I am a little late to review Sunday Gold - since it came out later in 2022. It caught my attention with the excellent presentation for an indie title, with awesome hand-drawn art in high resolution, cool looking interface and menus, and a voice over to match.
A Very unusual Mix
Developed by BKOM Studios and published by Team17, Sunday Gold follows three British criminals in 2070 London trying to expose the dark secrets of the evil Hogan Industries… and eventually take down his leader, Kenny Hogan. They all have different types of skills, oddly complementary. Sally is an impressive girl who fights bare hands, Frank is a tall dude who likes knives and rifles, and Gavin is your typical otaku hacker who freaks out and becomes a bit of a berserker when he loses control. If this was a fantasy RPG Sally would be the warrior, Frank the archer, and Gavin the wizard.
The style of the game is the first slap in the face. It’s beautifully done. Great art everywhere, with a special mention to the comic-styled portraits used in dialogues and cutscenes. The game itself is surprising - it looks and feels like a point and click adventure, yet it introduces an AP (active point) system where you need to spend such points to do certain actions in each room. For example, opening a lock could take 3 AP points and require one specific person’s skills. Hacking a computer could take 4 AP points from Gavin. When you want to refill such APs (because you always run out of them), you can end the turn by holding the space bar. Note that the time is static in-game - skipping turns won’t do anything: the world does not change - it will wait for you to do things.
And this is where things get strange. When you end one turn, the level of alert increases and the likelihood of being spotted or attacked by random enemies increases progressively. Skip enough turns and you will inevitably face a fight - thereby entering the fighting mode of the game.
When fighting, the 2D artworks disappear and it turns into a full 3D scene with 3D characters. The fighting system is reminiscent of old JRPG (Remember the ATS of Final Fantasy? It’s pretty much the same). Turn by turn, you know which character will get to play next, and you can decide what to do them, among several options:
- attack with one of the weapons you currently carry
- use skills (akin to magic in JRPG) where you can unlock special attacks, boost your party, or heal yourself
- use items (for defense, attack, or boosting purposes)
- guard (to refill your AP counter and also reduce the amount of hit points you lose if attacked)
The AP are still being used in the fighting scenes, so if you ended up with only 1 AP left from your point’n click phase, you will start the fight with 1 AP as well. If you have low AP, very few actions are possible and you need to guard (i.e. skip your turn but at least avoid massive damage when attacked) in order to refill the AP gauge for that character.
One thing I forgot to mention is that the way the fights are rendered on screen is fairly unique. While all characters are in 3D and the camera moves around them with the action, they have very few animation keyframes - making it look like they move from one comic-pose to another, without transition. It feels weird at first but it fits well with the rest of the game, which is a mix of 2D and 3D models with almost no animation.
The fights are easy at the beginning but get challenging fairly quickly, especially if you take longer than expected to progress in the adventure part of the game. Forgot to do something? You may have to go back in other rooms and potentially spend a few extra APs to complete additional tasks, thus increasing the change of another encounter with foes. At least, right after one fight, the alert level of your enemies typically goes down for a few turns so it’s unlikely that you will fight twice in a row - yet not impossible, if one of the fights is driven by the story itself and the surrounding level of enemy alert.
There’s no magical way to refill the health of all your characters at once - you need to find medicine or stimulants to achieve the same kind of outcome, or else use the “Patch Up” capability of Sally (which costs 4 AP points each time, thus increasing the likelihood of more fights if you use it during the adventure phase as you need to skip turns to refill!)
Fights have some randomness to them. Sometimes the enemy will dodge, but you have a percentage indicating how likely you are to hit every of them - it usually works well enough, and much better than games like XCOM2 where a 95% percent chance to hit almost never seems to hit anything for some reason.
Like in a regular RPG, your characters level up after gaining experience. Here, it’s not just about fighting - solving puzzles throughout the adventure part of the game also provide experience points and can lead to levelling up. Once you level up, you unlock new skills, and new skill points. Skill points can be used to upgrade the current skills that you have - let’say one character has a special attack as a skill, upgrading it will increase its damage by 5% and the chance of critical damage by 2%, for example. Since you unlock a lot of skills fairly quickly, making sure you spend your skill points in the right place is fairly important. Your survival in fights depends a lot on that.
For certain actions (unlocking locks, lifting heavy objects), the game asks you to complete some mini-games in order to proceed. It’s mostly about matching the exact timing when moving the mouse or a pointer in the right position, and it’s quite full and stressful at the same time. Dull, because the mini-games are really NOT fun at all. “Ugh, another one! Give me a break” is my feeling after the 3rd one. Stressful, because if you fail to complete the mini-game, you will waste the APs that were necessary to try that task out. Most of the time they take a lot of points and require a specific character. Which means… you will need to end the turn to try again if you fail, increasing the chance that you get into YET ANOTHER FUCKING FIGHT. O. M. G.
Innovative but annoying?
After a while you will understand that the winning strategy is to waste your time to ensure that you make full use of all your characters’ APs before ever skipping ANY turn at all. In the beginning I did not care as much and ended up getting my ass kicked by getting into too many fights without any efficient way to heal my people in between.
Let me explain what I mean. Let’s say you used all of Sally’s APs and she is the one to carry the key to open the next door leading to the exit, you could just end the turn and brace for another fight, or be a weasel and give the key that Sally has to Gavin who still has unused APs, so that he can open the door and make the whole group move forward at once. This juggling with items was probably not the way the designers wanted things to work, or if they did, the UI to do this makes things tiresome fairly quickly.
I’m not sure if I end up liking the idea of APs in the adventure phase. It feels like a burden that you have to care about instead of trying to explore the world and finding out the next clue. It feels like it brings nothing of value. The fact that random fights can disrupt the exploration phase feels a little artificial and fake.
But you get used to it, and the characters make up for some of that. You do want to progress and know what happens next. I want to see my folks swear more as things heat up. In the end, fights become almost a barrier - they are not as fun as they could be. They represent a challenge where your main goal is not to die, so that you can go on with the story.
No Steam Cloud?? No Gamepad?
This is a huge flaw of the game. No Steam cloud saves! When I received my Steam Deck, I wanted to continue the story on the go, and this is where I realized that… what? My save games are not on this device? I cannot understand why any gamedev would not consider implementing this in 2022, let alone 2023. Most gamers have tons of devices (especially PC gamers) and having cloud saves is almost as necessary as having a wheel in a car.
Also, the game does not seem to support gamepads either, which is another weird decision since there is virtually no reason why it should not. The menus and actions could easily be mapped to gamepad controls, so this is just another missed opportunity.
Proton Experimental is the way to go
If you want to enjoy this game, you need to use Proton Experimental. When I started the game in 2022, no matter the version of Proton used, none of the videos showed up in the game. That was not an issue at the beginning since you can follow the story anyway, but there is one specific part in Chapter 1 where you need to watch video feeds on the security computers to solve a puzzle. If you use the regular Proton right now (7.0-6), the videos will show up as black. With Proton Experimental (as of the end of February 2023), the videos work as expected and you can now complete the game without looking for cheats or walkthroughs.
So, What to Make of It?
I looooove the art of the game. Looks great (except maybe for the 3D fights where it looks objectively worse), and the voice-over is the cherry on the cake, I just wish the gameplay did not get in the way of the game. Right now, I just can’t bring myself to play this game for a very long time because it gets frustrating with all the unecessary random fights and tedious mini-games all the time. Maybe it just needs an easy mode where the annoying bits are removed completely.
I’ll probably end up finishing it, but I certainly won’t be rushing to come back to it.
What a shame.