Karma is a complicated religious concept that’s hard to summarize, but it essentially boils down to this: Do good things and good things will happen to you; Do bad things and bad things will happen to you. This seems like an great basis for an iPhone game, where the player could control their fate by performing either good or bad deeds and accepting the results. Instead, in KarmaStar, your fate is primarily and frustratingly controlled by luck.
Karmastar takes place in an outer space void, where three cute, melon-headed astronauts float and do metaphysical battle for reasons that are never adequately explained. These characters — which can be controlled by the computer or other humans on a local wi-fi network — compete to compile the highest “karma score” over eight turns that represent the four major stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, Mid-Life and Old Age. Karma points are earned by manipulating five character traits — Health, Mind, People, Love and Money — each of which are represented by a number one through five.
Each turn, each player is presented with three randomly chosen icons that can either raise the value of one of these specific traits (earning one karma point) or initiate a battle over one of the traits with one of the other astronauts. In these battles, each player’s trait points are converted into dice rolls, and the attacker can win two points if his dice add up to more than the defenders.
It’s a pretty simple system, and the game lets you get used to it during the first two turns of the game. But on the third turn and beyond, bonus “wildcards” spice up the gameplay a bit. These randomly-assigned, player-controlled power-ups can swing the game wildly by letting players roll extra dice during battles, steal traits from opponents, change the available icons for the turn, take an extra turn, and more. Then there are the “bonus score” options, which give extra karma points for accomplishing specific tasks, such as raising traits to the maximum level five, attacking and defeating both opponents, or gaining a lead of three points or more.
Using these wildcards and bonus scoring options is key to finishing out the game with the highest score. The only problem is that luck is much more important than skill or strategy in being able to take that advantage. Success in each match depends less on your own personal strategy and more on whether you happen to get powerful wildcards in your hand, or whether the most beneficial icons appear during the right turns. Even if you try to plan ahead — by going for the maximum score bonus in the “mind” trait, for instance — your plan is almost entirely dependent on getting some lucky breaks in the turns ahead. After a few matches, it becomes apparent that any planning beyond the most basic and immediate strategies is next to useless, and that hoping for lucky draws is the best strategy.
This lack of strategy might be forgivable, and even enjoyably random, if the game’s presentation were fast and cheerful. Instead, the game’s graphics look like they came straight out of a clip art program, and the accompanying sound effects are equally cheesy. The game’s slow as molasses pacing doesn’t help either — I felt like I spent most of my time with the game simply watching the computer players slowly plod through the simple decisions that make up their turns.
The combination of overly luck-based gameplay and slow-paced, bare-bones presentation come together to make KarmaStar a game that’s the opposite of addictive. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get this one off of my iPod as I was done with this review. There are many better ways to spend your time and money on the iPhone.