Friday, July 10, 2020

[Hands-On Preview] ‘Metamorphosis’ Transforms Kafka’s Classic Novella into an Intriguing Bug-Eyed Puzzle-Platformer

Few things in games are as interesting to me as those that take me into the strange and surreal. Games that exploit the strength of the medium by playing with player expectations and presenting genuinely different perspectives. 

Metamorphosis, a loose adaptation of the 105-year-old Franz Kafka novella The Metamorphosis, is one such game. Kafka’s story was already bizarre, as a man, Gregor, suddenly becomes a giant insect one day, and ends up trapped in his room by his repulsed family. The game takes a slightly different approach, but imaginatively captures something about the protagonist’s state of mind as he scuttles about the human world in the form of a cockroach.

Created by Ovid Works, Metamorphosis is a first-person puzzle-platformer, largely from the perspective of bug-Gregor. It begins in a more traditional manner however, with human Gregor awakening in his room and soon after, walking through a hallway that is apparently unfamiliar to him. Soon enough, things get weird. The house seems to grow in scale with each room, and in a wonderfully seamless moment, Gregor turns a corner to see fungi on the wallpapered walls transition into a grungy water pipe and viola! Gregor figures it out, he’s become an insect, and he’s strangely nonplussed by this development.

Gregor then clambers about a bit in his new chitinous form, and after reading a note, he falls through the ink on the paper and the opening credits roll. While having less knowledge of what was going to happen would have made this all a touch more impactful, it still manages to be a delightfully strange opening that culminates in Gregor leaping across debris in an inky void. The rest of the hour-long preview section only reinforces this casually odd retelling of a classic novel.

Rather than take the original story of a man being shunned by his family as he ends up resigned to his six-legged fate, Metamorphosis gives Gregor hope of reverting back to human form, but he’ll have to go on an arduous journey full of human threats and dizzying leaps in order to find it.

The traversal in Metamorphosis is somewhat reminiscent of the verticality found in games like Mirror’s Edge, Portal 2, or Dying Light. Gregor’s cockroach form means he’s able to clamber up walls and scurry across high up areas such as shelves, pipes, and cabinets in order to avoid the lumbering humans. This is a disorientating task, to begin with, as Gregor’s speed and ability to climb takes time to get used to. Jumps are thankfully not as precision-based as I first feared, but there are still moments it can be rather unwieldy.

On the upside, you can zoom out and see the terrain you must cross in order to better plan the best route. It’s a welcome idea as it really helps get your bearings after flipping and turning in all directions.

Climbing and leaping is the meat of Metamorphosis, but there’s a fair bit of interaction with the insect community, including doing jobs to curry favor with them. These bugs range from fairly normal-looking to bipedal, cigarette-smoking smartasses, and seem to function like a human society in a lot of ways. In the space of less than an hour, you’ve gone from being a man walking down a dreary corridor to being a talking bug trying to find a bug lawyer in a bug music club, and it’s to the game’s credit that it handles this transition pretty smoothly. The surreal is best when it’s not force-fed on you, rather gradually and nonchalantly fed to you in morsels.

Perhaps the only real downside currently is that the people in Metamorphosis are visually not quite up to the same quality as the insects. While there are bugs with actual personality in their movements and mannerisms, the humans look a bit too ‘man in a rubber suit of a man’, thus causing a bit of a disconnect. They still make for intimidating threats though. Even when they aren’t actively trying to harm you, their sheer size makes for some disturbing moments.

I’m intrigued to see where the rest of the game takes this story. There’s definitely an air of the themes found in the novel, but only time will tell if it can be quite as open to interpretation and nuanced as its source. Maybe the weirdest thing about Metamorphosis is that it takes an old, respected story, and turns it into a dark mirror of the video game adaptation of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Somehow, so far at least, that works.

Metamorphosis preview code for PC provided by the publisher.

Metamorphosis will be crawling onto PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC at some point in 2020.


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