Date: September 12, 2022
There’s a very specific genre of movie, generally directed by Guy Ritchie, that I can only describe as “dark comedies with British criminals who do a small crime and then oops we’re enmeshed in something much larger”. While I very much enjoy these movies, I had no idea I wanted a video game version of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels — but after finishing Sunday Gold, I’m left wanting more. Developed by BKOM Studios and published by Team17, Sunday Gold is a mash-up of RPG, point-and-click adventure game, and turn-based JRPG style combat that — much like the game’s story and setting — wasn’t something I knew was missing from Steam’s store until I actually sat down and got to experience it.
Set in a near-future London that’s dark, dingy, and suffering under the boot of a comically evil billionaire whose main source of wealth seems to be ultra-violent cybernetic dog races, the game does a wonderful job with its world-building. Through dialog, discarded newspapers, and workstation emails, the player slowly discovers a London that is so dystopian it’s funny (or at least until you realize it’s not a particularly unrealistic projection). No relying on a 2-minute narrated introduction explaining the state of the world here! Instead, the game opens with a brief prologue “Two Years Ago” scene of a heist gone wrong, and then cuts to the present, where the game’s main protagonist is getting chucked out of a bar.
In the same vein, Sunday gold is also refreshingly bereft of exposition dumps, with most of the dialog devoted to plot progression or banter between the characters, with the banter managing to become one of the highlights of the game for me. It really feels like game developers are stepping their writing game up recently — perhaps the immense success of Disco Elysium convinced them that people actually give a damn about it — and Sunday Gold is no exception. For main and minor characters alike, dialog sounds natural, is often funny, and is delivered with some excellent voice acting to boot. I even started listening to all of the spoken dialog (instead of clicking next as soon as I was done reading it); maybe I’m just a sucker for criminals speaking in British accents.
It’s not just the dialog either: the game’s art and overall presentation both stand out as well. The environments are hand drawn and look great, and a number of scenes are animated in comic book style sequences that match the game’s overall vibe and aesthetic perfectly. Unfortunately, the wonderful portraits and backdrops stand in stark contrast to the 3D models used in combat, which range from passable to hideous. Not only are two of the three main characters pretty hard to look at, but the combat animations have about half the frames they probably needed to look decent. Many of the animations consist of just a handful of stills, and they’re combined in a way that it feels like they’re just straight-up missing frames.
If you can get over the freakish 3D models and their awkward animations, there’s plenty of attention to detail to appreciate elsewhere: character portraits change expressions during conversations, and the slightly animated portraits during combat begin to look tired, frightened, or injured up depending on how their health and composure are doing.
What’s composure, you ask? That’s a great question, astute reader, as it allows me to segue nicely into discussing the game’s combat. In addition to the usual Health and Action Points that anyone who has played a turn-based RPG will recognize, all the characters have a Composure meter that represents how well the character is handling the stress of sneaking around and getting shot at. It can be reduced due to events both in and out of combat, and each character is affected differently by a loss of composure: the team’s healer will start inflicting negative status effects when healing her companions, while the team leader will get start insulting his companions instead of inspiring them.
Additionally, once a character’s composure drops below a certain threshold, a timer will begin when it’s that character’s turn to act. If you don’t pick an action before the timer runs out, the character will “panic” and act on their own, potentially attacking a random enemy or cowering in fear. The lower their composure, the lower the timer becomes. It ends up being a very effective way of not only introducing some time-pressure into the turn-based combat, but also representing a character’s emotional state via the game’s mechanics.
Besides the Composure stat, combat functions much like in similar games, with each character having two weapons they can equip and use for regular attacks, plus a variety of unique special skills, and the usual consumables (healing items/grenades/etc). It doesn’t do anything particularly innovative, but it works, and for the most part, combat was a nice break from the pointing and clicking — at least until later in the game. After my party got strong enough, combat became incredibly easy. This occurred right around the time that the game started throwing more and more combat encounters at me, and I ended up moaning every time I saw another group of enemies spawn in the room I was investigating.
