Admittedly, when thinking of inspiration for game source material, Kafka wouldn’t be the most obvious choice. Known for bizarre, dark and absurd tales, Franz may have been a literary influence for the generations, prompting debate around the subtext of his works, yet it feels that the writing would be more suited to film or art adaptation rather than a virtual medium. What Ovid Works have done though is take the core concept of the Metamorphosis novella and used it as a jumping off point to take the player on a twisted adventure through a land of bureaucratic ridiculousness whilst having to experience everything from a bugs viewpoint. It requires a certain level of creative license to make a playable experience out of what is essentially a tale of a man transformed into a bug and stuck in his room, have they managed to pull that off?
The similarities with the actual Metamorphosis story start and end with the protagonist Gregor Samsa becoming a bug in a state where the adherence to paperwork is more important than life itself. Waking up one morning to find he’s been transformed into a six legged insect, and that his best friend is being charged with a heinous crime, it’s up to Gregor to overcome his shock and navigate through his new surroundings. Meeting others on the way that were also once human, he discovers that his quest to save Josef and return himself to human form are intertwined, with their fates being held in the mysterious Tower. Samsa can’t communicate verbally with the human world anymore, but that doesn’t mean he can’t interact with it, and there are plenty of places a bug can go to cause mischief.
That’s the crux of the gameplay – wandering the “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” style levels, talking to other insects living and working behind the walls, and solving puzzles that will impact on the humans that don’t appear to even notice Gregor scuttling around. It’s pulled off largely with the implementation of the bug mechanics which consist of being able to run quickly up most inclined surfaces, jump big gaps, and stand on buttons or use dials like treadmills. The opening scenes do a great job of making the move from tall human to small bug, and there’s quite a lot of joy to be had in experiencing the world from a different perspective. Then when the ability to climb vertical surfaces comes up, it opens up new ways of thinking about traversal and where to explore next. With a birdseye view available to show the objective and where you’ve already been, it’s hard to get lost, meaning you can just enjoy scaling lamps, chairs and bookcases at will.
Away from the human areas there are bug enclaves to visit on the journey to Tower, and it’s very much got a Pixar vibe to it. The design of the areas being a repurposed detritus aesthetic with other bugs going about their lives is a nice touch. Speaking to them and learning more about the culture and their concerns drives the story forward, whilst creating a further surreal feel to everything. There’s no combat or threat anywhere in Metamorphosis except what you’d perceive if you were reduce to a few centimetres in length, though the concerns of the full size world have permeated here. Certificates, passes and verdicts rule both worlds and escaping bureaucracy is impossible. It’s where the absurdity of the situation is rammed home too, with an ongoing commentary from the key players that’s just farcical in the extreme. Listening to conversations isn’t necessary to figure out the puzzles, but they really provide some comic relief.
Ovid Works art style in Metamorphosis seems slightly odd when the game starts, but as soon as you’re shrunk it makes a lot more sense. It’s a gentle, soft-edged world that reaches far up into atmosphere, with muted colours and lacking vibrancy in a lot of places to make it feel vague, intangible, yet remaining imposing. The locations mirror the themes of the story and really help to supplement Gregor’s emotions as he keeps trying to find a way to help Josef. I’m impressed with the way it manages to convey futility in the big picture, though gives hope in the cracks that appear when you look at things up close. This is nicely demonstrated in the platforming elements where it seems impossible to get to a destination until you’re trundling across the landscape towards it. Without being open world, and having fairly small areas to roam around, it still manages to give freedom of movement and a sense of direction without blatantly dragging you to the goal or popping up markers every few yards.
So it’s an interesting game then. A bat-s*** insane story with a wickedly dry sense of humour that’s well presented and not too taxing. Forget the source material if you think it’s too intellectual or bleak, Metamorphosis is a surprising amount of fun that keeps its runtime short and its engagement long. It has its surreal moments, some impressive environment design, and enough going on that you’ll not necessarily figure out how its going to end. Give it a chance… there are definitely worse things you can wake up to.
A PS4 review copy of Metamorphosis was provided by Ovid Works PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC for around £20.