We all know how platformers work. Since time immemorial we've known what to do when we see a pit in the ground, or a sinister-looking creature with a vulnerable head. All our basic gaming instincts tell us to stick to the formula – go from left to right and try not to croak it.
Not so in Mr Karoshi. This platformer is not only a clever and darkly comic puzzler, but it’s also one of the most subversive games to grace the Xperia Play. The objective here is not to make progress, but to die.
Death of a salesman
The game revolves around Mr Karoshi, an office worker who hates his job. He hates his job so much that only in taking his own life can he regain some autonomy. Of course, Mr Karoshi has no autonomy because it’s you who is throwing him into spikes and under heavy blocks. You sadist.
Each level is one screen with a pre-determined puzzle. It’s not necessarily a retro platformer, even though it’s presented as one.
To complete the level you have to die. This sounds easy – and to begin with it is. Throwing yourself onto a set of spikes is an early example, but as the levels pass you'll have to find ways of squashing yourself under huge boxes, setting yourself on fire, or getting yourself shocked by electrified platforms.
There’s a certain amount of box-pushing and switch-flicking, which forewarns of an unoriginal base of puzzles. Thankfully, the game swiftly evolves by introducing the characters of Karoshi’s boss and girlfriend.
If you touch the boss, you become sad and can’t jump as high, whereas if you run into the lady Karoshi you can jump higher and all spikes turn into harmless flowers. If you find yourself stuck and unable to die (oh no!) a simple press of the L and R triggers simultaneously will reset the level.
All the faffing around with each character (you get to control both the boss and the girlfriend later) adds new elements to the puzzles and results in a surprising variety of situations. You might quickly grow tired of standard puzzlers, but that’s not so much a problem with Mr Karoshi thanks to the random and unexpected ways in which the game's rules suddenly shift.
A cry for help
Just when you think you understand the way the game works, it hits you in the face with a curveball.
For example, one early level has a set of spikes high above the ground, but the platforms you need to hop across are too high. Trying anyway, you discover that there's an invisible block that appears when you hit it. Thinking it simply a small reference to the Mario games, you chuckle at it but quickly move on.
Later, another level has a roof adorned with spikes but absolutely no platforms to jump on. Just thin air between you and precious death. “Aha!” you think. “There must be invisible blocks again. I just need to hop around until I hit one.”
You start jumping around hoping to catch one by chance. Then you realise that with each hop you are actually getting higher and higher. Until suddenly, you’ve flung yourself all the way into the razors above.
The game is crammed with levels like these. Not only do they twist your expectations but they’re very often laugh-out-loud funny. Furthermore, they change the way you think and play with each passing level.
If there’s any problem at all, it’s that there’s not enough of it. The 50 levels pass by fairly quickly. Even so, there’s a minigame mode on top of the story mode that sets you five-second challenges of life and death.
All in all, the game deserves a lot of credit not only for its intelligent puzzle design but also for its hilariously flippant attitude to gruesome death. If you don't have a good time playing Mr Karoshi, you'll at least die trying.