Don’t force yourself to play this retro-styled offering.
Editor's note: A recent patch may have improved performance issues mentioned in this review, but the patch came through after the review had already been completed.
Golden Force is an action-platformer in the vein of titles like Mega Man, Strider, and Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, which I reviewed here. It’s a brutally difficult game on it’s own, but technical issues and poor design choices really hamper the overall experience. It’s a shame, too, since the pixel art and parts of the soundtrack end up having to do some really heavy lifting. Unfortunately, the presentation and aesthetics can only do so much with fool’s gold.
The game opens on a tutorial stage where you’re riding a ship that is besieged by monsters. The captain of the vessel barks action commands that teach you how to jump, attack, dash, and slide, and before long you’re up against the first boss, a Kraken, who is anything but a push over. From there, a world map reveals a series of large islands, each containing four regular stages and an unlockable bonus stage. Every fourth stage ends with a boss encounter, and these are one of the highlights of Golden Force, even though the bosses themselves can be brutally tough.
The more than 20 stages are fairly lengthy and contain one or more checkpoints that saves your progress. After choosing from the four characters available--one of which bears a striking resemblance to Shantae--you’ll generally be running left to right, slashing enemies as you go, jumping over pits, and collecting copious amounts of coins. Some of the enemies can feel a little damage-spongey (is it fun to stand in place and slash an enemy 10 or 20 times and then do it again two minutes later?). Overall, the monster variety isn’t impressive either. The level design itself makes up for that a bit as you traverse beach, jungle, mountain, and underwater locales. Unfortunately, Golden Force is one of those games where you learn through failure; many of the obstacles and enemies placements can’t be telegraphed, especially in later stages. Enemies will pop up directly beneath you, the camera won’t pan down to see if a ledge or bottomless pit lurks below, and the worst part? You lose all of your coins when you die.
The economy of the game is broken, regardless of that death penalty. You can return to the ship on the world map and purchase health and attack combo upgrades that are permanent, but these require an increasing number of over-sized collectable coins and shells (three of the former, one of the latter per stage). Although the first set of upgrades is easy enough to procure, subsequent ones will require multiple playthroughs of each stage, and you can’t just quit out after grabbing the loot either. Worse than any of this is that the basic coins you collect are spent on temporary buffs, but their prices are exorbitant. For example, if you make a through a stage deathless and kill most enemies along the way, you’ll probably end up with about 800-900 coins, the cheapest item in the shop costs 1500 coins, and it’s a fire-damage buff that lasts about 20-30 seconds. This represents a fraction of a level and might only provide a slight advantage during a boss fight. If you finish a stage from the final checkpoint rather than the beginning, you might pocket 150-200 coins. This is the much more common scenario, and it renders the shop pretty useless.
The most egregious flaw of Golden Force is the way it performs on Switch. The more enemies and projectiles that appear on screen, the slower the game runs, and when those enemies explode into a pile of coins, we’re talking single-digit frame rates. During one boss encounter, a throng of minor enemies are summoned to distract you, and taking them out is basically a death sentence, both to your character and the frames. I’ve also experienced crashes, and these happened during the second-to-last boss fight when it was at about 10 percent health and then another during the bonus stage of the first world (I may or may not have used some not-so-golden language at that point). There are moments when enemies don’t spawn properly and you can’t advance the screen as well. The inclusion of co-op play seems more a detriment than a bonus given how it’s implemented; the camera focuses on the first player only, and the performance continues to suffer given the second character on screen.
In spite of some genuinely enjoyable platforming and action sequences, Golden Force is unpolished and rusted. The vibrant and colourful aesthetic can’t make up for the poorly-balanced economy and flawed technical aspects. My initial impressions were much stronger than my later ones, and as I made my way through the different stages, conquered the bosses, and replayed stages to seek out more coins and collectables, the weaknesses became more prominent and the strengths less so. My understanding is that the developers are aware of some of these issues, so this could turn into a somewhat decent title in the future. At present, though, if there’s an alchemy to turn lead into gold, it’s sorely needed here.