Making good mystery games is a tricky business. The best ones trust their players by carefully guiding and hinting, but allowing them to reach their own conclusions. Mystery books or films can be brilliantly executed – the big reveals in Knives Out are a great example – but the sense of gratification granted to a player who’s managed to reach that “aha!” moment for themselves is unique to gaming. Weaving a narrative that reveals just enough while knowing where to hold back is a fine line to walk, and as long as the game isn’t mixing with other genres, it’s also the sole thrust of gameplay. Ultimately, the entire experience is determined by the developer’s ability to perform this tightrope act.
The Case of the Golden Idol not only succeeds at achieving this, but it does so on a micro and macro level, granting players both the rush of revelation in individual scenes, and the slower, grander reveals of the over-arching plot. The deftly woven mystery is helped along by macabre pixel art and a foreboding soundtrack, and narrative, art, and music come together in a masterpiece of Victorian murder.
As silent observers, players are presented with a series of scenes in which someone has recently died. The scenes are mostly-still tableaus and can consist of a few different locations – connected rooms in a house, for example. These scenes take place in the moments immediately following the death, so all parties involved will, ostensibly, still be present.
Solving mysteries in The Case of the Golden Idol is split into two parts, “exploring” and “thinking,” which can be switched between at any time. While exploring, players gather information by interacting with objects or characters. Certain pieces of text from dialogue or letters can be selected, and those words will be added to a library that players will use later when solving. “Thinking” is where the pieces are put together and the mystery uncovered. Players must use the words they’ve discovered while exploring, and fit them into the correct places. A common objective requires players to match the names of characters in the scene to their picture, while another includes deducing the seating arrangement at a dinner party.
However, the main objective in each scene is to describe the true nature of the death. A partial description of the events is given, but several gaps must be filled using the collected words. It’s not as simple as dragging and dropping blindly, though. One could have all the words without knowing how it all fits together. A character’s first name might appear in dialogue somewhere, and their last name found in a letter in their coat pocket hanging by the door. It’s up to observant players to use context clues and determine that the coat’s owner and the person spoken of are one and the same.
The prologue scene, doubling as an effective tutorial level, tells of an event following the discovery of the golden idol. The rest of the game tracks the idol over decades as it changes hands, with death and catastrophe never far behind. While the truth about the idol becomes more clear, the identities of certain characters and the tangled web of intrigue aren’t fully laid bare until the game’s conclusion. It’s not until the final mystery that players will begin to understand the real events that have transpired, even if the hints were there the whole time. And when they manage to put it all together, the only conclusion they are left with is the surprising twist.
One scene presents players with a large, ornate home to explore, complete with servants’ quarters. In one bedroom a note states “Remember to take the fourth from each row.” In a big house bursting at the seams with clues, this small note could easily be forgotten. Elsewhere, however, another out-of-the-way hint points to more. Once the player deduces which characters sleep in which bedrooms, they can combine all these clues and set out on a path that ultimately leads to a big discovery.
This trail of clues is a brilliant example of the twisting mysteries at the heart of the game, and the subtle hand it uses to guide players toward their solution. It also teaches the game’s most important lessons: don’t discount anything and always pay attention. The more a player gives, the more they will be rewarded. Even with a full list of words, each detail must be scrutinized to determine exactly what those words mean in the greater context of the mystery. Players will feel like master sleuths when the pieces click.
There are one or two scenes, however, that disrupt the game’s flow, depending on the player. For the most part, The Case of the Golden Idol gradually ramps up difficulty and complexity. But in at least one instance, a particularly challenging mystery was followed by one that amounted to little more than collecting all the words and plugging them in. By the time players get to this scene, they are likely practiced enough to be putting the pieces together as they’re collecting words. Up until then, each death had required some deduction on the player’s part, but the relative simplicity of this scene nearly trivialized it. For players who love solving mysteries and aren’t as concerned with the over-arching story, this could be a disappointment.
Though each detail of the mystery can be puzzled out with the information provided, it is possible to brute force the last couple of empty spots if enough gaps are already filled. If a player is struggling to figure out one key detail, they are faced with the choice to either comb through all the information again, hoping to notice something they missed, or just plug in a few remaining options until it works. The former is obviously the more satisfying choice, but the option to simply move on by brute force can be a tempting one, and since the design of the game can’t do anything to prevent this, it runs the risk of undermining the experience.
Though the dark mystery and the often unscrupulous characters embroiled therein take center stage, the trappings around that focus add to the package as a whole. The soundtrack does an admirable job of conveying a sense of momentum and urgency in an otherwise still game. The music dynamically shifts between separate tableaus in a scene, giving each image a distinct feel, but always with a pervasive eeriness. The pixel art animation brings a degree of cartoonish black humor, adding a quirkiness that does a lot to inform the game’s tone. Both the art and the music lend the story a surreal quality, as if the player is looking at some kind of dark, Victorian-era political cartoon.
Marketing for The Case of the Golden Idol leaned heavily on an endorsement from the developer of Return of the Obra Dinn, one of the most-loved mystery games in recent memory, and that endorsement is well-earned. Some flow hiccups will do little to interrupt the fun for most players, who will instead see a uniquely clever game, full of wonderful idiosyncrasies, that tells a delightful tale of murder and deceit.
The Case of the Golden Idol is available now on PC. Game Rant was provided a Steam code for this review.