In film, literature, music, we often talk about the craft of making art. Craft implies a skill, a vocation even, as if Kubrick wrought each negative by hand and Bowie sculpted each crotchet. Gaming on the other hand, being a relatively young artform, talks of design and mechanics – industrial processes devoid of an imperfect human hand. But with The Case of the Golden Idol, each puzzle is so intricately formed, it feels like a hand-cut jigsaw.
Set in an alternative 18th-century England, you must investigate a series of strange and gruesome murders spanning over 40 years and multiple chapters. Each chapter consists of a freeze frame crime scene from which you tease out clues to uncover the truth. For example, in one of the early chapters, I’m privy to a fancy dinner party. In the dining room, guests crowd around a lifeless body resting limp on the Chaise Longue. Downstairs, the servants mutter dissenting words of their master and a strange boy, Pip, loiters in the hallway.
I don my deerstalker and start sifting through clues: a watch, a monogramed handkerchief and a poison pen letter. In doing so, some clues yield highlighted words which are added to a deck at the bottom of my screen. After scouring every clue, I then switch the scene to ‘Thinking’ mode. Here, I find a series of sentences containing blanks. Using the words in my deck (and my sleuthing abilities) I try and piece together whodunnit.
The Case of the Golden Idol review
But The Case of the Golden Idol is so much more than a whodunnit. It’s a test of lateral thinking that encourages you to search outside of the textual clues it presents you. For example, in the opening chapter, I’m completely incapable of working out where the murder took place. I take a step back and make another pass of each clue, until I notice a Yacht outside the window. In a true eureka moment, I click back onto the map on the wall, noting the name of the only village with a river view. It’s a blissful feeling of accomplishment that this game consistently delivers by being so goddamn clever.
But much like Bez on a rainy Tuesday morning, that feeling of ecstasy soon wears off. Especially if you get stuck. Thankfully, The Case of the Golden Idol has one of the best hint systems I’ve seen in a puzzle game. Far from spelling out the answer, the game serves you with several prompts that ask you to re-examine the evidence before you can even request a hint. If you still insist, you’ll have to complete a mini puzzle just to earn one. Even then, each hint is deliberately quite vague, usually offering just a small nudge in the right direction. But that’s the point. The game is so confident in its own craft (and rightly so) that it encourages you to take your time and try a different approach.
Glory to Arstotzka
After the first few chapters, there’s a noticeable jump in difficulty and complexity. It’s a little overwhelming to begin with. What started out as one room is now a sprawling murder scene across the many quarters of a Manor house. With more textual clues to find here, the game offers up a few red herrings and as there are multiple possible words that fit any one blank, it’s difficult to try and brute force the solution. Which, I’m not afraid to confess I tried a couple of times out of sheer impatience. But then I remember: The Case of the Golden Idol wants me to take my time and I’m here for that.
There are times though where the small imperfections in the game can hinder progress. The pixel art, for example, is fairly crude which makes it tricky to spot returning characters and identify them in the Thinking screen. That being said, the outsider art vibes lend well to the game’s absurd nature and evokes a real sense of place in the dimly lit taverns and gaudy country estates.
If the game’s mechanics have been compared to Return of the Obra Dinn, then its artwork is more reminiscent of Papers, Please with its rudimentary, almost dehumanising depictions of people under a Totalitarian state. Similarly, the politics in The Case of the Golden Idol are oppressive and bureaucratic, feeling more Eastern Bloc than England. There’s also a sense of helplessness as you solve each murder yet have no affect on the outcome. The wrongly accused are still punished as the political elite pull rank to protect their own.
The Case of the Golden Idol is a challenging yet thoroughly engrossing game. Each puzzle is expertly constructed and weaves seamlessly through tales of political intrigue and the macabre. While the crude pixel art can be a hindrance in some cases, these little imperfections are eclipsed by a deft mastery of game craft.