The protagonist of K.O.L.M., the new experimental platformer by Armor Games' Tony (Antony Lavelle), wakes up to find that his life is in pieces. He's disorganized, his mother is ashamed of him, and it seems like the whole world is out to get him. It doesn't help that, after the events of last night, his vision is blurred and he can barely walk. The fact that he is a robot and that the mother is a sardonic computer is almost besides the point. He needs to escape. And maybe, just maybe... you'll be able to help him out.
Players might be initially thrown by how K.O.L.M. drops you into a blurry world of uncertainty, but after a couple of minutes, things will become much clearer. Using the [arrow keys] to move around, you explore the ominous facility around you, fighting enemies, unlocking doors and finding your missing parts. Finding said parts grants you new moves, including springs that allow you to jump with the [z] key, a compacter that allows you to duck with the [down] key, a plasma gun fired with the [x] key that can be used to defeat enemies and open doors, and as well as others upgrades that allow you to broaden your range. Of particular note is the jet-pack which, with a double tap of the [z] allows you to reach new heights as well as aiding you in being launched from air vents, as well as a dash function which, with a double tap of the arrow [keys] allows you to speed around the complex making longer jumps than ever before. Good luck pulling yourself together, bot!
Analysis: The Japanese have a word, Utsuge: a portmanteau which literally translates as "Melancholy Game". I bring this up because it is probably the best description one can give of K.O.L.M. It is a game of melancholy; of inadequacy; of the feelings you get when you're trying to impress someone you love and admire, but aren't sure if you'll ever succeed. These are themes rarely explored in casual games, especially platformers that star jet-packing robots. That K.O.L.M. manages to do so so well, and with a proper dose of both humor and arcadey action, is to its credit.
Gameplay-wise, K.O.L.M. falls squarely into the so-called Metroidvania genre, with all its attendant advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, non-linear exploration is always welcome, but the freedom of movement it grants can leave you directionless. Likewise, while an ongoing stream of character upgrades gives you the joy of constant progress, it can come with the needling feeling that you've overlooked important objects that you just hadn't looked in the right place for. I did find K.O.L.M. innovative in connecting this type of gameplay to the larger story themes at play. As compared to standard power-up systems that motivate the player to find upgrades in order to become ever-more powerful, here the robotic protagonist is moved by a sense of fundamental incompleteness. He must upgrade as much as he can, otherwise he will be lacking. The motif of the security cameras build on this effect... it gives you the feeling that the lil' guy is always being watched and judged by things he's not quite able to comprehend. Perhaps this is a wry commentary on the Metroidvania genre, and how games within it often seem disparaging of players who don't seek out each and every hidden secret? (For the record, the greatest reward of 100% completion here is discovering what the titular acronym stands for. You'll probably kick yourself when you find out.)
One thing about K.O.L.M. that isn't particularly innovative is it's unabashed use of the "Slightly Deranged Computer Guiding You Through A Post-Apocalyptic Test Chamber". This is a trope I'm kind of surprised we don't have a catchy genre term for yet, considering how often we're seeing it. Yeah, Portal only came out three years ago and the internet (myself included), isn't yet entirely sick of keeping on trying till we run out of cake. Still, while K.O.L.M. itself distinguishes itself from the pack by playing its overseeing robotic "Mother" for melancholy, rather than humor or terror, I wonder if the concept is beginning to be a bit of a crutch for experimental game designers.
K.O.L.M. won't be for everyone. It starts off off slow, with a crippled protagonist that can barely crawl. The initial weirdness, slightly finicky controls, and creepy music will probably turn some people away. Those who persevere, however, will find a quiet gem of an experience with a surprising amount of depth in its simple design. I expect K.O.L.M. to be a strong contender for the Best of 2010 in the Platform game category.