I didn’t know what to expect when I first booted up Golem, other than perhaps a quirky puzzle-platformer with a golem buddy. Instead, what I found was a somewhat Journey-esque side-scrolling adventure about a friendship forged between human and rock creature that deeply affected me even after I was done playing. This is, in short, a beautiful visual and auditory experience, coupled with clever and ever-changing (if not overly challenging) puzzles throughout a simple yet endearing story, all done without a single word of dialogue.
The tale begins with a series of beautifully drawn stills about a nameless young girl leaving home to fetch water for her family, as the bridge that normally carries it into the city has long been broken. She explores the base of a nearby tower that was once the source of water but finds only small reserves inside. Upon reaching her hand into a puddle, she triggers a glowing core that turns out to be a golem. Murals light up as the golem activates, revealing that if she can reach the top of this mysterious tower (with the golem’s help), it will begin sending water back to the city as it once did.
In less than a minute, the player already knows their overall objective and has a vague introduction to the golem, who has an obvious but undefined connection to the tower. In a game like this, simplicity works best, as it’s not so much about the end goal but what this unlikely duo must do to get there. The rest of the story, including the origin of the tower itself, is told organically through more murals along the way that glow when your golem gets close enough to them, blending story and gameplay together seamlessly.
The gameplay is easy to pick up, but its puzzles are a bit harder to master. The controls are basic enough, with most things done with the left mouse button, like clicking where you want the young girl to move, pulling levers, telling the golem to stay put or follow, and a few more actions as you progress. The WASD keys move the camera around a 2.5D plane, while the scroll wheel zooms in and out. Just as importantly, the ability to switch camera focus between characters is done via buttons in the bottom corner of the screen. The spacebar doubles your movement speed, which is a lifesaver during the more sprawling levels where you’ll be backtracking a lot, which can feel like a chore at times.
Golem also has gamepad support, which uses two face buttons for selecting where to move, one for separating and walking with your golem, and another to enter doors/use levers. The left stick moves both the camera and cursor simultaneously, right is for zooming, the bumpers can switch focus between the girl and golem, and the triggers are used for the fast-forward function. Both schemes work great, but the mouse and keyboard option is better as it simplifies all the different contextual actions into just a single button.
The puzzles themselves will have the duo climb, push, pull, swing and occasionally jump through a number of physics-based environmental obstacles as they ascend the tower. Platforming exists only in the loosest sense of the word, as you can never do anything that would kill your character. If a pit is too large, they won’t jump, but if it’s a tiny gap, they’ll do it automatically.
None of the puzzles feels out of place, as a lot of what you end up doing reactivates different parts of the tower, whether opening the flaps to a wind generator, re-focusing a series of mirrors to reflect sunlight towards a large glass container to boil and purify water, or generally just clearing out rubble. A lot of situations boil down to getting both characters to the same place, since each can do certain things the other can’t – the girl can climb vines and rope while the golem is too heavy, but in one of its early forms the golem can make large jumps that the girl cannot, so working in tandem becomes key.
One element that keeps the gameplay fresh is the discovery of majestic, glowing wells that’ll basically upgrade – or evolve, even – the golem into an entirely new state. These changes are a great way to visually show the ever-growing bond of friendship between the girl and golem, as the creature gains more human-like features the more they accomplish together. But they are also functional, giving the golem new powers to confront further challenges on the path ahead, like the ability to climb up the architecture, or even move stone with telekinesis. The more complex the golem grows, the more complex the puzzles become. Rather than having an increasing arsenal of abilities to choose from, however, each new form the golem takes is permanent until the next, and the puzzles will shift focus accordingly until the next well is found.
The level layouts are usually straightforward, the only real difficulty being the stages where you have to solve separate major puzzles in multiple interconnected areas (indicated by a segmented diamond symbol at the top of the screen, with each part lighting up as you solve its respective area). These levels are noticeably less linear than the others, and it can be easy to get lost or lose track of where you’re going.
While that might seem daunting, the actual challenges aren’t incredibly hard to solve by any means. The best idea is to always look around for a climbable rope, a door to walk through or a lever to pull to effect one change or another. Zooming out the camera can be helpful while solving a puzzle, but if you keep it zoomed out all the time the interactive elements might seem to blend into the background on occasion. Thankfully, anything you can interact with will display a glowing blue outline when you mouse over it.
