Review: Vertiginous Golf

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Mini-golf comes in many shapes and flavors, but apparently we were missing the “dystopian steampunk” version for too long. I’m not sure why, because something as simple and pleasing as putt-putt isn’t exactly crying out for grim pathos or over-complicated machinations. What do you suppose dystopian steampunk mini-golf even looks like? Are the holes peppered with gears and pneumatic devices? Is your golfer dressed in a cast-iron top hat and useless multi-colored goggles? The answer is yes, but it hardly matters because the golf game those bits and bobs are bolted onto is hardly worth the effort to get into.

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Vertiginous Golf drops you directly into the barren, rain-soaked streets of some Victorian hellhole of a town. There are two shops open at this ungodly hour and the one before you is a parlor of plush chairs and concerning electrodes. It is here you choose a course to play on, at which point you are zapped in the brain and projected up to the clouds. The courses float in a distant sky, adorned with zeppelins and piping and wrought-iron frameworks to remind you of the aesthetic you bought into. There’s a bit of a story here, told through excerpts dropped on certain courses, but nothing so compelling as to be memorable or engaging.

I admit the developers nailed the dystopian angle of their casual sports outing, but why? Why make a mini-golf game feel cold and uninviting? Why make your hub area so grim and unpleasant, and your courses so distant and disconnected from the world? I can’t perceive any strong narrative reason for it, and I’m not playing a damn putt-putt game for a narrative to begin with. The whole game is a subversion of the colorful windmills and silly mascots that everyone thinks of when they imagine mini-golf, but that specifically is what people show up for! Grimdark golfing sounds neat on paper but is an active rejection of its best parts, replaced with nothing compelling enough to make up for it.

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A really solid mini-golf game at the core of this mess could redeem it, but honestly I think the golfing might be worse than the pointless aesthetic. The steampunk side of the equation comes out in the hole design, which is a chaotic mess of astroturf, tubing, glass walls, propellers, and dead ends. Vertiginous Golf’s main problem is that every single hole is too sprawling and has too many ways to screw yourself out of a decent score. You’ll have to contend with conveyor belts scooting your ball away from the hole, fans that blow it off ledges, ramps that lead nowhere, and bewildering vertical designs that make it nigh-impossible to plan where your shot will end up, Worst of all are the Extra Stroke holes, special side holes on some greens that take a stroke off your score if you sink them. But you have a limited number of putts to get to them and they tend to be arranged in trap locations, so if you don’t make the cut they’ll tank your score even worse.

I appreciate the additional mechanics that try to take the cruel edge off the game, but even these are sorely lacking and poorly implemented. With holes being so complex, you have a mechanical hummingbird you can pilot around to scout out your path. The controls are awkward and touchy though, and make scouting more of a chore than anything. Your rewind and reset functions can save you from ugly mistakes but only the mildest ones, because their meters must be charged by putting and run out far too fast to correct drops off of ledges or long drives to nowhere. And since we’re talking about vestigial systems let’s not forget the cosmetic unlocks, costume pieces purchased with cash from your vertiginous golfing exploits. They come with bonuses that earn you more cash, and are otherwise pointless because your golfer is completely invisible on the courses.

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Nearly every aspect of a quality mini-golf game is missed here. Too much time and emphasis is put on the aesthetics while the actual golfing ends up being even more dreary and soul-crushing than the dystopian airs. The heart of Vertiginous Golf is a withered, under-developed golfing sim nearly crushed under the weight of useless steampunk trappings. There’s almost a poetry to its failure, but that’s cold comfort when the game you’ve shown up for is a soulless, joyless mess.

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