I walked away from The Case of the Golden Idol’s demo last week feeling like Sherlock Holmes reborn, but, despite my new-found powers of deduction, I had no concept of the wild places the game would eventually go. Its mysteries grow from a two-person altercation to a matter of global politics, expanding the scope of my every investigation and raising the stakes behind each increasingly sophisticated murder. Made even more unnerving by its low-fi graphics, The Case of The Golden Idol manages to deliver an experience filled with supernatural happenings, political intrigue, social commentary, and satisfying puzzles. And it all ties back to one priceless artifact.
Color Gray Games’ sleuthing simulator is built on cleverness. It asks players to take in the scene of a grisly crime, click around the setting to uncover clues, and then fill in what happened. Throughout various cases, I found things like a convenient note that revealed a lie, noticed a character possessed something an innocent person wouldn’t, and uncovered a code hidden in a seemingly harmless letter. Seeing the truth through it all can be complicated, but the design is wonderfully crafted to aid me without holding my hand. And that clever design is the secret to making me feel so clever.
The are 11 total scenes to investigate, each with two stages: Exploring and Thinking. I could flip back and forth between the two at any time, but typically I gathered clues during the Exploring phase and revealed the truth during the Thinking one. Words are the link between the two. Whenever a scrap of evidence contained an important word in the Exploring section, I could click on it to collect it at the bottom of the screen. These would remain during Thinking, and became the words I would use to reveal what had happened. It’s a brilliant system which subtly guides the player while leaving room for them to feel like they figured everything out on their own.
But The Case of the Golden Idol also offers more substantial aid in the highlights and hints systems. Highlights is by far the more useful. By turning these on, vital clues would start to shimmer, letting me know exactly where to click. If that last word is determined to escape you, this is the way to go. But sometimes you just get stuck. Because of the great design, I rarely felt frustrated, but in one instance during a murderous dinner party, I just could not puzzle something out. I turned to the hints, which amusingly include a message saying not to use them if possible, and realized I couldn’t just ask for help. I had to earn it.
Before the game would grant me a hint, I had to correctly identify several figures and objects from across the game. When successful, I got the pick of four vaguely titled hints. After picking one, I then got a general tip on the topic I chose. This became one of my biggest issues with the game. I didn’t need a comment along the lines of “well, have you considered this?” Because, yes. I had considered it. I still can’t figure it out, and that’s why I needed the hint! I recognize this process is an attempt to protect my player experience, but it led to more frustration than help. Luckily, it was the only time I needed to use hints, and the vast majority of the game plants enough clues to work out the scenarios without overt help.
Getting back to the good stuff, the game’s narrative rivals its guess-work gameplay. That is pretty incredible because — besides a few cutscenes in between cases — there isn’t a lot of conspicuous storytelling going on. I’m caught between wanting to blab everything and saying nothing to preserve every secret, but I’ll tease you with this: I eventually see the world, as a consequence to secret magical rites, transform into a disturbing surveillance state. I didn’t see that coming.
I recommend this game to:
- Detective fans
- Puzzle aficionados
- Players that want to feel smart
- Mystery dispellers
- Fans of Return of the Obra Dinn
- Supernatural seekers
- Players looking for a non-terrifying Halloween game
- Anyone who has 6-8 hours to kill
- Players interested in MacDonald’s mascots gone wrong
- Fans of unique aesthetics
- People who wish elevator music was creepier
- Anyone who dislikes Nazis