Even though virtual reality is arguably the most technologically advanced it has ever been, many of the gaming experiences have been limited in terms of scope and depth. Most developers haven't quite figured out the answer to moving around in a virtual space, so a majority of titles tend to have the player stand in one place for the entirety of the game or they implement an awkward teleportation mechanic that works, but isn't very elegant.
Golem doesn't quite solve that movement conundrum, but the team at Highwire Games has done some something that's both rare and remarkable: They're managed to craft a single-player adventure that's worth spending hours on end with a helmet strapped to your head.
Big City Dreams
The story of Golem takes place in a fantastical desert world where the ruins of a mysterious city are forbidden to disturb and its entrance is guarded by a force field that disintegrates anything that touches it. You play as a small girl named Twine, the daughter of a scavenger who scourges around the outskirts looking for rare artifacts and relics to sell. Your sister is pretty great at finding valuable stuff, and the reason for that is because she's something known as a Dreamer.
Dreamers can use special dreamstones - conveniently shaped like a PlayStation Move controller - to take control of massive Golems inside the city. Unfortunately, while giving you a quick rundown on how to use your Dreamer abilities, tragedy strikes, and after a horrific accident, you wind up severely injured and stuck in bed. However, a dreamstone of your own comes into your possession, and soon you're whisking your consciousness away into the bodies of giant Golems to uncover the secrets of this fallen city.
Considering this is a VR title, there wasn't a need to add a compelling narrative, but I actually thought the story and voice acting were very solid. It felt like something that could have made for a good Disney film, what with the dead mother and magical creatures. The world created for Golem is also shockingly beautiful. A lot of the surroundings are dilapidated stone buildings and desert landscapes, but they're richly detailed with some pretty impressive architecture to see up close through the PSVR helmet.
Not So Friendly Giants
The real draw of Golem is its combat system which is easy to get a grasp on yet difficult to perfect. After a brief opening section that may freak out anyone with a mild case of katsaridaphobia, you possess your first Golem and enter the city. You start out by dealing with some undead enemies who are essentially cannon fodder and can be dispatched with a blow or two from your weapon of choice. Then the real fight begins when you go toe to toe with another Golem.
These battles are giant sword fights where you block your opponent's incoming strikes by using the PlayStation Move controller. You stave off your enemy's attacks until a part of their body changes color, which is your opening to hit them back until they crumble in a pile of assorted bits and pieces. This system is incredibly satisfying and thrilling to play in VR. It never felt laggy, it always felt challenging but not impossible, and each time you batter a Golem, it has a satisfying impact and weight to it. It's amazing how physically controlling your attacks can turn simple combat into a rewarding, adrenaline-pumping experience.
Can Golems Get Nauseous?
As I mentioned earlier, movement in VR can be a major hurdle to get over when it comes to making games. Golem's potential solution is a mechanic based on leaning to move, an idea that has both positives and negatives.
To move your Golem's body, you simply lean forward to move ahead and lean back to go backward. This actually seems like a smart way to handle things. You do move a little slowly, but you're a giant stone creature, so it's not like you should be jumping around to begin with. This also worked well with the combat, leaning in to wallop your foe and then leaning back to get some distance before you take damage. It feels more natural than a lot of other VR games, and while it needs some refinement, it's possibly a good step forward for virtual traversal.
The downside to this mechanic has to do with the usual problems related to virtual reality. I'm talking about the twin powers of motion sickness and muscle strain. Since I was physically leaning forward to move, I found it was easy to get out of place with the PlayStation Camera that was tracking my movements which required some dizzying readjustments to correct my orientation. This also happened when I had to change direction as you have to look around to turn the Golem, leading to some rather stomach-churning moments. Constantly craning my head forward also caused some stiffness in my neck and back. You can fix your position with the Options button on the Move controller, but it's not exactly the perfect system just yet.
The other major issue I had with journeying through this city was the lack of a map or objective marker. While the locations are gorgeous to view, it wasn't hard to lose track of where I was or where I'd been. Getting lost was a frustrating part of Golem, and having to consistently turn around once I'd realized I was backtracking by accident probably didn't help my nausea. Some kind of navigation mechanic or even some signs scattered around the city would have been appreciated.
Slightly Dizzying, Yet Ultimately Delightful
Golem did make me feel a little sick and lost in its world, but the fact that I was willing to persevere past these obstacles to play through it is a testament to its quality. There are many fun VR titles, but a lot of them are pretty shallow and only worth an hour or two of your time. Golem isn't a long game, but I was determined to see how the Golem battles would increase in difficulty and to go deeper into this cursed city. As a result, this is likely the longest stretch of time I've ever spent with a VR helmet strapped to my head.
It has some real navigation issues, but once you get past those, this is a title that anyone with a PSVR helmet should be checking out. After all, there's no better use for virtual reality than to peer through the eyes of a giant Golem and smash things to smithereens.
A PlayStation 4 review copy of Golem was provided to TheGamer for this review. Golem is now available on PlayStation 4 for the PSVR.