All That Glitters

HIGH Beating a really difficult section, especially in co-op.

LOW The extreme difficulty and odd slowdown.

WTF The co-op only bugs.

There’s only one thing that the mercenary pirates known as the Golden Force fears — bankruptcy. Unfortunately for them, it’s looming. There can’t be a Golden Force without gold, so the group sets off for the Muscle Archipelago, hoping to bolster their fortunes. Almost immediately, however, the group runs into a giant octopus.

This fight pulls double duty as an introductory boss and a tutorial for this 2D platformer, and it shows off Golden Force’s best assets — its gorgeous pixel art and wonderful soundtrack. Each of the 22 levels is full of incredible sprite work and detailed backgrounds. It’s brightly colored, gorgeously animated, and has excellent sound design.

Golden Force also embodies the “anything goes” visual design of the 16-bit era. There’s always something new around the next corner, whether it’s a dragon with hair out of a JRPG, an enormous robotic shark, a couple dozen jumping cats, a haunted forest, or a maze-like underground cave, and the amount of graphical work on display is impressive.

Unfortunately, Golden Force’s gameplay doesn’t always impress to the same degree.

While there are four members of the Golden Force to choose from, they’re functionally identical, which feels like a missed opportunity. Each one can jump, dash, slide, and perform a short combo. Attacks can also be charged up and they can call in fire support from the team’s pirate ship, which is handy in tight spots.

Players move through side-scrolling levels, killing enemies – who explode in a shower of blood and money – jumping over pits, dodging spikes, and solving simple puzzles while trying to keep their combo multiplier up and finding collectibles. To its credit, Golden Force’s combat is fast, smooth, and satisfying, and it’s doubly so when played in co-op. Dashing through enemies, holding a long combo, and nailing a tricky jump all feel great.

Unfortunately, despite the solid mechanics, my main issue is that Golden Force is exceptionally difficult. I don’t have anything against challenging games, but Golden Force often feels unfair.

Enemies spawn beneath, above, and around the player, often without much warning. Platforming sections require the player to jump to places that aren’t visible. The player is constantly avoiding projectiles which can be fired by enemies off-screen. Certain spikes will kill the player instantly, no matter how much health they have, and so on. This wouldn’t be so bad if there was a way to block attacks, but there isn’t. Instead, players have to maneuver around them, generally by dashing.

Even basic enemies are deadly, requiring at least three hits to take down. Eventually, enemies get shields that can only be broken by power attacks. In its most challenging moments, Golden Force asks the player to fight several basic shielded enemies and one or two larger enemies that can take more than a dozen hits to kill while avoiding projectiles and dodging environmental hazards. Some segments even lock the player in a fixed area and spawn waves of enemies above and below them. Often, it’s necessary to memorize where and when the enemies will spawn in these segments so the player isn’t immediately surrounded and killed.

Golden Force has collectible coins and shells that can be spent to increase characters’ health and attack power, as well as several helpful items that can be bought from the store between levels, but these often feel like necessities, not things that are nice to have. I found myself replaying several old levels just to grab coins and shells I missed, or to farm gold so that I could be better equipped for the level I was currently stuck on. The game does offer a checkpoint system, but it actively punishes the player for using it. Dying after a checkpoint means the player loses any gold, coins, and shells they’ve collected, and any store-bought items they’ve used. The items are very expensive, which only adds insult to injury.

I would be more willing to overlook Golden Force’s often absurd difficulty if it didn’t have so many technical issues. The game suffers some serious slowdown in larger areas or when several things are on-screen, and there are bugs in the co-op mode that spawn the second player in otherwise-inaccessible corners of the screen after transitions. This is especially prevalent in boss battles.

The other major flaw with co-op is the camera. If the players become separated from one another, one will have the benefit of the full screen, while the other will only have a small circular pop-up camera showing their character and little else. The limited view makes both combat and platforming all but impossible, so having both players stay on the same screen is a necessity, which is hard to do during the harder platforming segments.

It’s a shame Golden Force has so many design and technical issues, because a lot of it is good. The boss fights are excellent and appropriately challenging, the production values are fantastic, and combat feels great. Unfortunately, Golden Force lionizes the 16-bit games of yore it seems to be modeled after, but seems to forget that those games were often too difficult for their own good in the days when developers were still figuring out what good design was. And even then, many of them never felt as unfair or mean-spirited as Golden Force does.

Much of Golden Force is very, very good. Any diehard fan of 16-bit games will find a lot to like, but in an age where games like this are common, Golden Force is too technically flawed and too hard to recommended to all but the most dedicated players.

Rating: 6 out of 10

— Will Borger

Disclosures: This game is developed by Storybird Games and published by PixelHeart, No Gravity Games, and VGNYsoft. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, Switch, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. 4 hours of play were spent in co-op mode.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Fantasy Violence, and Strong Language. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is an arcade-style action platformer in which players control mercenaries trying to destroy a demon king. From a sideways perspective, players traverse platforms, collect coins, and use weapons (e.g., swords, mechanized fists) to kill fantasy creatures (e.g., larvae, flying demons, giant insects). Combat can be fast paced, with several enemies attacking at once before exploding into large splatters of blood and coins. The word “f**k” appears in game text.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. Deaf and hard of hearing gamers should be good to go on this one, as almost everything has both an audio and visual cue. In my view, it’s fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. This game does not offer a controller map diagram, but movement is on the left stick. Jumping is A. Attacking is Y. Dashing is X. Sliding is B. The triggers show the inventory. Clicking down on the left stick uses items.

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