REVIEW: The Case of the Golden Idol is one of the truest detective games
As much as I love a mystery or detective game, it's rare that the genre truly leaves you feeling like you've unraveled some mystery. In one way or another, you're usually just looking for the right item to show the right person so that the game will shepherd you to the next part of the mystery.
Once in a while though, the indie space delivers on the promise of a true detective game. One where you use all of your brainpower to piece together a crime scene, one that leaves you feeling like donning a trench coat and pulling out a leather-bound notebook, one that truly evokes the spirit of a gumshoe.
This year, Color Gray Games takes home the gold, as they've delivered one of the truest "detective" experience of the year in The Case of the Golden Idol.
One can only hope they don't turn that gold into the eponymous Golden Idol though... or the trail of death, destruction, and grotesque horrors that await you in this game may just drip out into reality.
Just the Facts
Developer: Color Gray Games
Release Date: Oct. 13, 2022
Review code provided by Evolve PR.
The Case of the Golden Idol tells the story of an incredibly scummy power-hungry family and their back-and-forth power struggles with an ancient relic: the golden idol. One step after another, this idol almost slapsticks its way through a family tree, wreaks havoc within a few secret organizations, and persists over decades of turmoil for all who come into contact with it.
It's hard to talk about The Case of the Golden Idol's story details without giving away too much of its various mysteries. Every little detail is meant to be unearthed on your own through your playthrough. Names, intentions, locations. The less said, the better.
This mystery is delivered through a series of frozen moments, vignettes that showcase the moment of death for some (usually) unsuspecting victim(s) and everything that has cropped up around them in the aftermath. Players inhabit the role of some omniscient observer, examining these moments from afar, able to see things hidden away and tasked with piecing together a chronicle of events.
You are given basically zero information going in, no context, no setup, just tossed right into the action. As you push through the journey the idol takes through this made-up Europe-inspired landscape, you'll start piecing together the full narrative and filling out a cast of familiar faces. But if you ever feel lost, you're kind of expected to, don't worry.
These scenes are morbid, darkly comedic at times, but always offputting. The Case of the Golden Idol is a long and twisty journey — delivered in 12 chapters across four acts and an epilogue — that'll take you anywhere between 5-7 hours, depending on how stumped you end up by some of the game's more complicated mysteries.
For a game whose narrative is delivered through documents found digging through people's bins and brief snippets of dialogue shared between what can rarely be described as friends, it's fascinating how much the writing pulls you in. There are no wasted words.
To sell each personality, each key piece of the layered mysteries, Color Gray Games works with extreme efficiency. And while we daren't say too much, The Case of the Golden Idol's story covers fascinating ground.
Stories of privilege in its various forms, abuses of power of practical and mystical kinds, and class struggle serve as the perfect backdrop for murder and mystery. And these mysteries are well-constructed, laying in the sweet spot: just abstract enough to make you work but not overly complicated to the point of melting your brain.
But just how does this game have you solving mysteries? What makes it stand out as one of the truest detective games in years? Well... it's elementary, dear reader.
The Case of the Golden Idol's core gameplay experience comes in two different phases.
The first is exploration: collecting information from frozen vignettes, examining documents found in people's pockets, stealing names that are uttered aloud from people in those scenes, and simply examining the scene for pertinent clues. Clicking on highlighted objects in the scene and underlined words in dialogue and documents adds to your information library, a bar on the bottom of the screen that collects all potential clues for mystery solving.
Once you've filled your library with all pertinent information, your goal is to piece together an information jigsaw that'll tell you exactly what happened before you arrived on the scene. This is the thinking phase. When you flip over to thinking, you're given a screen full of blanks waiting to be filled by the blocks of info you collected in your first phase. You're putting names to faces, using context clues to uncover how these people came together, and the who-what-where-when-and-why of the murderin' itself.
"Color Gray Games could never release another game and they'd still be a team I'd remember years down the line. Case of the Golden Idol is an incredible first showing that may just revolutionize the mystery game genre in the way that classics like Return of the Obra Dinn did at launch."
Each sub-section of the thinking screen gives you one of three checks when you fill them out. 1) Too many errors, try again, 2) Two or less slots are incorrect, or 3) Everything is filled in correctly. When you get that final check, all the info blocks are removed from your library and are instead locked into place, where they can be dragged again into other pertinent places. These checks go a long way toward adding a layer of difficulty, as you work to nail down exact bits of information, but can sometimes lead to maddening roadblocks when you're stuck at that second check, wondering what tiny piece of information could be wrong.
