Anyone who’s played stellar Wadjet Eye titles like Gemini Rue, Emerald City Confidential, and Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell series would expect the publisher’s latest game, A Golden Wake, to be just as compelling. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Developed by Grundislav Games, A Golden Wake for the most part is dull, disorganized, and narratively disjointed.
The game starts in New York City in the ’20s with Alfie Banks, an ambitious real estate agent. Feeling under-appreciated in his home town, he picks up stakes and heads south to Florida where he’s heard people are turning swampland into gold. Once there, his go-getter attitude gets him noticed by big land developer George Merrick, the Kingpin of Coral Gables. Once that happens, Banks is certain he’s on his way to the top. Or…not.
Things are complicated in Coral Gables, thanks to local politics and a healthy bootleg trade being run by the Mob, so rising to the top takes finesse and a serious lack of scruples. This all sounds like a recipe for seedy, adventure game greatness, but somehow it’s about as flavorful as a box of Saltine crackers.
The problems begin with Alfie Banks himself. He’s boring. Heroes are generally braver, smarter, wittier, (or at least more interestingly dysfunctional) than most people, but Banks is extremely average. All he really has going for him is some run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry with an equally uninteresting younger brother. Because of this, playing Banks isn’t all that exciting and mainly involves watching him march through his objectives with—despite the use of occasional ’20s slang—surprisingly little style or verve.
The main reason is the dialog. Adventure game designers often use the hero’s internal monologue to inject humor, sarcasm or insight into their games. Here, it’s used to make Banks say obvious things like, “It’s a painting of a boat.” This is a huge missed opportunity for giving Banks some kind of personality, and the voice acting only augments the problem. While competent enough, the straightforward voice performances don’t do Banks (or his cohorts) any favors. The credits prove many actors were cast, but most of them sound like they were done by the same man and woman. Little attempt was made to differentiate the characters or make them feel like they hail from the Jazz Age, and that’s a big disappointment.
While all of this adds to the game’s dull quotient, there are a couple of attempts at interesting gameplay that almost work, but don’t quite. First, there’s a brief hidden object-ish kind of scene that had definite mechanical possibilities but they were never used again. Second, there’s “Seller Intuition.” Being a salesman, Banks has a special talent that enables him to “read” people. This plays out in game terms as him performing a “Personality Analysis” on people, which amounts to observing their physical attributes and using them to determine the most persuasive approach. The thing is, the PA part happens more or less automatically; the player doesn’t get to do much of anything.
Post PA, the player does get to engage in a multiple-choice-style interview with the subject in an attempt to sway him or her. This is definitely more engaging until it becomes clear that whether Banks succeeds or fails, things play out the same way.
This lack of meaningful consequence runs throughout the game, and is compounded by tedious objective design (case in point – driving from an office to another location only to be immediately sent back to the office) and clunky narrative structure. At certain points, time jumps a few years for no real reason (beyond perhaps, an arbitrary decision to cover the actual historical timeline) and this often renders Banks’ choices inexplicable. Presumably he’s changing throughout the years, but since we don’t see that process, it’s bizarre to see him suddenly do things that are completely against character.
Because of these odd chronological jumps and other issues, A Golden Wake feels like a rushed Alpha version of a much longer game. There’s a rich vein of narrative material here to be mined, and A Golden Wake barely scratches the surface. Its shallow, oversimplified take on something as complex as the rise and fall of the Florida land boom is honestly, hard to take.
The makers of A Golden Wake would do well to look at it as an exercise, a warm-up for what will one day be their real game. The team has many good things going for them; first, they selected an unusual and interesting premise, which in a market full of fantasy and sci-fi knockoffs, is half the battle. Second, they’ve made clever use of pixel art, creating evocative scenes (a party scene full of ecstatic dancers is awesome) with very simple means. Third, they clearly have some good ideas for game mechanics. There’s no doubt A Golden Wake contains the germ of what will someday be a very interesting game. Unfortunately, someday isn’t today.