When creating a game in a relatively crowded genre, it’s best to try and differentiate it somehow. Stepping into the VR sword fighting arena, Golem has the right idea: it’s swordfighting whilst controlling a massive stone golem, with a sword that’s a storey tall and as thick as a wall.
The game begins with an uncommonly lengthy set up, particularly for a VR game, as about 15 minutes of cutscenes set up the story and world. Set in and around an isolated village, its inhabitants live in fear of the surrounding areas and the giant magical golems that amble about. Fortunately you quickly gain the ability to control some golems, allowing you to explore the surrounding city and plunder all its valuables.
As you wander around, you will bump into other golems who would very much like to end you, so you will need to brush up on your melee. Specifically you’ll have to master your defence, blocking a few times and then riposte in a cautious style of one-on-one melee combat. Enemies will telegraph an attack from a particular direction, then strike, and if you don’t block quickly enough, you get a massive, stone sword in your similarly massive stone face. The first few battles are easy enough to help you adjust, but things will pick up after that, with attacks coming from all directions and at quicker pace.
It’s pretty solid combat, and when it’s all working properly it feels satisfying. It does soon get quite repetitive though, due to the overly simple combat. You can’t really go on the offensive, so every fight plays out the same way; block a few times, hit the big glowing highlighted body parts, rinse, lather, repeat. Different variations of oncoming attacks, enemy sizes, and weapons help, but it starts to get dull after a couple of hours.
After you defeat an enemy, it’ll likely drop its weapon, gem, and mask. These are all important to scoop up, the weapons for obvious reasons and gems for powering your golem, with some granting different buffs such as letting you regenerate health. Masks are essential, however, as they are used to designate a golem’s rank. Certain doors around the world are magically sealed and will only open if you’re of a high enough rank by wearing the corresponding mask.
All three of these items are equipped at the workshop, where you return between lives. They are single use only, so if you equip a mask and die before reaching the door you’ll have to find the mask again before you can get through. The problem with this is that outside of Golem’s combat, gameplay is a little dull.
The walking doesn’t initially bother you too much while you’re still in wonder of the game world. It’s truly stunning to behold and one of the best looking titles on PSVR. The first time you walk through the huge stone gate of the city you’ll likely be stopping just to gawp at the scenery. That huge gate is the perfect example, though, of why Golem is frustratingly dull. After a few deaths, the stroll through the great gate becomes an annoyance for a few reasons. First, it’s superfluous and adds more unnecessary walking. Second, you move at a snail’s pace at all times, far too slow for a game that is made of swordfighting and walking around. Third, you just bloody died and now you’ve got to walk all the way back!
You can break boards that block gates to help mitigate the latter in a Souls-like fashion, but it doesn’t make enough of a difference. At one point I slowly walked up a spiral staircase, beat a golem when I reached the top and, when it turned out there was no way to go from there, just turned the game off because I had so little inclination to slowly plod all the way back down.
This is all frustrating because the world, as mentioned, is beautiful and interesting. The game is hard to fault graphically, even down to details like rings attached to your weapon that shake around as you move it, or chains hanging from ceilings that you can knock around with your sword. The huge, sandy ruin of a city is gorgeous, even if the colour palette seems a little too brown after a while.
It has some great flourishes, such as holding the Move button down to take you out of the golem you’re controlling and return you to bed. As you’re all tucked up, the view from the golem stays in a kind of window on the tip of your wand. This effect made me gasp aloud when I first used it. Sadly, strolling about the environment listening to the occasional hidden messages from your sister just isn’t enough to expand on the world in a satisfying way, and after the opening cutscenes the vast majority of exposition is found in those messages.
There’s also a few technical issues that can spoil the fighting. I’ve lost more than my fair share of fights because my sword inexplicably didn’t block the sword that it definitely was in the right position for, and missed counter attacks because it just didn’t register as a hit for some reason. These issues, which I assume are tracking glitches, don’t happen often, but shake your faith in the game as you get walloped repeatedly until death.
There’s also some control annoyances. The default control scheme uses just one Move controller and has you leaning forwards or backwards to walk. It’s dreadful, as after a little while your back and neck start to ache. You can use a Dualshock in one hand for movement which is better, but a bit awkward to hold, or dust off a Nav controller from the original release of PlayStation Move on PS3. Why you can’t use a second Move controller and tilt or point like many other VR games is anybody’s guess.
Also if the experience of being covered in giant beetles sounds distressing to you, there’s a bit early on whilst you’re a tiny golem that you might want to avoid.