Within these two simple phases is where you find that true detective simulation. It's easy to inhabit a detective role when you find yourself entering a crime scene, spending your opening moments getting the lay of the land. Poking at bodies, rummaging through documents, and taking statements from the (unwilling) witnesses before "entering your mind palace" to figure out what's gone on. The Case of the Golden Idol never really holds your hand when it comes to actually solving the mystery, which is infinitely more than almost every other mystery game can say.
In both phases, though, the information overload can be overwhelming. But The Case of the Golden Idol seems to acknowledge that, offering a few key tools to make things smoother for your detective action.
First of all, the game offers (and recommends) the option to have glowing object markers and underlining highlights (for documents) on the screen to identify all sources of information in the scene. The heavy lifting your brain is doing in deciphering the mystery is more than enough to handle without having to pixel-hunt your way to a piece of information you're missing. Even then, some of the glowing markers can be sneakily hidden in these already fairly visually overwhelming scenes.
Second, they don't leave you completely high and dry when it comes to piecing things together in the thinking phase. A rough framework of the main mystery is provided and several smaller pieces of the puzzle — that all serve as mini-guides to help you eventually solve the core mystery — all help to keep things in the solvable wheelhouse.
If you've read any of my previous reviews of mystery-focused games in the past, you know I look for a few particular things of note when looking for the best of the genre. 1) If a game has me breaking out a pen and paper to make sense of something and 2) if a game ever delivers a "brain blast" moment, where all my synapses fire and I have an audible "AHA" moment... then it's usually a great mystery game.
In the last handful of years, there are only a few games that triggered either one of those moments for me again and again in just one playthrough. In fact, the last I can remember doing it the way The Case of the Golden Idol did was Return of the Obra Dinn, another game all about wandering through a frozen death scene to make sense of what happened there. And if you've played that, you know just how complimentary that comparison can be.
There were a few moments where the tiniest error took an infinite amount of time to unravel, which can be a bit frustrating since hints are on offer, but Color Gray Games clearly recommends against using them here. It left me wishing for a few moments where it'd give me anything more than "Two or less slots are incorrect."
As a result, the back half of the game feels like it teeters on the edge of its mysteries being just a bit too abstract for their own good. Most of the 6 hours with the game came in its final three chapters, as I was left banging my head against what felt like obvious solutions. Those moments ultimately led to some big "OH DUH" moments that are infinitely less satisfying than their "AHA" counterparts. But even in those moments, stepping away and giving it some extra thought, just to come back with a fresh mind genuinely helps here. It's classic point-and-click vibes, it's classic detective vibes (just one more thing...) and it helps to make up for some of the pace issues that arise from these moments.
You know what else makes up for the shortcomings on display here? How gross everything is.
Everything (and I mean everything) looks and feels a little gross in The Case of the Golden Idol. And even when it doesn't, you're constantly on edge, waiting for the gross to reveal itself. Grotesque is the word that popped into my mind several times all throughout, as the horrifying bloated faces of the dead and the beady shifty eyes of the living wandered in these looping vignettes. And it only gets worse when you click into a character to get a closer look at some of these horrifying figures. Some exquisitely dithered shadows and the comfort of the sparkling object markers bring some peace of mind but you're almost always left in a state of unease. This is supported by the amazing soundtrack by Kyle Misko which uses some discordant melodies and instrumentation that's just off enough to give you goosebumps. It's not a horror game by any means, but for some reason, I kept waiting to catch the gaze of one of these figures, punctuated by the sting of an out-of-tune violin and some grotesque piece of pixel art to send chills down my spine. The anticipation killed me.
It's so cool.
Color Gray Games could never release another game and they'd still be a team I'd remember years down the line. Case of the Golden Idol is an incredible first showing that may just revolutionize the mystery game genre in the way that classics like Return of the Obra Dinn did at launch. When I was done with it all, I was left with this hunger to create art, because that's what happens when I consume a piece of truly great art.
I wasn't sure what to score this game but... consider the mystery solved.
video games are good and Case of the Golden Idol is . . . GREAT. (9/10)
+ grotesque visuals and an uneasy soundtrack set the scene for a detective game that asks you to truly unravel a compelling mystery
- pacing issues when that one piece of information is in the wrong spot and you can't understand what's wrong, you'll wish there were more mysteries to solve in the end
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