Before I start, I’d like you to take a trip back in time, if you don’t mind?
The month is February and the year is 1991. REM’s losing my Religion rocket up the charts, Hannibal Lector earns a reputation as a guest star to die for, and an eccentric group of green-haired goobers called Lemmings smash their way into gamers’ hearts.
The 1991 release of Lemmings introduced the concept of guiding a herd of silly little creatures through a series of obstacles to the gaming public. It was simple, addictive, and spawned a franchise that would become the foundation of the casual puzzler for years to come.
Fast forward three decades and the overall concept remains as compelling as ever, as evidenced by numerous iterations spread across a plethora of platforms. Kartoffl is the latest attempt to bring this proven Lemmings formula to virtual reality and is the first of its kind to land on the Quest main store.
follow the leader
Kartoffl sees the player tasked with navigating legions of anthropomorphized, shuffled potatoes from one end of a map to a nearby finish line. To get there, they’ll have to traverse a jumble of floating geography, navigating steep drops and crumbling platforms along the way. Your semi-sentient spuds will cascade endlessly until they either hit an obstacle and perish on impact or reach the end of the platform and gently float to their demise.
To avoid this inexorable fatal march, the player is equipped with an array of items to guide their brave potato buddies across the world and safely to their destination. This includes simple turns that divert your steamed procession as well as springs that jump them over obstacles. With its selection of increasingly elaborate machines, Kartoffl introduces a reasonable number of options to best navigate the floating perils.
While each level gives you just enough coins to complete your goal, there’s still plenty of room for creativity along the way. To complete each level, the player simply needs to get the required number of potatoes safely to the finish line. In most cases this can be achieved by a fairly obvious route, but the choice is yours – take the easy option or try to find a less traveled path.
Puzzle for all experience levels
Kartoffl slowly increases its level of challenge as you play through the 60 puzzles on offer at launch, but the game never really gets into the sneaky difficulty of some other puzzles. Instead, Kartoffl seems content with offering a calm and approachable puzzle game that will allow puzzlers of all experience levels to continue without getting stuck.
Where the game manages to up the difficulty somewhat is in the optional bonus point system. Each level contains three stars to collect, most of which will require you to divert some of your mashable minions along a more dangerous path. Successfully collecting all three stars often requires a bit more of a cerebral approach to the proceedings, which can leave players scratching their heads. Even so, Kartoffl seems to have a slightly younger audience in mind, so in many cases getting a full star roster was slightly less difficult than one would hope.
New gear becomes available at a measured pace throughout the game, with new mechanics (and their combinations) keeping the puzzle fresh as you progress. That said, reaching the final levels and finding that there are no new items coming is slightly disappointing. The basic components of a great little puzzler are all there, but this lack of deeper options leaves the game a bit shallow towards the end. A few more mechanics to combine and convolve would have made for a more satisfying climax to the game.
More physical than expected
In addition to the general puzzle elements, Kartoffl also incorporates an unexpected and particularly engaging physics component. Some levels fall into the “set it and forget it” style of play where the challenge is to craft an escape route using available parts, then launch your walking taters into the fray. Other levels, however, will require more agility and interaction to complete.
Usually in these cases the number of coins available is well below what is needed to escape the level. Players will need to move quickly around the map in order to juggle your limited array of pieces from location to location. In many levels this is possible with the narrowest of margins and only a well-planned and expertly executed sequence of actions will keep your vegetarian-brained army from falling apart.
This precise physics is made possible by a well-designed control system that allows you to move around the game world or move it around you. Similar to Demeo and Little Cities, the player can grab the world and spin it around to get a better view, or use the grip buttons to move hand-to-hand. There are also stick-based movement options, even including a handy “sprint” function, all of which are intuitive and improve overall gameplay.
The only thing Kartoffl’s control system lacks is the ability to scale the world. This would have been a fantastic addition, allowing players to pan around and take a glimpse of the map, then zoom in to focus on a particular detail or section. While this is certainly a sorely missed opportunity, it’s hardly a game changer.
Consistent, but with room for improvement
Visually, Kartoffl is a brightly colored, yet simple affair. The art direction is cute, the colors are vibrant, and the visual landscape is cohesive and easy to understand.
Aesthetically, the game finds a tonal match between gameplay and sound design – everything feels cohesive, if perhaps a bit basic. In a game world premised on manipulating potato squads walking through moving mazes, it feels like there could have been a bit more whimsy in the design of the simple floating landscape sets.
This contentment with basic functionality is also prominent in Kartoffl’s overly simplistic user interface. The menu system gets the job done, but it does very little to reinforce the game’s character or give the overall layout a polished feel. Once the game loads, you can easily access the game options or select your level… and that’s about it. Basic, playful interactivity with the landing environment – as Tentacular perfectly exemplifies, for example – would have gone a long way in adding weight to perceived production values.
Likewise, the sound design is quite adequate but falls short of the excellence that Quest users have come to expect. The audio cues that inform the gameplay are clear and well-designed, but the music is sorely lacking, to the point of becoming distracting. Unlike, say, Spacefolk City (which was an absolute masterclass in ambient sound design for a largely passive game), Kartoffl’s music becomes repetitive very quickly and downright boring soon after.
Kartoffl Review – Final Verdict
Kartoffl is a perfectly charming puzzle game that combines time-tested mechanics with a few new quirks in order to be both familiar and interesting. While not exactly a genre reveal, playing Kartoffl is still an undeniably entertaining experience that reveals itself just slowly enough to unconsciously become more-ish.
For veterans of the genre, this review should perhaps be a warning that Kartoffl cannot stretch your gray matter to its limits. But with those expectations managed appropriately, the game is an intuitive, relaxing, and thoroughly enjoyable way to fill a few low-impact hours on your quest. With a focus on accessible difficulty that will allow players of all skill levels to have an engaging experience, Kartoffl is easy to recommend to casual, nostalgic, and younger players.
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