In a single moment, Karmaflow: The Rock Opera Video Game won me over. I was close to the beginning of the game, a 3D adventure-platformer, when I saw a glowy red thing off in the distance. "Collectible!" said my brain, because that always signals a collectible in these sorts of games. But then I picked it up and the following happened.
I got serenaded with a mini-metal ballad for picking up a dinky little shard that was sitting plainly out in the open. The whole world slowed down, and I leaped and flipped and danced along with it. It was great! My reward for something mundane was preposterously epic, bolstered by the voices of actual metal stars. I couldn't help but laugh at the juxtaposition.
Collectibles, in my opinion, tend to be the least rewarding rewards in video games. They rarely do anything tangible, alter you or your abilities in any meaningful way. At best, they take the form of audio logs or something like that, so at least you get a couple moldy scraps of story to justify all your painstaking snooping. But I rarely find myself excited about them. They feel more like a consolation prize, a participation ribbon, a cardboard cut-out of your family waiting at the finish line because the real thing couldn't be bothered to come. They're the barest of incentives to explore, especially when games are capable of making the prospect of prospecting so much more exciting. They kind suck.
Karmaflow, at least, does them up in style, makes them feel worth the effort. And in this game, music is the main reward. Not just any music, but hilariously bombastic rock opera metal. These euphoric bursts of melody, then, help unify the whole experience.
Here are a couple other traditional video game tropes that Karmaflow infuses with musical flare. First up, a puzzle sequence that centres around activating instruments one-by-one, slowly assembling a song.
Each instrument I activated dropped a new instrument into the background track. A thumping drum, a swelling orchestra, a pulsing bass. And sure, if we want to be achingly technical about it, I was just solving a simple puzzle that opened the game's equivalent of a door, but the music made it feel like I was creating something.
Boss fights are also introduced with music, sequences like this:
The fight itself? Kinda rote. I just had to infuse objects in the environment with my magical karma marbles so that they'd thwack the boss in the back. But the way it was structured — almost like a concert mosh pit, with the boss "performing" on stage while floor tiles would rear up like unruly moshers and push me back — made the proceedings feel so much more momentous.
For better and for worse, that's sort of Karmaflow in a nutshell: competent but unspectacular gameplay paired with larger than life metal moments. It's not entirely dissimilar to Brutal Legend in that respect, except with more soaring and less real-time strategy that almost works.
It is a bit of a conundrum, though: I fully acknowledge that the music is making this game for me. What I've played of Karmaflow could, by and large, exist sans its very specific brand of bombastic music (while it complements many moments, rarely is it integral to what you're doing), and it would be a vastly inferior experience. The platforming is kinda floaty and uncomfortable, the puzzles are so-so, and the story isn't doing much for me. The art is the only other truly spectacular thing about it.
Realisations like these make me wonder just how powerful of a force music is in people's decisions to label things "good" or "bad." The right music can make things appear more professional or epic or dramatic or whatever you need, really. It is a masterful manipulator of context, a blunt force weapon that beats feelings into our head. So I wonder, is Karmaflow a mediocre game paired with cool, fitting music? Or is it a good game because of its cool, fitting music? Is its music a crutch, or a weapon? Did I laugh at that collectible moment near the beginning because it was great, or because the music didn't fit at all, because it was literally laughable?
Maybe it depends on who's playing. Me, I'm all about it, but if you're not big into ridiculous fantasy metal and all its absurd trappings, Karmaflow might not do it for you. Even if you don't think you are, though, I still recommend giving Karmaflow a shot. Maybe this will be the thing that wins you over.