As rewarding as most of the levels are, the final one is easily the hardest. While it’s not unusual for a game’s last level to be the most demanding, here it's the only one where, if one specific action is done too early, you can potentially prevent yourself from progressing. This happened to me, and I had to start over once I finally realized I was stuck to try again from the beginning. It was the only level that forced me to look at a guide to make sure I was doing things in the correct order, as while its various areas are open from the start, advancement can only be made by performing actions in a certain order.
As solid as the gameplay is, where Golem truly shines is in its presentation. I made the Journey comparison earlier for good reason. While the environments here are a bit lower-poly than the average game today, that hardly matters as the overall aesthetic is straight-up gorgeous. The tower’s interiors are often adorned by multiple murals that light up the walls as you walk past them, with vines organically growing over stonework, water constantly flowing in certain areas, and rays of sunlight peeking in through the cracks. In the sporadic moments that allow you to see just how far up the tower you are, observing the sandy horizon from afar is simply breathtaking.
Even the loading screens are fun to look at, as they either show mural-like art of the girl and golem together (usually doing something cute, further adding to the characterization of their friendship), or a display of the tower map showing where you are currently. It’s a cool visual reference to see these at different points and compare how far you’ve progressed toward your goal.
While all the levels are thematically consistent, there’s a visible refinement of the architecture as you ascend the tower, starting in a literal cave at its base all the way to the water collection observatory at its peak. The machines, too, get more complex the higher you climb, though they are all able to function properly with just one little girl and a golem turning them back on again. This progression builds an atmosphere of increasing mystery as to how such advanced technology managed to break down so long ago. And who or what are the golems? Where did they go, and why did they let the tower fall into disrepair?
The animations are also impressive and fit with the art style. There’s a sense of physical weight that adds to the immersive feel. Big slabs of stone and wood move sluggishly (but thankfully not too slowly) when pushed around, water sloshes and spills around other objects realistically, and said objects bob and float accordingly. The best animations are reserved for the girl and golem, however. For the former, lots of small details like tripping up stairs, having trouble pulling levers, and pushing stone cylinders using her entire body all help sell the fact that she’s a small, weak human traversing this tower meant for golems.
On the other end of the spectrum, the golem’s animations make the creature seem superhuman. It can leap gaps, exert its strength and climb things with relative ease, which is appropriate having been literally designed to help run the tower. As the golem evolves, however, it goes from more of a pet for the girl (one of its early forms is a quadruped with dog-like movement) to a humanoid friend. There are a few cute animations of the pair together that ended up melting my heart, doing an excellent job of capturing this burgeoning camaraderie. Without any words spoken or even visible facial expressions, body language conveys so much here.
The other aspect that makes the journey so incredible is the amazing score composed by Lynn Yang. Every track, from the titular melody to any of the individual level themes, is beautifully orchestrated, with a heavy emphasis on piano and string instruments. The music itself is slow-paced, but while not designed to hum along or toe-tap to, it does an excellent job of complementing the visuals, going hand-in-hand in establishing the right mood for this enigmatic, majestic backdrop full of wonderous machines. More upbeat pieces play during important moments, such as restoring a major part of the tower back into working order or the golem receiving a new form from a well, which are even more special as they aren’t heard as often. The soundtrack overall is stunning, and while it could easily stand on its own, it’s at its best in-game while you’re simultaneously feasting your eyes on this gorgeous world.
Effects are also well done: stones shifting, pulleys turning, and water running help make these environments feel alive, especially when you conquer a new area by finding the next big glowing door or get a machine working properly. Some areas have a nice echo affect, which adds to the eeriness of this large, abandoned structure. Although there is no actual dialogue, the young girl does utter some slight grunts and audible gasps when performing physical tasks, once again hammering home the fact that she’s a bit out of her element.
The game doesn’t demand a whole lot technically to run, and in my six hours playing I only came across one type of glitch every now and then. In levels with multiple areas, I encountered an occasional graphical hiccup where the textures wouldn’t load properly at first, but even this was only for a few seconds before they finished popping in correctly.
Golem is not only a wondrous experience for the senses, it is equally a fun, tightly designed puzzle-platformer that has a unique story to tell and a heartwarming friendship between a most unlikely duo. It doesn’t pose much challenge, but careful observation is most certainly the key to successfully restoring the mysterious water tower. Puzzle-platformer fans should check this one out, and even if you’re generally not, the presentation is worth the price of admission alone.