Kargast isn’t a game to play when you’re feeling downbeat – particularly if you have kids. It sprinkles the violence, murder, mutilation and kidnapping of children around like it was salt on chips. Dislike kids? Kargast is the game for you! We weren’t quite ready for how pitch-black Kargast was, but our eyes got used to the darkness eventually.
The identity of Kargast’s main character is up to you. They can be whatever name, gender or colour of hair that you want. But you don’t get to see them alive and kicking: you’re immediately shipped off to purgatory, while your physical body is bedbound in hospital with your mum waiting next to you.
Initially, we thought Kargast was a survival horror. No sooner were we out of the metaphysical, purgatory version of our hospital room, when a giant horned blob chased after us. Evading hospital beds and filing cabinets, we eventually reached safety and assumed that we were going to spend the whole game hiding from Silent Hill nasties. But it’s all misdirection, as Kargast goes somewhere else entirely.
After dodging the demon, the main character finds a little Navi-like companion who offers to help. They suggest that the two of them head further and further into purgatory, finding similarly lost children so that they can all make a break for it. And so begins a reluctant adventure to shepherd lost souls.
There’s a touch of Dante to Kargast, as each ‘circle’ of Purgatory is a different mental construction of the child within it. One nature-loving child has built a forest realm with them as the deer god at its centre. Another child hides in their sewers as a rat king. These connected Purgatories make for neat worldbuilding, and reflect the kid who created them. It’s a shame that the personalities of these children ebb away a little once they join the team.
It’s the gathering of children that forms the game’s structure. Each ring of Purgatory is a 2D path to explore, albeit mostly linear. As you move through them, you encounter twisted, disgusting beasts that have crawled out of John Carpenter movies. They squat on the road, all limbs and tentacles, giving it a bit of Gandalf’s ‘none shall pass’.
These constructs were our favourite parts of Kargast. Meat robots, skinned pigs and walking fish are among the disreputable cast, and they never failed to surprise us. There’s a twisted mind designing these creatures, and once we realised that we didn’t have to fear them in any way, we enjoyed them.
You don’t get to talk your way out of it – you have to fight them. And this is where Kargast’s real influence steps in: Undertale. You and your team take part in turn-based combat with the enemy, with a choice of skills at your disposal. Each child you rescue offers a new skill, and that skill has an elemental status. Guessing what element the giant meatball enemy might be is a bit of a guessing game, but – once you know it – you can hit them with the element that damages them the most.
In an Undertale fashion, the enemies natter away while you attack, but rather than pithy one-liners, it’s ‘kiiiilll meeeee’ and ‘I’m going to swallow you whole’ pleasantries. Choose an attack, and more Undertale comes into view, as a little minigame plays out. Like a golf power swing, you have to tap the A button when a moving slider hits a target. Miss and you miss. Nail it, and the enemy is damaged and your MP increases.
That MP is then spent on the skills (most notably the heal), so you have a resource to manage. Each skill uses up all of your MP, but the amount it heals or damages is largely dependent on the amount of MP it swallowed up. So, there’s a neat risk-reward game here, as you decide whether to hold back a skill until you have a bigger MP bar.
It’s fine the first few times, but after the hundredth the combat becomes a real slog. While it may seem superficially like Undertale, it doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity for ideas or reinvention. It’s Undertale on pause, as a single minigame gets reused over the entirety of the game. The components of that minigame don’t even change: the bar doesn’t really get bigger or faster per enemy, and the enemies attacks don’t affect you differently. If you’re hit by a pack of dogs, it’s the same as being hit by a meat lollipop. Variety doesn’t even come into it, but it’s so, so easy to imagine how it could.
In the opening few acts, it feels like Kargast knows the problem. Combat is limited, and Final Fantasy-style random battles are few and far between. They happen, but you don’t know why they happen, and they’re so rare that you don’t care much about looking into it. But that gets ruined by a sloppy final act that layers them on so, so thick in a dungeon where it’s easy to get turned around. It’s an awful last hour to an otherwise perfectly fine game, and threatens to undo a lot of good work.
A note on progression and RPG trappings, which would have helped things no-end. Kargast doesn’t opt for XP, skill trees, loot or anything of the kind. The closest it gets to progression is more HP and a new skill whenever you get a new child in your team. But the enemies get more HP and deal more damage, so mostly you’re riding a rollercoaster that only goes up and never comes down. There’s no excitement or payoff from the grind. Worst of all, when you’re massacring random enemies, you’re not even getting an XP benefit. It’s all for naught.
It sounds hideous, but combat is mostly just a lightweight chore that you can ignore. That’s not the greatest poster quote we’ve ever given. But when the real joy of Kargast comes from the adventure and the worldbuilding, it’s at least not obstructing it. Because the journey is rather enthralling. We were swept up in the quest to find out where we were, what was happening to us, and how we might get out. We didn’t quite get the payoff we wanted at the end (we suspect that we got a ‘bad’ ending, which we’ll have to address one day), but there is a forward momentum to the strong writing that dragged us through the soggy combat and fairly dire last act. Which is no mean feat.
If you’re in the mood for a gothic, straight-faced Undertale, then Kargast delivers a low-budget cover that hits most of the right notes. It slips up with its repetitive, uninvolving combat, but never to the degree that you want to give up on your quest. It’s a fellowship that is just about worth joining.