The long-awaited release of Golem, Highware Games’ PSVR exclusive debut game, is finally here. It’s also getting a physical release courtesy of Perp Games in addition to the digital release on the Playstation Store.
Golem is one of those titles that, at some point, we thought we were probably never getting. First unveiled even before the launch of the Playstation VR hardware, we were surprised and delighted to actually see a confirmed release date a few weeks ago – and booting up the game is a good reminder of why Golem was so eagerly awaited all this time.
Visually, Golem is one of those rare Playstation VR titles that really pushes the envelope on what’s possible on the platform – which is widely expected to receive an upgrade when or shortly after the PS5 rolls around next year. Stunning highlight this year have included Ace Combat, Blood & Truth and perhaps Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, and Golem sits comfortably next those major studio/publisher releases.
The lighting effects are gorgeous, the visuals are highly detailed, character animations are top notch and the scenery is a sight to behold. VR is still very much a medium where developers often try to work around the limitations of the current hardware rather than push it to its limits, so it’s always nice when developers try to steer clear of these compromises – and I’ll happily take a rare case of texture pop-in that might result from that. There’s also a nifty visual effect that combines two worlds which is very cool to see, but that’s best explained by diving into the gameplay.
The titular golems are giant stone creatures, and you play as a young girl who has the ability to control them from within the confines of your own bedroom. You can’t leave the room as a result of an accident you’ve been in, but your newfound ability suddenly gives you the power to explore and head towards an adventure amidst the ruins of a city that is home to more than just one Golem – and they’re looking to stop your quest to get to the heart of the city.
This creates two scenes at once, with you staying in your bedroom while Golems duke it out elsewhere. The latter is what you see most of the time, but it’s a view that is presented more as an overlay, and you can always dynamically switch to your room as well – which is also visible at the edges of your display. Combine all that with a great musical score, and this is an audiovisual treat that is (unfortunately still) rare within VR.
But while Golem pushes the technical envelope in the audiovisual sense, it also suffers from a control system that is hurt by the limitations of what’s currently possible. There’s a novel new “incline” system that is based on leaning forwards and backwards to make your golem do the same, with head movements also helping you navigate the environment. It’s certainly one of the more original approaches we’ve seen so far, but it definitely takes some getting used to and even at its very best it feels like you have less control than you would when piloting (for example) a giant mech with a standard Dualshock. Perhaps this is intentional because these giant golems are meant to be a bit unwieldy, but when you start feeling clumsy it’s hard not to think about other titles where you control huge characters like these. Even after things get more comfortable with a lot of practice, that feeling never completely goes away.
Speaking of the Dualshock – it can still be used, although it wouldn’t be in the way you perhaps imagine. Instead of transferring full control over to the gamepad, use of the Dualshock is limited to having it in one hand with a Move controller in the other – using only the analog thumbstick on the Dualshock for control. While it works and requires less of a learning curve, it’s a bit less immersive than the Incline system (when it works) and just holding the Dualshock that way is a vivid reminder that today’s control options are a bit lacking – there’s a chance that Highwire might patch in support for the old PS3 navigation controllers that came with the Move though, and that’d be an improvement at least from an ergonomical perspective. I might still stick with the Incline system though, because even though it can be too challenging for its good it’s still one of the more unique control schemes I’ve experienced – and you can always blame anything and everything on the interface your protagonist has with her golems.
Golem features an open world for you to traverse and discover (with collectibles to find as well), and you’ll be spending quite a bit of time walking through it. This is largely due to the game’s almost roguelike gameplay, where losing a golem in combat means you not only lose all the perks you picked up (like extra health, better weapons and golem masks that acts as keys), but you’ll also have to journey back with your next golem. When you defeat another golem you gain rewards, but to use them you have to travel back home first in order to equip them – there’s no on-the-go inventory management. While it makes sense from the perspective of realism (since you’re only controlling these giants remotely), it means twice the journey.
This can feel like unnecessary padding in an otherwise very engaging story that features excellent VR-based combat. Blocking and countering are often crucial, and confrontations with other golems can become very tense indeed (partly because the price for failure is so high). It’s a shame that occasional control issues and small bugs (like getting stuck in an invisible wall with your Golem) take you out of the immersion though, because when Golem shines it shines extremely bright. Let’s hope that, when a new generation of VR arrives, the technology has caught up with the vision behind it.