Review – Golem
The year was 2016 and there I was, along with my son, making my way to Best Buy for their demo of PlayStation’s new entry into VR. Golem was a highlight on their banner and was easily my must-see game of choice. Unfortunately, it was also the one game that was oddly absent from both their playable and viewing lineup.
Golem curiously continued that trend by being absent from PSVR’s lineup all the way through 2017, then through 2018, and again almost through 2019. Much like the game itself: Highwire Games showed an eerie silence, slowly plodding and making their way through the levels of a game that was meant to define what virtual reality could be. The only problem with that is that games like Resident Evil VII: Biohazard already defined what early PSVR could be. The problem is that it isn’t 2017 anymore, much less 2016. To draw even more focus to the years that have passed, 2018 was PSVR’s coming-of-age year. Games like Firewall Zero Hour, Moss, Astro Bot, Pixel Ripped 1989 are the new definition of the potential for PSVR.
Golem is the long-awaited debut game from Highwire Games, the independent studio formed by Marty O’Donnell and other ex Bungie/343 developers. Right away, you see O’Donnell’s influence on the game’s soundtrack. The Hollywood level score is subtle when it needs to be but understands when, and how, to kick it up. There is even a musical “prequel” to Golem which is available for free if you buy the physical print of the game. What truly stands out about O’Donnell’s work is just how well it complements the games levels and design. It doesn’t just fill the negative space but becomes an integral part to the overall picture. With no map, those subtle changes in soundtrack are integral to how Golem plays.
Highwire created a game that is almost as beautiful as it sounds. The graphics and character design are excellent. Golem begins with you playing through the eyes of a young girl, Twine, as you are introduced to her village and family. Not too long into the intro cinematics, you find yourself with the ability to send your consciousness into that of inanimate dolls and giant lumbering golems. Using this ability, you explore and battle other golems as you find out more about yourself and the city outside your village.
The level design and certain mechanics are very familiar if you enjoy FromSoft’s games. Lumbering through the city walls, you can easily make out the areas you will be traveling to and the area’s you came from. I have always been a fan of this overlapping platform style of level design. As you slowly meander your way through the labyrinthean city, you will come across audio diaries left behind by your mother. In these audio diaries, you are given a much deeper look into the world’s lore as well as your family and yourself.
Another conscious and familiar design choice in Golem is unlocking entrance ways and doors to bypass sections and enemies. Without doing so, dying would cause you to have to make your way through a big chunk of both. Unfortunately, even with the use of unlocked doors, you still may be required to fight through more than a couple previously beat enemies. Dying also causes you to lose any gear that you equipped your golem with.
When you start a level, or when you die and restart a level, you are sent back to your workshop where you can outfit your golem. Different weapons give you different advantages. A spear gives you greater reach than that of a sword or an axe, but at the sacrifice of damage. Different gems will grant you different bonuses, as will different masks. You find all these items scattered throughout the city, as well as from defeating enemies, so taking the time to explore can reap rewards.
The biggest tech hurdle Highwire set out to conquer was how a person moves in VR. Rather than using standard handheld controls, you are meant to use your head to move your golem. Lean forward, lean backward, lean to the side, turn your head. At times, it feels genuinely smooth. Other times, it feels like Highwire is simply getting past a handicap of the Move controller design. If desired, you can play with a Dualshock to control your movements, but I found this unwieldy when playing with both a DS4 and a Move. Oddly enough, the best way to play Golem seems like it would be if you were lucky enough, or unlucky, to have an old PlayStation Move navigation controller.
Other than using Circle or X to rotate your character or making a 180 turn, you will use your Move controller as you would whatever is in your hand. You may use it to point if you have a light in your hand, but mostly, you will use it to attack and defend with your weapon during combat.
The combat feels fluid and it is very natural but it is also alow and unforgiving, and not in a “I’m getting better” sort of way. It is more like baseball. Your opponent attacks with a right top, right middle, right bottom swing or with a left top, left middle, left bottom swing. You need to recognize the swing and react fast enough to position your weapon and counter the attack. Once you counter enough times, there will be an opening for you to attack.
The problem is that many times, after your opponent has finished their barrage, you will be knocked out of range from performing any counterattack. By the time that you make up that ground, your window to take the offensive has closed and you will need to counter yet another barrage.
Losing to a golem never leaves you feeling that you need to learn some new trick or strategy. It mostly feels that the game just didn’t register a block that you landed. Some golems can destroy you with a single hit, making that “failed” block and long trek back all the more frustrating.
It may be that Golem was delayed for so long, but it really does feel like a game that would have been celebrated in early 2018 or late 2017. Instead, it is a game you simply play. You enjoy it but not much more than that. It brings some good innovation to movement, but it just never feels like innovation for the sake of moving forward; instead, making up for backwards hardware.
Highwire has created a visually and audibly beautiful game. There is no doubt that their goal wasn’t to develop a VR experience, but to develop a full gaming experience in VR. It was clearly created from the ground up for PSVR in a way that only VR could present it, and it shows. And Golem is a good game; it just isn’t the PSVR-defining game that we all hoped it would be. The good news, however, is that we have already had access to those defining games for almost two years now.
Golem is a beautiful game with rich character and scenic design.
Golem would have been celebrated a year and a half ago. Instead, it feels that the constant delays were mostly used to overcome the limitations of old PS3 hardware.
As beautiful as Golem is, it takes a slight back seat to the amazing soundtrack that Marty O’Donnell conducts.
Exploring the city feels good, but most of the game comes down to audio diaries, the unique movement implementation, and “block, block, block, counter, repeat.”
Final Verdict: 7.5
Golem is available now on PSVR.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
A copy of Golem was provided by the publisher.