Since the start of the current era of virtual reality (VR), developers have worked on creating methods of controlling movement that avoid the dreaded ‘simulation sickness’, a form of motion sickness unique to VR. In the case of Golem, this worthy attempt to create a new method of movement control is also the source of many of its most significant problems.
Golem opens with a lengthy introduction sequence, which introduces the player character, named Twine, along with her sister Sky and her Father. The characters seem fairly well-realised, and the voice acting is excellent. The plot properly kicks off when Sky is apparently killed while attempting to scavenge valuable relics from an ancient city which is protected by a magical barrier which only the titular golems can pass through.
Twine and her sister share the power to mentally control these golems, but the process is not without risk, as mysterious forces are at work within the ancient ruins. After the accident where her sister is apparently killed, Twine can only explore the world through the eyes of these golems which in practice means that the player can see what the golem sees, but when turning quickly, the bedroom to which Twine is confined is also visible in peripheral vision. The effect is interesting, but some players could find it disorienting.
Many curious choices have been made with the controls. To move, the player needs to press the trigger on the PlayStation Move controller and also lean in the direction that the player needs to move in. This movement scheme is novel, but uncomfortable. This type of motion is fairly likely to induce motion sickness in players, which defeats the point of creating a unique control scheme in VR.
The PlayStation VR is one of the most comfortable VR headsets, but its weight is still noticeable, and the act of having to continually lean forward to move makes the weight more apparent, and can induce back pain or headaches over long periods.
Golem is the type of game that encourages exploration and back-tracking in order to discover the various collectables and hidden bits of plot and world-building, and having gameplay limited due to the discomfort really spoils the game experience.
The world itself is both fascinating and beautiful, full of complex ruins that are begging to be thoroughly explored. The atmosphere is melancholy, feeling much like a civilisation on the decline with its dusty desert landscapes and mysterious crumbling buildings. The ambience is refined by the excellent music, composed by Marty O’Donnell, whose work has been featured in games such as Halo and Destiny.
Another area where Golem has the opportunity to shine is in the combat. Players need to raise the Move controller to block incoming strikes, and wait for a suitable opportunity to counter attack. When this mechanic works, it feels great, giving a real feeling of weight and impact. However, sometimes the block fails to work, or works but the player takes damage anyway, and whether this is a bug or a problem with tracking is difficult to say. The same action can result in various different results, which can be frustrating.
Taking cues from roguelike games, when the player-controlled golem dies, the player loses all the currently equipped items and weapons, which means a trek back through the ruins to find the fallen golem and reclaim the equipment. By itself, this is not so bad, but combined with the uncomfortable control system and a bafflingly impenetrable inventory scheme results in a game that can induce controller-snapping levels of frustration.
An interesting plot and world is buried under the clunky controls, and the beauty of it draws the player in, but the frustration of playing for long periods is a major hurdle.
In many ways, Golem feels like a step back in VR game development. Highwire Games spent five years working on Golem, and yet the finished product feels more like something from the early days of modern VR. The title especially suffers when compared to recent titles such as Stormland, or even Moss, which has similar themes.
The future of combatting simulation sickness is far more likely to be in developing technology to allow smoother frame rates and haptic feedback, which are known to reduce motion sickness symptoms in VR. Exotic control schemes such as the one in Golem are more likely to result in frustration than comfort.
Some amazing elements of an action-exploration game are present in Golem, but the design decisions largely spoil the experience. Players with an ocean of patience and the fortune of not suffering from motion sickness might find a worthy experience, but it is hidden beneath layers of counter-intuitive systems.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 with PlayStation VR.