Sometimes games feel like they’re in development FOREVER. While there’s the occasional exception to the rule, a continual series of delays is rarely a good sign for a game, especially when it’s a studio’s freshmen outing. A perfect example of this phenomena is Highwire Games’ recently released Golem, which was in development for so long that the trademark on the title actually lapsed. Seriously. That’s not even a joke. After originally being announced before the PSVR even existed, the experience is just now making its way to the platform. Can it manage to buck the trend and harness the true capabilities of the headset, or is this just another case of development hell, manifested in playable form?
Building a Universe
One of my favorite parts of being a parent is watching my children use their imagination to craft and inhabit a world trapped exclusively between their ears. In the case of Golem’s narrative, a similar universe exists, only it also doubles as a physical location that the player can explore while remotely controlling massive hulking beasts. Within the narrative, these creatures are controlled by a recently bed-ridden adolescent named Twine, who’s following in the footsteps of an older sibling and venturing out in search of long-forgotten artifacts lost to the sands of time.
Twine exists in a world that has a very finite limit to its resources due to a mystical force that has sequestered an entire civilization behind an impenetrable magical barrier. This very real, yet oddly invisible field, prevents the countless resources that reside outside its bounds from being harvested by the trapped populations. Fortunately, “Dreamers,” as they are appropriately referred to, have the ability to take their stony avatars on field trips into this unexplored world in search of treasures, resources, and gear for their hulking explorers.
Along the way, players are treated to a glimpse into the bond between a child and long deceased Mother as she interacts with her offspring from another realm. These quasi-audio logs teach the ways of Golem while simultaneously fleshing out the mother’s backstory. It’s an amusing juxtaposition to consider that this soothing material voice is the same one that instructs the player in the ways of effective hand-to-hand combat. Distilled down to its crudest elements, these battles consist of a series of slices and parries, which utilizes a single PlayStation Move controller in real-time.
Half and Half
If I were to describe my gut impressions of Golem in a single word, it would be “mixed.” Everything about the game feels like it has the potential to deliver a formative VR experience for PlayStation owners. The problem is, for every pro that works in its favor, it feels like an equally compelling negative negates the success. For example, take Golem’s overall world, which feels immense and sprawling. The problem is that attempting to navigate said map is a tedious chore that can be physically exhausting and lead to legitimate neck pain, due to mediocre traversal mechanics.
Visually speaking, I found this to be one of the most impressive PSVR experiences to date. It’s almost as if the developers knew where the line of diminishing returns was, as far as the capabilities of the hardware are concerned, and then toed that line with every design decision. The scenery and detail used in animations feel like they are pushing the headset to its limits. This is further evidenced by the framerate, that feels rock-solidly consistent throughout gameplay. Aside from human character models that look like they could also be used for modelling clothes at your local mall, everything else appears as believable as giant battling behemoths could.
Unfortunately, the proverbial “yin and yang” once again comes into play, as the same hardware that is enabling such a solid visual experience, also betrays the player when combat takes center stage. When the camera was correctly registering the PlayStation Move controller, the melee/sword/”whatever the hell else you have to bludgeon with” gameplay was sublime. However, I only found this to be the case roughly a quarter of the time. The other seventy-five percent was spent flailing away, with the device struggling to convert my legitimately fluid motions into anything other than a jittery, stuttering mess of weapon glitching. This was extremely frustrating, especially considering how well it had the potential to behave. I highly doubt these malfunctions were directly the fault of the game’s designers, but when they chose to exclusively hitch their horse to the most inferior virtual reality hardware on the market, this had to be somewhat expected.
Into a Tailspin
The one other bafflingly preventable issue that I encountered was a continuous undercurrent of motion sickness. Both during gameplay and during cinematics, the camera is completely dictated by the headset. However, there were loading periods in between these sequences where there would be a stationary background and no camera control whatsoever. Due to the jarring loss of any perspective or central focal point, my equilibrium would be thrown into complete chaos for twenty to thirty seconds, which was when the nausea would set in. Eventually, the sensation would subside to some extent, but it never fully dissipated due to the frequency of these shifts. Hopefully this will be remedied in a future patch because it seems relatively manageable when compared to the other, far more technology-dependent stumbling blocks.
There’s one final stone that ultimately tips the scales back in the positive direction: the score and sound direction. The sounds of another Golem stomping in the distance was very reminiscent of the resounding echoes of Big Daddy’s steps from the first two installments of Bioshock. These thunderous movements would grow in harshness and resonance the closer these beasts lurked. When melded with the tremendous ebbs and flows of the score, which was penned by the legendary Marty O’Donnell, the audio proved to be the most well-realized portion of the entire experience.
While there were many compelling reasons to take a chance on Golem, there were far too many technical issues marring the overall experience. When consumed in bits-and-pieces, the component parts could all stand on their own with little problem. It’s only when these individual parts coalesced that the seams begin to show a bit more prominently. Fortunately for everyone involved, it seems like the team over at Highwire Games are dedicated to fixing these foundational blunders. However, until these overhauls have been completed, I’d recommend taking a cue from Twine and sitting this one out.
Golem review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PSVR, connected to a launch PS4. Reviewed using the latest patch as of 11/29. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.