Still, for the most part, I enjoyed the combat — especially how it interacted with the exploration aspect of the game. You see, in Sunday Gold Action Points aren’t just for combat. Instead, the majority of important actions during the point-and-click part of the game also cost Action Points: pulling a lever might just cost one, while having the team’s strongwoman push a couch away from the wall might cost more like three. Once your team is out of Action Points, you can still explore, but you won’t be able to do anything that costs Action Points until you end your turn. At this point, you’ll recover missing points, but the “Alert Level” will go up, and then there is a chance of starting a random combat encounter (with the likelihood increasing along with the Alert Level).
This also means that if you decide to spend more Action Points than you have (which is frequently an option) and then end your turn, you’ll enter combat with one of your characters exhausted. It also discourages brute forcing your way through puzzles, since the AP requirements of many puzzles mean that trying them over and over will lead to more frequent — and more dangerous — enemy encounters. Overall, this system makes puzzle-solving a lot tenser than in other games, and also heightens the immersion; you can’t just wander around this warehouse forever goofing with the puzzle, since a patrolling guard might find you.
A lot of the actions with AP costs involve one of the game’s three minigames, with each character having a specific skill and related minigame: Lockpicking with Frank, Meditation with Sally, and Hacking with Gavin. The lockpicking is fairly easy but pretty satisfying, the hacking is a fun but challenging math puzzle, and Sally’s game is way too easy. Just like with the combat, the minigames do their job and not much more, but they’re presented just often enough that they never get tiresome.
Often, these minigames are used to progress key puzzles that move the plot forward, but just as often they are optional and instead serve to earn your crew some extra equipment or consumables. There is a fairly wide variety of gear that you can mix and match depending on your preference and the enemies you’re facing. The characters all have different specializations; for example, Frank is the only character who can use rifles and shotguns, and the loot that you find tends to be best utilized by one of the characters in particular. You can also spend Skill Points gained from leveling up on boosting these specializations further, choosing to make Frank better with melee or ranged weapons, or making it cost less Action Points for him to use his Lockpicking skills.
This specialization does mean there isn’t a lot of decision-making around builds, but that’s probably for the best — one of the game’s weaknesses is its fiddly character menus. Each character has their own (bottomless) inventory, and whoever is currently selected is who picks up an item when you find it. If Frank picks up something best used on Gavin, you have to go into the menu and manually give it to Gavin, and only then can you equip it on Gavin; it’s a minor complaint, but this does get annoying over the course of the game. This problem extends to quest items as well, where it gets even more annoying — if you’ve got a character with no AP left and they have the key for a door, you have to go into your inventory and give the key to another character before you can use it.
Despite the inventory shenanigans sometimes required to solve puzzles, they were still generally a lot of fun. There is a fairly wide variety, from simple “Find the shape and put it in the hole” stuff to more complex logic puzzles. Most of them were on the easier side, and I rarely got stuck on one for more than a couple of minutes. All of the puzzles also had logical solutions, and I never rolled my eyes after solving one.
I really didn’t mind how easy the puzzles were, as most of Sunday Gold’s fun came from seeing what happened next (and listening to how the characters reacted to it). I often found myself gasping along with the characters when something insidious was uncovered, and I laughed out loud multiple times when the characters abused one another with quintessentially British sarcasm. The combat, the puzzles, the minigames — they’re all simply the scaffolding that the plot rests upon. My wife sat down next to me while I played the beginning, and the next day she asked me if I would play a bit more so that she could watch — a testament to the game’s excellent characters and solid story.
I have to mention here that I had my doubts about Sunday Gold when I first started playing it. Between the terrifying 3D models in the game’s combat and the eye-abusing VHS-static effect that shows up every time you move a character, I don’t know if I would have kept playing the game if I didn’t need to write a review about it — but I’m so glad I did. The game has its rough edges, but once you get used to them, you’re rewarded with a one-of-a-kind narrative experience that will leave you as excited for BKOM Studios’ next project as I am.
UPDATE (9/12): Sunday Gold was delayed a day before release, and now comes out October 13th, on PC — you can check out the game’s prologue for free on Steam now!