Bit abrupt, innit?
Sunday Gold has a very modern “what if” fusion pitch: what if you had a point and click adventure game, but also it was a JRPG with turn based combat and level ups? It’s not as odd of a fusion as it may sound – plenty of JRPGs shake up exploration and puzzle solving with random encounters – but SG doesn’t pull punches on either of its halves. The point’n’click is some top notch “find items and figure it out” noodling, and the combat is some of the sharpest turn based battling I’ve seen in ages. Layer in a Coen-esque story about crimes and the people that commit them told in 3 increasingly escalating acts, and you’ve got a hell of a concept.
Before I dig into the nuts and bolts I want to praise this game’s presentation. SG opts for a very comic book-ish style, with characters never quite animating as much as changing poses as if they were going from panel to panel. This looks great in combat, with colorful splashes filling the screen as characters pull off their fanciest moves. The soundtrack in particular is phenomenal, never missing a beat and always setting the scene perfectly. Act 3’s battle theme has a familiar motif to it that is strangely similar to the 6 note escalation from Final Fantasy 7 in a different key, but if anything I’d consider that more like a reference than a flaw. I want to buy this OST.
The exploration and puzzle solving takes up the majority of the game’s runtime. Each of the game’s 3 chapters consists of coming up with a plan, taking stock of the location’s features, trying to pull off the job, and escaping as things get increasingly frantic. This tension is conveyed in numerous ways, most obviously with a status meter indicating security’s awareness. As you spend action points to progress through the heist, often via item usage or minigames for each character’s unique skill, your crew will periodically need to “end turn” to refill said points. This refill comes with an automatic increase in security’s awareness and a random event, most of which are not good for you. You’re constantly incentivized to hurry, but failing at a challenge or wasting time with trial and error is costly in more ways than one. The game encourages you to take a moment to plan, think before you act, and embrace the consequences of your failures as well as your successes.
Sunday Gold is paced and structured less like a traditional JRPG or point’n’click and more like a classic survival horror game. Puzzles are constant, interrupted by combat that will whittle you down turn after turn and leave you increasingly desperate. Items and gear exclusively exist in-world and require you to actively search for them. Every single object is contextualized. You will never stop by the pharmacy for painkillers or buy them from a teleporting merchant, you’ll break into an office worker’s desk and find them alongside a bottle of cheap whiskey. Weapons aren’t openly sold in 2070 England, you’ll need to swipe an ID card and get into a security locker to stay strapped. This does wonders for immersion and tension. Even if you’re a JRPG vet who gets your head around the combat early and doesn’t allow your status to snowball into critical, you will feel the pinch of scarcity and the looming lethality of the game’s tougher foes, which will constantly have you digging through each area like a bloodhound with a nose for guns.
Combat is excellent, and it’s excellent in large part because it’s punitive. With exceedingly rare exception fights are bad for you. You will typically come out of them with less health, fewer items, and a variable quantity of action points remaining that could leave you needing to rest and trigger another event, which could be another fight! Yet you’ll come to love the fights, and not just because the game’s OST kicks the fuck in when violence is imminent. This is some good ass JRPG combat. The core action point system remains here and carries over from the non-combat gameplay, meaning if Frank just finished picking a particularly gnarly lock he likely isn’t ready to take aim and fire. Stronger skills are expensive and you get most of your points back in combat by taking a guard action, so each character will flow back and forth from frontline to backline at different points depending on how you use their abilities. This does mean that some easier fights can end with a minute or two of spamming guard while healing with Sally to ensure you go back to investigation with full points and health, but I don’t consider that a flaw as much as a release valve so you can’t softlock yourself with a bad save.
My single favorite mechanism is the game’s use of composure. The obligatory second meter besides health, this purple bastard will be gradually whittled down by unsavory discoveries and jarring enemy actions. Each character has three thresholds that, when crossed, will trigger both visual and gameplay changes. Frank’s confidence wanes, eventually lashing out at his teammates. Sally’s hands shake, causing unintentional injury when she patches her friends up. Gavin becomes his own worst enemy, over-analyzing everything and spiraling into mania. And this doesn’t just affect stats; characters with low composure panic in combat as the game puts a timer on their actions, a big purple problem constantly ticking, ticking, ticking as you quickly flip through their menu and pick the closest thing to the right choice before you effectively lose your turn.
If I had a mechanical complaint it would be with the relentless menus. Character inventories are individual and this includes key items, which means getting things done in the environment often means selecting a character, clicking the feature in the environment, seeing the action grayed out because someone else is holding the item (though at least the game indicates this), going to their inventory, passing the item to the correct character, selecting them again, clicking the thing in the environment again, and finally taking the action you wanted to do to begin with. This will happen a lot. You’ll get quick at it and eventually learn to have people with extra action points pick up things in advance so that it happens less often, but it still feels needlessly fussy when all 3 characters are almost always standing in the same room. I almost griped about the sheer number of minigames you need to repeat for each lock picked, object shoved, and computer hacked, but the only one I disliked was the shoving and some ranks in that skill turned it effortless. There’s also an accessibility toggle for these which is wonderful to see.
So far I’m making this sound like a game of the year contender. Hell, as far as Act 2 I genuinely thought it might be. And if you skipped to the end for the score before reading you may be confused as to why I’ve been giving this game almost nothing but praise thus far. I’ve had to save the negative for the end, because that’s exactly what Sunday Gold itself does.
One common quality both point’n’clicks and JRPGs share is a focus on narrative. Many feel like an adventure, taking you through the game’s sights as you overcome its problems. Eventually they reach some sort of grand conclusion, a big-brained puzzle or a challenging battle depending on which genre we’re talking about. Sunday Gold does both, though the final puzzle is a bit more spectacle than brain-burning. Its final boss fight is actually quite challenging; it took me two tries and the second barely made it across the line. It was tense, and I felt like I earned the win! Then the game had a roughly one minute cutscene and credits rolled.
Sunday Gold‘s greatest flaw is not the quality of its conclusion, it’s that it does not have one. That short final cutscene even goes so far as to introduce more leads, including an entirely new character with massive potential plot ramifications, without resolving any. Hell, you essentially take on an entirely new party member who never sees action. The gang doesn’t go back to the pub to chat like they do at the end of every other Act and exactly zero of the characters’ arcs resolve. It feels like the middle of an episodic release, except SG isn’t one! This is the whole game and it just stops dead!
Maybe this won’t be a dealbreaker for you. I stand by everything I said about the game from a mechanical perspective, it really is wonderfully weaved together. But this blindsided me like no other game I’ve played this year, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a game rug-pull so hard as to unravel itself. I know games, like films, are not constructed linearly. Different parts are made by different people in different orders. Yet I can’t help but feel like the team came up on their internal deadlines and made it all the way to the end only to trip at the finish line. I’m unable to conceive of a reason why Sunday Gold went gold without a conclusion when the entire rest of the game was so excellently crafted, I just know that it left me deeply unsatisfied with what was otherwise a brilliant experience. And now this review is going to end the same way.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.