Golden Light Early Access Review: My 2020 Indie Horror Game Of The Year
Developed and published by Mr. Pink
Available on Steam
I’m gonna start off by saying that Golden Light is without a doubt my 2020 indie horror game of the year. This roguelike horror works kind of like a prop hunt game, only this time, the props hunt you. Just about everything Golden Light does is great. No game in recent memory is nearly as interesting, confusing, amusing, or entertaining as this one. There’s literally too much good stuff to talk about in this one review. But I will certainly try.
Golden Light begins with a charming scene. You and your girlfriend/fiancee/wife named She are in a field having a picnic. Tranquility is broken when a massive hand made of meat reaches from the earth and She is pulled into the depths. You take the plunge, entering a world of madness that makes Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole seem quaint.
I would hardly describe the setting of Golden Light as a place. It seems like more of a dimension or dreamscape (nightmare-scape?). There are two parts of this world. You begin on the surface, with wide open fields, areas to explore, and a friendly bicycle. Some areas are blocked off and can be opened later. As nuts as any location this game, but for the most part, fairly safe and serene.
Beneath the surface lies a series of dungeons known as The Gut. Your main objective in Golden Light is to find She, and to do this, you must conquer several bosses in the deepest depths of The Gut. This is really hard and will take many tries. The proper game begins when you take the elevator into the surface below. This is where the real insanity begins.
Dark and twisting corridors branch out from the elevator room. Some of these areas look like factories or offices or alleys. Of course, they’re all just a veneer covering the meat. Your goal is to of course collect gear and survive while hunting down the keys that will unlock the elevator to the next floor. Simple, right? Well, in addition to hunting props, in Golden Light the props hunt you too. Camouflaged in the area are grotesque creatures of meat and eyeballs that look exactly like furniture or other objects, right up until they’re ready to strike.
Before we get into the gameplay, the aesthetic style of Golden Light needs to be discussed. Mainly, how fantastic it is. The grimey disgusting visual style of The Gut is reminiscent of the Otherworld from Silent Hill, and the hills on the surface are their own bizarre colorful dreamscape full of giant mushrooms and strange characters. Both areas are so flushed out and interesting that either could be a full game on its own. Not to mention the loading areas that place you in various vignettes that give background to your relationship with She prior to The Gut.
The music too is top tier. I wish I knew who made the Golden Light soundtrack or even which artists inspired it (I would imagine the artists who inspired this OST are not other musicians but rather people like Salvador Dali or Basquiat). The songs are so perfectly weird. Below, of course, they’re more moody and foreboding, whereas on the surface, your friend the bike has a tape player which you can cruise around listening to fun tunes. I can’t put them into words, you’ll just have to listen for yourself.
Golden Light is very much a difficult survival horror game, with limited resources and ability to help you through. Weapons degrade quickly, ammo is rare, one status condition will result in your character literally eating your money, and consumable items change their effect every run (possibly even ever level). The mechanics of Golden Light is fairly traditional on the surface. A first-person looter-shooter-slasher horror experience. The character is fairly sluggish, adding that much more stress to the situation, and is generally better off hiding than fighting. This is the only part of Golden Light that is basic.
Everything else in Golden Light is bananas. Let’s start with the weapons. In the early floors of The Gut, you’re mostly left with simple weapons. Axe, revolver, knife, etc. They work how you expect. But the further down you go, the more… meaty the weapons become. Axes will have googly eyes and cast the “love” status effect. A revolver will deal healing damage, meaning that in a pinch, you can press “H” to turn the gun on yourself to save your life. And that’s not to mention that when a weapon is damaged, it’s better to eat the thing for some health regen rather than discard it. In fact, in emergencies, you can eat your weapons in order to survive. Assuming, of course, that weapon you’re about to pick up isn’t a mimic waiting to strike.
Next, the consumables. This is the most baffling and at times enraging part of Golden Light. As previously stated, effects of the consumables are randomized. And I don’t mean varying levels of life recovery. I mean that some will heal in one run and will detonate in your mouth dealing massive damage in another (likewise, you can throw it and kill enemies, but it can also heal them if you throw without knowing what it does). This is a fascinating mechanic and I do appreciate it, since it adds yet another layer of randomness to the Roguelite style. But most floors don’t have enough of them to figure out what they do safely—throwing one at the wall and seeing what it does—in order to effectively use them. Many runs were ended because I had no other options than to munch down on a finger-covered eyeball or the baby from Eraserhead and hope for the best.
There’s also a series of perks you can obtain in Golden Light runs. You find “Mementos,” photographs which give you the option between a pair of new abilities. These can be anything from a passive boost to your speed or carry weight, blisters on your feet that muffle the sound of your footsteps, or even a massive angry nose that automatically attacks whatever is in front of you.
Generally, these don’t do all that much to change the Golden Light gameplay. But, since you get only two options, and must choose one of them, you will occasionally get stuck with a perk that is just bad. Like double healing at the cost of constantly reducing health. Thankfully, these reset between each descent into the gut. It’s far from game breaking, but the perk system could use some refinement. Perhaps even some permanent upgrades beyond the occasional buff to health. Though of course, it’s possible I’ve just missed something.
The problem with Golden Light is that it is brutally hard. Now obviously this is intentional, indeed it’s one of the game’s selling points, but I can see this being a deal breaker for some players. The reason is that the game is not mechanically sharp enough for the player to overcome some of the difficulty. Whereas in a hard game like Dark Souls you may eventually reach a point where you can beat a boss without taking damage, in Golden Light you are all but guaranteed to take a huge hit in every combat encounter.
Attrition gameplay is far from a bad thing. It just means that you’ll need to change the way you go about conquering the Gut. You might not realize it for a while, but Golden Light has a morality system. Unsurprisingly, the Gut doesn’t like it when you go in and start killing it. Like any healthy living thing, the harder a pathogen (that’s you) fights, the harder the immune system fights back. If you can sneak your way through without much violence, it’s easier further down the road.
A brutally hard experience is all the more reason to keep playing Golden Light. That, and about a dozen other little details that make this game so incredible. There’s so much love and passion put into this game, and with every update comes even more mind-blowing stuff. Just the other day they released co-op as well as entirely destructible walls. And still, there are more weapons, areas, and story content on the way. The game is already better than many AAA horror titles released in the past few years, and it’s not even finished. I can’t wait to see how incredible the final product of Golden Light will be. Who knows. At this rate, it could be my 2021 GOTY as well.
If you’d like to try the game out for yourself before you buy, check out the demo on itch.io by clicking here.