Have you ever had one of those games you were really excited for, but once the game finally comes out you end up not just disliking it, but actually kind of hating it? Enter Highwire Games’ Golem. Despite being delayed over and over since 2015’s announcement, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say more delays may have been the right call. What we have here is a game that gets several things right to an impressive level while completely and utterly dropping the ball in other key areas.
But let’s start with the good stuff. You play a bedridden child named Twine, living in a post apocalyptic fantasy realm, who discovers he is a “dreamer”, someone capable of controlling the mighty Golems. This ancient city is walled off, so the Golems are actually the only means of penetrating the magical veil. Once Twine takes control of the Golems, the open world experience really gets going as you slowly gain access to more and more of the city. The story and the world building are really great, and help enrich the experience, as does the sandbox itself. The environment and art direction are amazing, and the world feels both unique and interesting to explore. This extends to the animations as well, which are surprisingly good. The humans and Golems you encounter have a wide range of animations to draw from, and the fluidity is impressive. Finally, the music, from Halo composer Martin O’Donnell is simply divine. Incredible in isolation and in service to the game, Golem features one of the most beautiful scores of the year, and frankly, of the generation.
However, these great qualities serve combat and gameplay that are at best tedious and at worst frustrating beyond belief. At its most basic, Golem is a melee combat game. While there are some world traversal puzzles, melee combat is very much the main feature. The problem with this is that tracking and general implementation of combat are woeful. It was so poor that we were convinced we were playing the game incorrectly and kept trying different things to see if things would improve. This was to no avail unfortunately. There were a few moments where the combat went off without a hitch, but this was a depressingly rare occurrence. And to add salt in the wound, for those brief moments where the combat was working properly, it was exceptional. Parrying and offering counter attacks felt gratifying and powerful. But for every second of proper functionality, there were 10 more that consisted of the camera losing the weapon's location or Golems swinging directly through your weapon and decapitating you.
As you progress through the game, the speed and intensity of fighting ramps up, too. When you first start you can see each swing coming from the other side of the planet, but as you keep going, things pick up the pace quite a bit. And if it weren’t for the tracking problems, that would be a fun thing to hear. But with how imprecise everything feels, this is yet another means of generating a frustrating experience.
Each time you die, you also lose your equipment. You have amulets that offer a buff, Masks that function as keycards, and then weapons.. And for some misguided reason, each item can only be used once. You also can’t change equipment on the fly, instead having to return to your “workshop” to swap things out, including your masks. So not only do you lose your old equipment if you do this, you have to walk a long way back to resume your task, as the checkpoints aren’t exactly frequent.
Even just the act of walking back to a location carries with it some problems. This is where the game’s numerous delays start to show themselves. The locomotion system is tanky, where moving your head forward slightly allows you to walk, and you move your head side to side to turn. It’s not ideal, and we found ourselves constantly having to “reset” our head so the game would still register our forward momentum. The problem is many of the VR games we have now have already moved past this and come up with better ideas for how to traverse an environment. It makes the title feel as if it launched alongside PlayStation VR rather than several years after. It is however a small mercy that you can always pick up a DualShock 4 and just play the game more traditionally.
On the technical side things fare a little better most of the time. Framerate is rock solid, while comfort settings are varied and work quite well if you need them. The problem here lies with the syncing of the camera. When you hold down the options button to reorient yourself to the camera, things start to get a little wacky. This is something almost all VR titles allow you to do quickly and efficiently, but no so with Golem. Not only does it take a while for the reorientation to take effect, but it doesn’t work right away. Usually immediately after resetting the camera, the perspective that you are placed is incorrect. It seems like before things right themselves your face and hand are swapped so nothing moves properly. And to make matters worse before that happens, the camera sync doesn’t work at all, instead having a static image that movies around as you move, and it is absolutely nauseating. Even for those with a strong constitution, this game caused headaches, and immense bouts of nausea, and that’s largely thanks to how poorly the camera syncing works.
Golem is a game that had a shot at being good if it launched alongside the PSVR. Fast-forward a couple years and impressive virtual reality titles are fairly common. This, depressingly, is not one of those. By the time we took the headset off, we were left with not just a feeling of disappointment, but also one of anger. Anger at the promise it once held. Anger that, despite its flaws, it did some things really well. Anger that it simply wasn’t good.