Ever since Return of the Obra Dinn in 2018, something has been broken in me. That game is amazing, one of my all time favourites, but it's also completely unreplayable, as most detective and puzzle games are. I've been trying to recapture that magic ever since, but the state of detective games as a whole is usually pretty poor - either they're insultingly easy, providing cereal box puzzles that don't actually feel like detective work, or they de-emphasise the actual deduction and make it into an infrequent gimmick. Finding a good successor hasn't been easy… but now I have hope again, because of the lightning in a bottle that is The Case of the Golden Idol.
The Case of the Golden Idol dropped late last year on Steam and GOG, and pretty quickly caught traction, with players recognizing the clear passion and intelligence that went into it. It's a short, snacky sort of game about solving twelve different murders, though the fiendish difficulty of the later cases means how long it actually takes you will vary depending on your own intuition.
I was pretty pleased to discover that these are not disparate, unrelated cases, but in fact a string of sequences from a wider plot that we ourselves piece together as we make deductions. Set in the 1800s and focused around the movements of the titular Idol, this mystic artifact is dug up by a couple of treacherous British nobles and things immediately begin to go awry. Fights over inheritance, hired goons, nighttime thefts, master highwaymen, secret societies, conspiracies at the highest levels of government - the Idol passes through many hands, but I appreciate that there's a very clear plot at play, and that established characters and suspects continuously come back across multiple cases, rather than being one-and-done suspects.
Plus there's a real sense of escalation, as we move from accidental manslaughters to orchestrated massacres across the course of the game. You start with two dorks pushing each other over a toy they don't want to share, and by the finale you're picking through gory slaughters ordered by the greatest powers in the land - though the principles remain very much the same.
… Are the devil's playthings
Those principles being twenty minutes of headaches, followed by sudden, electrifying revelation. Obra Dinn's influence is made clear by the actual mechanics of the investigation - you're shown a freeze-frame of events, a static tableau of murder that's either in-progress or just passed, and you're given free roam to study it at your leisure, rifle through the unmoving people's pockets to see what you find, and fill in the accompanying comprehension test by placing keywords in the empty spots, like the most morbid set of ad-libs imaginable. "On the night of BLANK, Lord BLANK walked in on Lady BLANK with Mister BLANK having a secret BLANK in the BLANK, and proceeded to BLANK them in the BLANK with a serrated BLANK."
And while it starts simple enough, by the end it's almost a little too overwhelming, with dozens of characters across multiple factions and differing agendas across a range of locations. Break out the ol' pen and paper I suppose, but one subtle difference between this and Obra Dinn is that character motivations are a lot more significant here. Rather than characters getting picked off by a mindless seafood platter we couldn't hope to empathize with, in Golden Idol our only hope is to try to think about why somebody might want the victim dead, and who stands to benefit - and it's only by reframing the situations in that way that you have a hope of finding that first morsel of seeded granary loaf that marks the beginning of the breadcrumb trail.
I also rather like the art style, though I hesitate to call it attractive. It's distorted and a bit gruesome, with caricatured faces stretched into exaggerated expressions. Nobody looks sly, they look cartoonishly weaselly. Nobody looks a little arrogant, not if they can look like the snobbiest toff imaginable. The whole thing lands somewhere between archaic political cartoon, nineteenth-century novel illustration and 1990s LucasArts adventure game pixel art, with a big ol' dose of mescaline shot into the whole mixture to dial the visual energy up to eleven.
I do worry the constant comparisons to Obra Dinn are a bit unfair, but for what it's worth, I think The Case of the Golden Idol does invite the comparison, being an indie retro-visual 1800s period-piece murder mystery story with a creepy supernatural element in which you examine in-progress time-stopped crime scenes to fill in a form and unpack the larger story along the way.
But here's the thing - while I'd normally not advise somebody to compete with Obra Dinn in the same way I wouldn't advise a friend to start mouthing off to a heavyweight boxer, Golden Idol is very, very good, and feels closer to inspiration and homage than rote, mindless copying. The fact that Lucas Pope himself gets prominently quoted on the store page makes it clear that this is a game that's open and aware about its lineage, and if Golden Idol marks the start of a new trend of robust investigation games following Obra Dinn's lead… well, no bad thing, say I.
The Case of the Golden Idol is out now on PC. Keep track of more releases on the horizon with our roundup of upcoming indie games.