A few years ago, I wanted to treat myself to a new game to occupy myself with in between University studying during the Christmas break. This game was Return of the Obra Dinn. I’d been craving a mystery game that allows you free reign over the clues provided to solve the mystery, with little hand holding. This was what was promised in The Sunken City, but wasn’t quite delivered, so I gave Obra Dinn a try. This game, which I bought to play bit by bit over the coming weeks, was completed in one night after I booted it up only to check that it ran okay on my laptop. I was utterly enthralled by the mystery that developer Lucas Pope had created, and by the early hours of the morning, I finally completed the puzzle, surrounded by papers full of scribbled notes.

No game has drawn me in and tested my puzzle-solving and deduction skills in the same way, until now. On its release day, Lucas Pope himself recommended Color Gray Games’ The Case of the Golden Idol to anyone who enjoyed Obra Dinn, and this recommendation couldn’t be more accurate. Like Obra Dinn, The Case of the Golden Idol is a deduction puzzle game. You are given a variety of clues and must piece the case together yourself by reading between the lines.

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You must search the area for clues in the ‘exploring’ screen and slowly collect all the information needed to solve the case.

Split into twelve chapters, not including the epilogue, The Case of the Golden Idol’s story spans across 40 years. Each chapter usually revolves around a death somehow related to a mysterious golden idol, which is passed from person to person. Although each chapter may tell a different story with a new set of characters, there’s an overarching narrative to be discovered.

Each chapter has a static scene which you must explore for clues and then fill in the gaps for the case. You’ll switch from the ‘explore’ screen, which is the scene itself where you’ll search for clues, to the ‘thinking’ screen, which has the outline of the case summary, as well as all your collected clues and the additional puzzles to solve. On both screens, you’ll also be able to see how many clues you have left to collect; it’s always best to make sure you have everything before attempting to deduce the case, as even the smallest detail can make a huge difference to your understanding of the line of events.

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In the ‘thinking’ screen, you’ll have your case summary and at least two other puzzles to complete which will be related to the case.

In the Case of the Golden Idol, you use point-and-click mechanics to search the scene for clues. You can search through storage, check each person for dialogue and what they’re carrying, and eventually collect enough information to start filling in the gaps. The Case of the Golden Idol offers two different experience options upon starting the game. You can either play it with the clues in the scene highlighted, or play with no highlights, meaning you’ll have to do a lot of searching to find everything. I played the highlighted experience, as this is what the developers recommend. Although I love a challenge, I do think this is the right choice, as playing with no highlights only turns solving the case into a game of hide and seek, as you frantically click on the screen for your missing clues. The Case of the Golden Idol doesn’t need such a gimmick, because solving the mystery itself is certainly no easy feat.

The ‘thinking’ page will usually have at least three objectives to complete. Your primary goal will be to deduce what has happened in the chapter by filling in the gaps to the case study using the clues you have gathered. In most of the chapters, you’ll have the secondary objective of identifying each person at the scene. The remaining puzzles are usually optional, but will be relevant to the case. For example, in chapter five, someone has been poisoned and you have the optional puzzle of working out who was sitting where at the dinner table. Solving these will help you see the bigger picture. I would suggest doing these secondary puzzles first, and then using them to solve the case.

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Solving the additional puzzles will also help you understand the overarching narrative of the game more as, although some of the information may not seem relevant at the time, it will certainly come in handy later on.

Of course, although The Case of the Golden Idol gives you free reign over the clues to build your own theory, it doesn’t leave you completely in the dark. If you really need a hint, you can unlock one. What I love about this mechanic is that The Case of the Golden Idol really wants you to work out the mystery yourself. Upon opening up the hint menu, you’ll be reminded to check for typos and mistakes in your summary. And even if you’re still stuck, the hints in The Case of the Golden Idol won’t just spell it out for you – unlike most puzzle games, which don’t seem to understand the meaning of a ‘hint’ and will just hand over the answer. To unlock clues, you’ll be given some people or items from previous chapters to identify, which I found was actually a helpful activity for reminding myself who these people are. They’ll often reappear in later chapters, which will make solving that chapter much easier. Once the hint is unlocked, it will simply guide you on where to look or make you start asking the right questions. It will point out that maybe someone is lying, or remind you to take a closer look at certain details of the case. More often than not, these little hints were more than enough to put the player in the right direction without outright handing over the answer. It still feels like an accomplishment once the mystery is figured out.

The visuals in the Case of the Golden Idol are simply frozen snapshots of a scene using pixelated graphics. The art style and music perfectly match the 17th Century setting, and the dark colour scheme goes well with the macabre narrative. Although in some instances, I found the music grew a bit repetitive, this is only because I was spending so long on a certain chapter. The music itself was well put together, varied throughout each chapter to match the mood of the scene, and also unique enough to set itself apart from other games.

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Hints don’t just come free.

The story itself is complex and well hidden behind the situation in each chapter. Of course, each scene has its own story, but as The Case of the Golden Idol progresses, you’ll be able to piece together something happening behind the scenes, as you recognise reoccurring characters from previous chapters or some dates that don’t add up, yet aren’t relevant to that chapter’s case. Once I figured out the truth in the epilogue, this really solidified the rating I have given in this review: The Case of the Golden Idol quickly became one of my favourite games of the year. To put it plainly, not everything is as it seems, yet it all adds up at the end. Anything that you thought was strange at the time that it happened will make sense later on. With such simplistic gameplay and visuals, the writing really needed to hit the nail on the head for it all to balance out and make an impact. The Case of the Golden Idol does not skip a beat on this. It’s intelligent and compelling, and one of those games that you just can’t stop thinking about once it’s over.

To put it simply, The Case of the Golden Idol is everything I’ve ever wanted in a detective game. You’re handed the clues and then it’s up to you to solve the case. I often found myself coming up with my own narrative from the provided information, only to fill out the summary and realise I was wrong. But that’s the beauty of having so much freedom. When I finally did take a closer look into the finer details and recognise the holes in my own theory, it felt triumphant to put together the real story. I got even more excited once I began to notice an overarching narrative across each chapter which, again, isn’t spelled out for you but left up to you to figure out. Everything that I love about Return of the Obra Dinn is present in The Case of the Golden Idol and more. Things are never as straightforward as they seem, and the story is so absorbing that I once again spent all night delving into each case. My only wish is that the game was longer, as I eventually completed it in four hours. But when the only flaw is that you wanted more, can it really be considered a flaw? The Case of the Golden Idol really makes you feel like a detective, and I can’t wait to play any future titles that Color Gray Games has in store.

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