I’m not an angry player. I tend to either roll with the punches or step back from a game. I’m not one to throw a joypad or storm off in a huff. I prefer the Zen approach. To embrace the cycle of life and death. Take a minute and breathe. Surprising, then, that cute robot platformer C.A.R.L. had me swearing like an absolute sailor.
The setup here is that you play as C.A.R.L. (Computer-Automated Resource Locator) – a cute robot tasked with infiltrating Kent industries. You do this by running, jumping, and firing your blaster at a variety of enemies. It’s all cute, fun stuff and the artwork, script, and music are dripping with love, care, and attention. All the little robots you meet have wryly amusing acronyms and the animation and character design are very nicely done.
I used to own an Amiga 500, which I loved, and C.A.R.L. feels like a strong nostalgic nod towards that era of platformer, although developer Andrew Kenady cites ‘90s PC and Nintendo games as his inspiration. The music reminded me of the Amiga ‘attitude era’ platformer Zool. As far as I’m concerned, anything that reminds me of Zool deserves an extra point on its score. [What?! – Matt]
It’s less of a platformer than it initially seems. The objective in each level is to find three microchips and locate the exit. Whilst this is easy and linear in early levels, the levels soon become sprawling, with switches to flick and areas that scroll horizontally and vertically. At times the experience reminded us more of DOOM than Super Mario Bros.
In fact, one of C.A.R.L’s biggest strengths is that it mixes things up and keeps things interesting. You access the 4 different worlds from the D.U.M.P. – a charming hub world. The hub serves a couple of purposes, and as you defeat bosses in the game you unlock new powers, allowing you to access more areas.
You can also upgrade your core abilities by spending sprockets. Unfortunately, to access these upgrades you must first find a certain amount of hidden collectables in the levels. Finding medals helps you upgrade your weapons and finding blueprints upgrades your defensive powers. You can also collect trading cards in the levels and health upgrades. There’s lots to do here and C.A.R.L. blurs the line between platformer and Metroidvania with aplomb.
All of this, then, sounds like an absolute slam dunk. A charming game, made with love by a dedicated team of two. But it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. C.A.R.L. is mean. Really mean. Now obviously your experience may vary from mine. For a start, I’m terrible at games. But I found C.A.R.L. to be a frustrating experience once I hit level 3. That’s when it decides to up the stakes. The generous checkpointing that makes the early game such a nice experience disappears, as checkpoints become ‘out of order’.
Unfortunately, this coincides with the appearance of enemies who chase you down across the level and kill you with a single touch. Some people will love this, and relish the challenge. I found it increasingly irritating repeating large sections of a level, only to have to start again when a spider made of circuit boards flew into me. As the game progress, these deaths only become more severe. Spike pits, circular saws, and deadly drops all claim your life again and again and suddenly you’re screaming at the TV. The cute C.A.R.L. takes on a new name. But it still begins with C.
This uptick in difficulty level also comes at a time when you unlock a character that lets you buy better weapons. This is unfortunate because those weapons make the boss fights stupidly easy. That’s a shame. Because the boss fights are clearly designed to be centerpieces, with lovely animation, character design, and a fun increase in scale. And if you upgrade your weapons, they’re over too soon. It is, however, very worth muddling through C.A.R.L. because its climax is excellent.
As the narrative ends, the game decides to go big, both in scale and ambition. I really hope players preserve with the game up until that point. After 7 hours of slogging, the last levels really do feel like a celebratory reward. A ramping up of pace and ideas.
I’d recommend C.A.R.L., but I’d recommend it cautiously. There’s fun to be had here, and there’s loads to see. Just be aware that there’s bite behind C.A.R.L.’s friendly robot smile.
Morningstar Game Studio’s C.A.R.L. is out now on all formats.