We are suckers for a platformer that’s been given an RPG makeover. Take a simple Mario-like game and add upgrades, collectibles that unlock the upgrades, and a vast, explorable map to house the collectibles and you’ve snagged us. C.A.R.L. knows the formula and catches us like the diver in a game of Mousetrap.
C.A.R.L. (Computer-Automated Resource Locator, if you’re interested) is a bit of a freedom fighter. A robot factory, owned by Kent Industries, has been overworking its taskforce and generally trashing them in a quest for research. You’re here to scuttle the operation and save your robot brethren.
The adventure starts in D.U.M.P. (Depot of Unusable Machinery and Parts, of course), which is your rebel base. It’s here that defective robots have been holed up, trying to survive in Kent’s authoritarian regime. Your task is to head out and complete levels with the ultimate mission of defeating Kent’s hench-robots and eventually Kent himself.
There’s a lovely structure to C.A.R.L. You’re heading out to a wing of the D.U.M.P. where the levels reside, and you can play any that you want, as long as you have the required number of microchips to unlock them. The levels are of a reasonable size, and somewhere within them are three microchips. With the three microchips in hand, you can activate a lift and escape the level.
But what elevates C.A.R.L. is the collectibles. You know which collectibles are in the level based on silhouettes on the level’s starting interface. But they are crafty, hidden in secret rooms, requiring great feats of platforming, opened up by far-flung switches, and they’re not easy to reach at all. These collectibles aren’t there to artificially increase your playtime: they unlock significant improvements to C.A.R.L. Blueprints can be used to increase your health pips; medals get you weapon upgrades; and golden microchips unlock improvements like double-jumps, dashes and ground-pounds. You ignore the collectibles at your peril.
The collectibles add layers onto a level, and we stopped playing levels with our eyes solely on the exit. Every room is carefully sweeped and considered, with an eye to what might be hidden there. And C.A.R.L. loves to twizzle its moustache and hint towards where secrets might be, with background artwork and taped-up notes giving you a clue. Finally discovering and grabbing a collectib;le feels great, because you know that you’re going to be more powerful for the next level.
The levels themselves are an imaginative bunch. There’s a good example of this inventiveness in the third set of levels. We’d just unlocked a new dash move, and expected the levels to exploit it. But the designers didn’t bother for three whole levels, simply because they had other ideas they wanted to try out. We were making clones of ourselves instead, and you got the impression of a design team so overflowing with ideas that they couldn’t help including all of them. It’s almost Nintendo-like in that regard.
There’s chase sequences, with mechanical spiders hurtling through the level as you try to keep ahead of them. It’s a tale as old as time, but C.A.R.L. starts flipping it on its head. What if the player navigates a whole level, only to find there’s a spider at the end of it, and has to retreat at speed? What if there were multiple spiders, all on different patrol routes, and the player had to time their heist to perfection, all with a giant map plastered to the back wall? These gentle subversions are what makes C.A.R.L. a lot of fun, and so heavily populated with heel-turns.
Kudos, too, to the bosses. At the end of every world is a boss, and that boss is preceded by a gauntlet of platforming. Stumble through it, and the boss is – again – inventive, with several phases and clear weak spots that you soon learn to exploit. Once we’d unlocked enough health and weapon upgrades (grenade launcher for the win), we were consigning them to the rubbish dump with increasing ease, but we still took time to appreciate them.
And C.A.R.L. loves a message, taped onto the wall, and this is where those Portal comparisons come in. They have a GlaDOS tone, encouraging workers to toss themselves into spikes and down pits all in the name of capitalism, and they made us belly chuckle more than once. It was more than we expected from a simple platformer.
Mistakes? It makes a few. We would have happily paid hard cash for a ‘look down’ button. It’s standard in most platformers, as you stand on a ledge and wonder what you’re about to jump into. But C.A.R.L. doesn’t bother, and we got a little tired of making leaps of faith. Considering the difficulty level of C.A.R.L. (reasonably high, but not at the tippity top), it can often mean unwanted death.
That’s coupled with a slightly mean-spirited approach to death. If you die, you lose all of the scrap metal (the game’s currency) and collectibles that you gained up to that point. Considering that checkpoints are relatively rare, it’s a constant threat that hangs over you. You’ve made five minutes of progress: are you sure you don’t want to backtrack and trigger a checkpoint? We’d have dialed down the problem, perhaps stealing away a player’s scrap metal stocks rather than their collectibles. Instead, it creates rage-quit moments when C.A.R.L. could have been a frictionless joy without them.
But we can look past the issues because C.A.R.L. is so charming, and it knows our buttons: fiendish but imaginative platforming mixed with collectibles and RPG-style unlocks. Honestly, it’s our catnip, and if you share similar feelings then C.A.R.L. is a must-buy. It really is F.A.B (Fun And Brilliant).
You can buy C.A.R.L. from the Xbox Store
- Stuffed to the rafters with collectibles
- Carefully designed levels
- Fiendish but never unfair
- Adds just enough RPG stuff
- A ‘Look Down’ would have been nice
- Failure is too punitive
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Andrew Kenady
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 29 September 2022
- Launch price from - £12.49