Every time I solved a murder mystery in The Case of the Golden Idol, I actually felt smart.
The Case of the Golden Idol tasks you with solving murder mysteries involving the titular golden idol (which is a small statue). As a longtime Ace Attorney player, I thought I’d be well-equipped to handily sleuth everything out. Golden Idol turned out to be more challenging because you have to solve cases with a lot less information, but cracking a mystery was just as rewarding.
For each case, you’ll be looking at a scene that takes place during or shortly after a murder. The scene itself is a brief section of time, with characters animating on a very short loop. Outside a vague title, you aren’t given any explanation about the case itself or who is involved, so you just have to click around the scene to investigate things like the deceased’s body, objects lying around, or the people you can see. The game calls this the “Exploring” view.
As you click on things, words of interest will appear in a repository at the bottom of your screen. That means for the first part of a case, you’ll spend time collecting words like “idol” or “knife,” as well as first and last names to fill out the repository. The game tells you how many words there are to collect in any given scene, so I always tried to find all of the words before moving on to the next part: the “Thinking” panel.
Here, you’ll use all of the words you’ve collected to piece together things like the identities of characters and a description of how the murder actually took place. You’ll also have to figure out mini-mysteries relevant to the scene you’re looking at, like which parts of a shredded will were addressed to which characters. It all functions kind of like a Mad Libs page, except instead of writing nonsense, you’re trying to solve a murder.
At the beginning of nearly every case, I’ll admit that I was extremely intimidated by the Thinking panel. It felt like there’d be no way I could fill everything to solve the case. But almost every time, as I slotted in the first bits of information I was sure of, I could slowly begin to solve another piece, and then another, and then another, flipping back and forth between the Exploring and Thinking views to search the scene again and lock in more words. When I finally solved a case, I always felt a mix of relief and pure joy.
The Case of the Golden Idol has a few systems to nudge you in the right direction. The game will tell you if you’re two or fewer terms off for any given section of the Thinking panel, meaning you might just need to swap out a name or a couple nouns. But when I was really stumped, I’d sometimes just end up swapping terms around until I got the right answer, which probably isn’t what you’re supposed to do, but it still worked. Many characters and clues appear across cases, which can be helpful knowledge to call back to if you’re stuck.
There’s also a hint system, but Golden Idol strongly discourages you from using it. When you click the “Hints” button, the game shows a prompt, another prompt forces you to solve a puzzle, and then you can pick a hint. Even after all that, the hints themselves don’t directly give you answers; they’re just a clearer piece of information about what’s going on in the scene. It’s a clever system, and I appreciate the spirit of wanting the player to work everything out for themselves. But for the amount of work involved, I wish the hints gave clearer answers. For one of the last cases, which was incredibly difficult, I abandoned the hint system entirely and turned to a YouTube walkthrough to get parts of answers. (I’m not proud of it!)
The broader story kept me hooked
Even when I struggled with the game’s difficulty, I always enjoyed clicking around scenes. Golden Idol has a fantastic old-school pixel art style. The game has a dramatic soundtrack that regularly feels like something you’d hear in a detective TV show, and even though you’ll be hearing the songs on a loop as you puzzle through each case, they never felt grating. (While writing this review, I left the game running on a few cases just to listen to the music.) And because the cases build upon each other, the game is able to tell a broader (and sometimes creepy) story about the golden idol that kept me hooked over my five-hour playthrough.
Golden Idol was also a great Steam Deck game. In portable mode, I could tap around scenes with the touchscreen and onboard controls, and with the Steam Deck dock, my wife and I could puzzle through cases together on our living room TV. (If you can play the game with someone else, I highly recommend it!)
The Case of the Golden Idol is one of those games that I wish I could forget and play all over again for the first time. I’ve heard it compared to Return of the Obra Dinn, and I also think you’ll like Golden Idol if you’re a fan of games like Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies or Immortality. But I’m hopeful that Golden Idol developers Color Gray Games will use their clever Mad Libs-style system again in the future; even after beating the game, I feel like there’s still a lot we don’t know about the mysterious golden idol.
The Case of the Golden Idol is now available for PC on Steam and GOG. As of this writing, there’s a free demo available on Steam.