The best word to describe Karma. Incarnation 1 is ‘oddball’. It’s a surreal, Dali-ist point and click adventure, and you play a big, black Pac-Man-like creature.
There are a few reasons why summarising the story of Karma. Incarnation 1 is difficult. We think it’s about a peaceful world being overtaken by a sticky ichor. You play what seems to be an astral spirit, as you’re enlisted by the moon to go undercover in the world as that Pac-Man we mentioned. You’re tasked with activating three pyramids of power, which will boot up a magical barrier to eject the ichor. We say think, because there is no text to be found – everyone talks in Sims-like bee-bop-a-doops and characters’ thoughts are shown in very sketchy thought-bubbles.
The story’s also a bit loose around the edges because Karma. Incarnation 1 (that title really does nothing for the flow of a sentence) is the first chapter of a planned series. Over the course, you will be activating just one of the pyramids of power, so you won’t quite see the consequences of your actions – not yet.
As odysseys go, it emphasises the odd. You may know that the pyramid is your ultimate goal, but getting there is a weird, convoluted route. It mostly involves travelling in a Tardis-like vehicle called the Herdy Gerdy, arriving at different worlds with different themes: there’s an ice one, a plant one, a disco-party one. By helping out the cast of creatures in each region, you will gain artefacts to plug into the Herdy Gerdy and travel to further regions.
The characters you meet seem ripped from a copy of Ricky Gervais’s ‘Flanimals’. None of them look like each other: they’re wildly varied, with gloopy T-Rexes, beholder-like creatures, and gnarled wood-druids. At the start, we found the characters to be a bit sketchy, as if Karma was someone’s doodle journal come to life. But, after the first few scenes, they become more polished, and their designs, along with their animations, are chock full of personality. Monsters watch you from trees, cackle together or create their own music, and they add a lot of bustle and joy to Karma. Incarnation 1. They’re the standout elements.
Wait, no, the music is the standout element. Karma. Incarnation 1 is soundtracked by a group called ZMEIRADUGA, and it’s top, top notch. We’d describe it as a prog album made by a swarm of insects. It’s near-impossible to isolate individual instruments, but it seems to be full of cricket-legs and chirrups, as well as throat-singing, and it bizarrely works, particularly given the context. ZMEIRADUGA’s SoundCloud calls it “ethno-dream and dance”. Sure, why not?
So, what you have with Karma. Incarnation 1 is a bizarre journey through colourful environments, soundtracked brilliantly. The rave-world in particular is fantastic, with grotesque creatures dancing to the music. This world works because there’s a tiny element of familiarity to it, making it just-about understandable.
Where Karma. Incarnation 1 comes unstuck a little bit, though, is when it moves in directions that are a little too high-concept and alien. You will often be performing acts with little idea of why or how. Things happen automatically and suddenly, and clearly you triggered it, but you couldn’t replicate it. For example, we ate various items and creatures, storing them in a kind of inventory, but most of the time we didn’t know what they were or what they did. What does this spiky creature in my inventory do? Why did that giant pea turn into a different object in my inventory? You get a little motion graphic about how each item might be useful, but it’s often just a jumble of nonsense.
A bigger issue comes in the form of controls. Karma. Incarnation 1 is clearly made for PC. It’s laced in its DNA: there is a sequence where you have to scan an environment for things to prod and squeeze, and the environment is many, many screens in size. On PC this would have been fine, as you can hover over various elements with the cursor and let the screen scroll as you near the edge of the frame. On console, the developers have chosen NOT to use a cursor for the console port, and it makes everything laborious.
You get a circle that snaps to something you can interact with, and you can move its focus to the next thing and the next. There are more problems with this than we can fully list. The circle is hard to see; it has a hard time knowing what you want to snap to next; it often doesn’t show at all; and the game regularly shows you things that look interactable, but just aren’t. When highlighting is hit and miss, you’re uncertain whether you’re actually meant to interact with certain things.
It’s a similar story with moving your little blob, and moving the screen. You control your character with the d-pad, while you tug the screen around with the left-stick, and move the snapping circle with the right-stick. It never feels right. We found ourselves tied in knots, as moving the character always felt like something an analogue stick should do. When you chuck in the Herdy Gerdy, which is ‘tuned’ by pushing the analogue sticks in different directions, it can become a game of Twister on your controller.
The developers of Karma. Incarnation 1 clearly know that controls and logic are a potential issue, so they make some compromises. You don’t need to manually use items in your inventory: Karma will do it automatically when you’re in the right area. Everything in the world has one way of interacting with it, rather than the list of verbs you might associate with a LucasArts game. And by snapping that circle to the interactive elements of the screen, you are effectively told what is worth playing with.
It works, but it also makes the game puzzle-less. You’re moving round the area until you’ve run out of things to poke or pick up, and then you’re going back over it again to see if the items have a use. We suspect that the training wheels are removed on PC, where you have more control over the cursor, so it’s a shame that we rarely engaged our brain on console.
To be fair to Karma. Incarnation 1, there are moments where strategy appears, as it does a cracking job of offering you some forks in the road. You can do a lot of its puzzles in any order, and there is definitely an optimal one that lets you see more of the game, as you can reach the final moments without having used some of the items you’ve accumulated. It’s also possible to play through as either a pacifist or a violent sort – the game’s called Karma after all – and you’ll get spikes on your head if you take the latter route. Knowing how to complete the game without eating your enemies is a challenge. Similar to Undertale, which tried something similar, it would have been nice to know that Karma can be played two different ways, before we accidentally committed to them.
It feels like there’s a conflict between Karma. Incarnation 1’s world and how you interact with it. The world is full of hubbub; it’s bizarre but believable, and it’s soundtracked brilliantly. We want to spend more time there, and – with luck – we’ll see further episodes that go even deeper, as we only really got two hours of time with Karma. Incarnation 1. But then there are the interactions, which are clumsy and heavy-handed. In trying to make a PC game fit onto a console, the puzzles have become collateral damage: they’re just things that happen when you press a button, rather than requiring anything more than a brain cell.
Karma. Incarnation 1 is a point-and-click as a petri-dish, then: full of bizarre organisms interacting with each other, and wiggling away or bursting as you prod at them. It’s fascinating to watch, and even better to listen to. But it’s when you try to play with it that it falters. Poor controls and benign puzzles mean that the chaos drops away to become a little too clumsy, a little too simplistic. Hopefully further episodes in the series will recapture the anarchy.
You can buy Karma. Incarnation 1 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S