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Golem Review — Pet Rock

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Knowingly or not, media products often reflect the unconscious biases of the societies that spawn them, helping to etch and entrench ideas of cultural identity. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism explored the ways in which Western cultures have divided the world along lines of otherness, portraying themselves as heroic and rational as a contrast against a mysterious and emotional East. Although healthy debate has raged in the 40 years since that text and art has made immense strides towards a spirit of global unity, some media continues to rely on the shorthand established by the colonialist mindset to convey ideas and atmosphere. Golem, the latest project from Toronto-based developer Longbow Games (known for the Hegemony series of RTS games), is one such product, couching competent puzzles and platforming within the language of difference.

Rather than aiming for verisimilitude, Golem takes place in an imagined setting, seeming to blend Indian and Africa influences into a composite whole. Rejecting the familiarity of Classical edifices, Baroque lines, or Gothic arches, the game wears otherness as a badge of honour, deriving architectural design from naturalism and pre-modern India. Emphasising the age of the world, the inner walls of the tower at the heart of the title are inscribed with simple images to convey unremembered stories, bringing to mind both prehistoric cave paintings and the artworks of Ancient Egypt. The intention appears to be to imbue the playspaces with a sense of historicity—making them feel impossibly old—yet the design also acts as a cue for mystery and the unknowableness of the architects by drawing upon signs and symbols long established as alien to the Western mind. Despite the transparent nature of the visual make-up, the aesthetic achieves its goals. Players are transported to and immersed within Longbow’s world courtesy of cohesiveness, which is aided by the audio.

Silence often reigns in the untrammeled depths and soaring heights of the tower, with the ambience and music accentuating the strangeness of this place. Rarely does the soundtrack swell, but, when it does, the dominant tones are those of ethereal woodwind instruments as opposed to the more familiar strings and keys, again seeking to locate Golem somewhere beyond the realms of the comfortable. Furthermore, the protagonist makes nary a sound throughout her journey. Noises are instead reserved for the groans of long-dormant machinery and the padding footfalls of the eponymous creature. By thus drawing attention away from the player’s avatar, the backdrop takes primacy. The vast scale and entrancing design of the environments make this choice a sensible one, but the decision to carry the world-focused approach into gameplay is less wise.

The evocative worldbuilding rife throughout Golem is performed in service of mechanics that feel more suited to touchscreens than traditional interfaces. Eschewing the direct control of Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, Black the Fall, and countless other platformers, the title utilises point-and-click gameplay, requiring users to direct the protagonist by interacting with objects and the background. While the system works—particularly in the level of fine control it allows over the golem’s increasing suite of skills—it furthers the distance between player and character. Because the attention is focused on the surroundings, the protagonist fades into obscurity; she becomes less a means of exploring the world than an obstacle to progression, with this feeling amplified in the multi-planed levels.

Although a 2D platformer at its core, Golem includes several stages wherein the player navigates faux-3D space. The illusion is created through the incorporation of gateways and moving platforms that can be used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. While the method allows the developer to extend its scope in ways rarely seen in platformers, it is imperfectly executed. In more complex levels, the alignment of the planes can be unclear, making navigation a frustrating experience. Consequently, the difficulty of puzzles is artificially heightened as the game descends into ill-defined orientation. These issues aside, the challenges are wonderfully designed to take advantage of both the skills and limitations of each form of the golem. As the game progresses and magical wellsprings are found, the creature evolves from the initial bipedal follower to a semi-autonomous gorilla and beyond, altering the ways it interacts with the world with each new shape. Novel challenges result, ensuring that the experience never becomes stale. However, one small disappointment does stem from the fact that the golem is incapable of reverting to earlier incarnations. Therefore, each level is designed around a core idea and a single solution. These obstacles are diverse enough to maintain interest throughout, as they range from basic navigation challenges to playing with the course of refracted light. While the lack of agency remains discomforting, Longbow’s decision to exclude it in favour of a curated narrative thread is justified.

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Golem’s story is told without words, leaving it open to interpretation. A young girl who seeks to gather water instead finds and awakens a mysterious orb, which unlocks a tower that has always dominated the skyline of her village. These early moments of clarity are almost the only ones in the game, as the journey becomes more important than the girl. Nonetheless, the history of ages is carved upon the ancient walls for those individuals with the wherewithal to care. Through the adventures of the girl and her new pet rock, the past unfolds, but the tale remains nebulous. As such, players will only receive as much story as they are willing to read into. While that fact will likely turn away some of those users seeking a thrilling story, the success of Dark Souls and Inside, which similarly obscure meaning, reveals that an audience exists for this kind of environmental storytelling.

That sentiment applies to Golem as a whole. Far from attempting to elicit mass market appeal, the game targets a niche and shows itself to be a project from a developer stretching beyond what it knows best. Longbow Games’s heritage in RTS titles emerges in the point-and-click gameplay, yet, in most other respects, Golem is a departure. While the team’s attempt to create something complex and novel is admirable, its ambition occasionally outstrips its execution. Meanwhile, although the game’s reliance on colonialist tropes is slightly troublesome, it will be overlooked by most players who have much else to occupy their minds across this evocating, engaging, and challenging adventure.

Reviewed on PC.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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