We’re nearing the end of the year, so let’s celebrate the games that stood out to us the most. Next up: The Case of the Golden Idol.
The Case of the Golden Idol is not a long game. Across its twelve chapters, it takes roughly six hours to beat (depending on your intuition and, sometimes, luck). But those six hours were the six most focused hours of the entire year, as I poured over every pixel, every dark corner and mysterious pocket on screen, to get to the bottom of this most devious and beguiling investigation.
In big-picture terms, The Case of the Golden Idol tasks you with solving a series of increasingly complex mysteries, with tableaux that start confined to a single screen, before subsequent cases expand to larger and larger playing spaces. You are a sort of omniscient investigator, able to observe multiple people’s pockets and the contents of chests, cupboards, and the like, plumbing every corner for details on the who, what, where, and how of the given moment.
The first case is simple: two men are struggling on a cliff side, one of them is frozen in the middle of tumbling to his doom. You can inspect the men, and the contents of their backpacks, to get more context on who they are and why one is killing the other. Straightforward stuff for the start of the game, but still a compelling amuse-bouche for the head-spinning treachery to come.
As far as solving each case goes, The Case of the Golden Idol lets you toggle between viewing the scene of the crime, and a notes section, where you answer prompts meant to better help you get a grasp of what you’re seeing. Typically, the notes are divided into three sections: on the left side, you’ll have a mad libs-like series of incomplete sentences: “___ killed ____ by ___ him with a ___,” for example. The middle will be a list of faces, waiting to be identified. The right side is the most varied, as the game will ask you to deduce various seemingly incidental elements of the scene, like identifying which of a baron’s outfits correspond to different activities.
To fill in the blanks and solve the cases, you have to scour the world and collect key words, typically names, proper nouns, locations, and items that could be considered weapons. These words stay in a bank at the bottom of the screen, so you can easily drag and drop them into the blanks when you think you’ve gotten something figured out.
This manner of visualizing investigations foregrounds the way that often, in mysteries, understanding the truth is more about gathering as much information as possible than it is following a hunch as far as you can push it.
Whenever you have every blank in a given section correctly filled, that section will turn green, and you’ll be able to confidently build on that info going forward. Confirming you know which jacket means dining and which jacket means riding horses may seem trivial, but when you have to determine the time and location of the victim’s death, what jacket he was wearing suddenly becomes a vital clue. The Case of the Golden Idol is jam-packed with these kinds of sudden “a-ha!” moments, where information you couldn’t figure out how to place suddenly snaps into focus.
While there is a hint system for if you get truly stuck, I never once had to use it (though I definitely came close a few times when I thought I was well and truly stuck). Every chapter is spilling over with clever details and means of signposting where to look, so that even when I was stuck, I had ideas of things to try that seemed just crazy enough to work.
Keeping outside-the-lines thinking in mind is key to your success too, as the narrative goes some wild places as the bodies continue to pile up. While the first few murders seem isolated, coincidences between them quickly coalesce into a grand, years-spanning conspiracy that justifies the ultimately massive scope of the final cases, as secret societies and occult powers quickly become key components of each investigation.
Comparisons to 2018’s The Return of the Obra Dinn are inevitable. Both games are swiss watches of intrigue and mystery, hinging on the investigative prowess of you, the person holding the controller. There are no skill trees or special abilities you can employ to find a shortcut – you either figure out the riddle, untie the messiest knot you’ve ever seen, or you don’t. While the challenge presented may seem steep, I actually think The Case of the Golden Idol does a better job subtly presenting you with the tools you need for success. Twelve individual cases are easier to process than one enormous, multifaceted one, and the more manageable scope gives you the repeated sense of having cracked each individual case. The only thing better than a game making you feel like Sherlock Holmes is a game making you feel like Sherlock Holmes twelve times.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention The Case of the Golden Idol’s unique art style. The distinct pixel art makes every person appear uniquely expressive, which goes a long way to making sure you don’t get anyone confused. The sudden moments of violence are rendered all the more striking by the LucasArts-esque visuals, giving the world a particularly dangerous and eerie atmosphere. It’s a dynamite visual style to create a sense of paranoia that begs us to look closer at everything. Basically, LA Noire should have looked like this game.
In a year of massive games, full of hundred-hour journeys from The Lands Between, to the Nine Realms, The Case of the Golden Idol made an impression by going deep instead of wide. The interactive nature of video games as a medium make them a prime venue for these cerebral, tricky puzzle boxes of deduction, yet it’s such a difficult balance to get right. Too many games either lean too heavily on spelling everything out to the player (God of War Ragnarok’s self-explaining puzzles), or casting you out into total darkness (Scorn’s more inscrutable moments). The Case of the Golden Idol finds the perfect balance. All the answers are always right in front of you, so long as you take the time to see them.
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