Golf, like chess, is a game that’s best when you fuck around with it. Regular golf is a tedious hike through a manicured wasteland, littered with sagging men who talk about things like “growth strategies” and “shareholder returns”. It’s a game fundamentally built around excluding people, that only lets you in to play once you’ve proved yourself a pliant thrall of the status quo.
Chuck in a few windmills and loop-de-loops, however, and you turn a game for people without souls into a fun day out for everyone. This is more or less the approach that the terribly-named Golfie takes, only it adds a whole lot more than ramps and tiny versions of local landmarks. In Golfie’s virtual twist on minigolf, the ball is subject to as much whimsy as the course.
It’s also, mechanically, closer to pinball than it is golf. You don’t propel the ball across the course by swinging a club at it. Rather, you click and drag the mouse back away from the ball, then release. The farther back you drag, the harder you hit the ball and the further it will travel. Yet even at maximum drag, your default “swing” is about as effective as hitting an egg with a wet noodle, shunting the ball forward a couple of yards at best.
This is where Golfie’s deck-building element comes in. Each round of Golfie stuffs your virtual hand with a deck of “cartridges”, which you can plug into “a reactor” for a wide variety of effects. I don’t know why developer Triheart Studios opted for this somewhat convoluted premise, apart from the fact that clicking and dragging adds a little more tactility to the proceedings. Nonetheless, in effect you are playing ability cards to alter your swing in different ways.
To begin with, you get basic powers like “power shot”, which should really be named “useful shot”, while “lob shot” enables you to arc the ball over obstacles and gaps. As you progress, you’ll unlock further cartridges that let you curve shots, make the ball jump or explode for extra propulsion, and even place course-altering objects like walls. You can insert multiple cartridges into your reactor at once, letting you combine abilities to tailor shots to every scenario.
Right from the tee, Golfie is a pleasant, quietly clever little roguelike. The randomly generated courses are impressively coherent. Themes range from standard putting greens to idyllic beaches and shadowy dungeons, all of which feel hand-crafted. Sometimes you’ll spot a particular tile or obstacle you’ve seen before, especially in the later stages of a run when the courses become larger, but a course rarely feels like it been slapped together by a computer.
The courses are also fun to exploit using your abilities. If a course has lots of meandering pathways, it’s often possible to skip them entirely with a well-judged lob-shot, especially if you pair the lob with a sticky ball or a well-placed obstacle. Crucially though, tricksy plays usually carry an element of risk, like a nearby pitfall or water hazard that’ll invalidate your shot if you hit it. Touching such hazards will also drain Golfie’s health, as will going over par on any course. When your health hits zero, the run ends, at which point you head back to the clubhouse to level up and buy new cartridges.
Golfie is great for dipping into. Not too challenging, but with enough complexity to fritter away an hour or two at a time. As with any golf course, though, there are some rough patches. The most prominent issue is the camera, which seems to be in a constant fight with the world’s geometry, often making it difficult to judge where your shots are likely to land. The arrow that indicates a shot’s trajectory is also only useful from certain angles, which can make lining up a shot difficult.
More broadly, Triheart needs to take a harder look at Golfie’s presentation. The visuals stray from colourful into garish, often mixing fluorescent greens, pinks, and yellows that makes it look like a child threw up their birthday cake all over the fairway. I also found the soundtrack to be distracting, a collection of gratingly jaunty ditties with loops that are too short and stick in your brain like musical shrapnel. Lastly, as I already mentioned, Golfie is a dreadful name for this game, telling you nothing about the rogue-like or deck-building elements that are crucial to separating it from other lighthearted putt ‘em ups.
Given Triheart has stipulated an Early Access period of around nine months, it’s unlikely that these broader issues will see much change. But while I’d prefer more coherent art and less annoying music, neither of those issues are dealbreakers. Moreover, Triheart is planning to add “highly customisable” multiplayer modes so Golfie can be played as a party game, which could well be the feature that makes it, considering its lighthearted nature and swift, breezy runs. Right now I think the asking price of £15 is borderline, but with multiplayer functionality, Golfie could be a great companion to games like Nidhogg and Gang Beasts.