Ifind myself in the second floor of this ever-shifting structure. This time I need 3 golden keys in order to open the elevator. I have been unlucky with weapons’ drop for some reason, only carrying two guns throughout the whole run: a revolver who seems to be beyond repair, and a pistol that is closely approaching the same state. Enemies have been quiet in this floor, but I’ve been hurt with meat traps a couple times and I can’t take any chances.
A computer monitor is slowly making its way towards me, so I hold my pistol still. The flowers in the ground heal me. One bullet is enough for the otherworldly creature to reveal itself, a mass of meat and gold that slides on the wooden floor and laughs at me with a moving picture of a mouth on display. The fish head on my left hand will explode if I try to eat it. It gets closer and closer, and as expected my weapon finally gives up on my right shaky hand. I close my eyes expecting death, but I hear the creature’s shrieks instead. I had forgotten that my nose had been replaced by a bulk of spikes.
Each run in Golden Light is unpredictable in ways roguelikes don’t often are. Procedurally generated levels can be found anywhere, but after a handful of hours it’s easy to start dissecting rules and conditions to try and predict what could possibly appear next. But things are a bit harder here. Nothing makes sense at first. Little makes sense after the first 5 or 10 runs. Now, after a couple weeks playing it on and off, I’m starting to understand Golden Light. And that terrifies me.
I first came across it around a month ago when it was released on Steam’s early access. Someone posted a thread on Twitter talking about how over the place it was, introducing it as a horror roguelike with a twist on Prop Hunt. Furniture, books, monitors, doors, everything can suddenly change and surprise you. As I was reading the thread, the prospect of food poisoning was manifesting itself in my body, which led to a very long night in which I barely slept. I’d often wake up from a sudden dream and check Twitter with one eye opened, and that’s when I saw Golden Light.
In retrospective, I think that’s the best scenario to try and explain it. It seems like the result of a cold fever, an endless night where your mind wanders to the most strange places of your subconscious. In one of them, your partner is swallowed by the ground, trapping her into a hole of flesh and blood. Others had talking jukeboxes and vending machines, offering rewards if you could fetch them gold or specific objects. But I can’t get Snout out of my mind, a talking skull that hates the sun and also plays music while you’re riding its bike. The shock came when I realized all of these things were real the next day. As eerie and repulsive as everything seemed, there was a certain appeal that I hadn’t seen anywhere else in a long time. I wanted… no, I had to see what it was all about.
The loop is straightforward enough. You’re stuck in this beautiful, yet uncertain valley. There’s a massive elevator that takes you to the depths below, where your loved one is waiting for you to rescue her. In each floor you grab a certain number of keys, unlock the elevator, and continue onward. You have your melee and range weapons, passive skills, buffs and debuffs that are picked up from Mementos, and a series of secondary items.
Nothing I mentioned so far sounds new, but it’s the way Golden Light presents a foundation of rules and then throws it out of the window over and over in different ways what makes it so exciting to return to. These secondary items, from heads to the so-called meat apples can be either consumed or thrown. Sometimes, your weapon will be infused with poison or you will gain life regeneration for a couple seconds. Others, they will make your bones shiver, forcing you to keep on running for as long as possible (while making noise with each footstep) or lure an enemy to fall in love with you, turning them into a temporary companion.
You can spend an entire run registering and memorizing their effects, but these will get shuffled again when you inevitably die. “You won’t know until you try” seems to be the main rule in the game, and for someone who usually holds onto items waiting for the perfect opportunity, I’m encouraged, in one way or another, to experiment with everything I have on disposal – despite knowing the risks.
All of these elements, I think, are perfectly represented in the general feedback that comes from attacks and movement. The camera feels loose, each blunt and slice aren’t dealt without a significant of weight, and dashing backwards is wonky in the best way possible. There’s a particular thrill that comes from shooting at an enemy, running out of ammo, and immediately start running through the corridors while the camera bounces all over the place. It makes each chase unique, immediately raising your heartbeat for as long as you can hear them on your back, getting closer and closer.
I started writing this yesterday, and a new update hit the game, adding new locations, enemies, and flashback snippets where we see the character in a room for a matter of seconds. I had only been able to listen to the phone, and now I know I have to look for a key to open a door, but I only have enough time in each visit. It’s thrilling and I can’t wait to see what else awaits me during early access.
Games grow bigger and are balanced indefinitely before release, but Golden Light feels like it’s actually mutating, altering the very few clues I had about its behavior. I had just learned about a being called the Gut, whom starts hating the player if they kill many enemies, bumping up prices around merchants and causing who knows what else. But what if this has changed too?
Beginning to understand the rules in roguelikes is the expected natural progression, but I’m not entirely sure this applies here. To an extent, I’m scared of knowing the ins and outs in this one. As I’ve come to learn, it’s not wise to get too comfortable with one’s knowledge in this place.