage can still feel quite fresh.
After each Stage, the team can vote on a bonus that’ll appear in the next one. By collecting fruit dotted around levels, players will increase the number of available bonuses. These boosts range from the straightforward to the entertainingly useless. You could, for example, get a simple award of 50 free Karma Hearts, or unlock an extra jump to reach high platforms easily, but hat’s not as funny as replacing the background music with a kazoo or getting “hint” popups that offer specifically unhelpful information.
Sadly, most players vote for the useful stuff, so you rarely get the “Guest Saxophonist” bonus. Aye, but it’s a sure treat when you do!
Karmazoo has a very silly and good hearted sense of humor, from the aforementioned bonuses to the many different ways the game’s one voice actor can announce menu selections with varying degrees of absurdity. You know you’ve got a game that likes to have fun when one of its bonus offerings is, “This bonus does nothing. Enjoy!”
Karmazoo’s aesthetic really helps, with simple pixel style art that nonetheless exudes a ton of character with appealing chunky designs and genuinely gorgeous animations. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is unlocking the “dance” command in the Sanctuary and seeing each Body’s unique moves - whether it’s the Bell cloning itself and playing a shell game with the hands it manifested out of nowhere, or the Blowfish sharpening itself on an angle grinder, dances are their own extra layer of charming.
The audiovisual presentation seemed quite familiar to me, and as soon as I saw the Body design for the Cat, I realized Karmazoo’s neon colors and simple-yet-catchy music came from the same folks responsible for Pix the Cat, a series that I used to be absolutely hooked on back when mobile gaming wasn’t a wasteland of free-to-play gambling dens. It’s nice to know that, a decade later, this studio can still grab me.
There’s only one main problem with the game, and that’s how it handles overall player progress. The driving aim of the game is to escape the titular Zoo by not just unlocking all the Bodies, but completing each Body’s particular set of challenges. While this is fine in theory, and indeed isn’t a problem for many of the Bodies, the fact a challenge must be completed in a single Loop can lead to real issues.
The Turtle is a great example. Turtles can pop inside its shell to become invulnerable, a fine skill to have. One of its challenges is to shell up and protect against twenty hazards, and because that must be done in a single Loop or otherwise reset, the temptation is great to hold up a team or risk abandonment by “grinding” protections, since you never know if it’ll be your only chance in that run.
When playing as the Turtle, I felt I had to do this, as I wasn’t getting Stages with enough hazards to naturally protect against. Conversely, some Bodies can so easily complete their challenges that you’ll do them all in one Stage without even trying, which is a shame if you were really enjoying a character but want to keep progressing.
I’d have much rather had challenges that take longer to complete but track across multiple Loops. It would solve the two extremes that Karmazoo currently suffers from.
Still, that’s not what we’ve got here, and while it’s a gripe of mine, it’s the single one I have for a game I otherwise consider genuinely brilliant. I love a game that takes one simple idea and finds a multitude of ways to use it, and Karmazoo does that perfectly, layering some wonderful puzzles over its core concept of random helpfulness. I’m just delighted while playing this game, consistently so.
Karmazoo is a wonderful cooperative puzzler that encourages wordless teamwork in a way that should lead to chaos but instead results in elegant simplicity - most of the time. With its cute sense of humor and even cuter character designs, there’s a huge amount of appeal in simply unlocking and trying new characters, of which there are many. A game about being polite to strangers is as twee as it sounds, and it’s a tweeness I’m absolutely here for.
Plus you can be a duck.