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I got genuinely excited, a few weeks back, when I got a notification that there was an expansion to 2022 mystery gaming-favorite The Case Of The Golden Idol coming out. For one thing, I knew it would give me an opportunity to pour yet more sugar on Idol, a brilliant, beautiful game that takes the base mechanics of Lucas Pope’s Return Of The Obra Dinn—i.e., observe a single moment in time and decipher a mystery embedded inside it—and renders them, with eye-catchingly ugly art, into a more bite-sized and digestible form.
And second, Golden Idol had left me undoubtedly wanting more. Although it told a fairly complete story, Color Gray Games’ debut outing has always felt a little loose around the edges; a possible natural consequence for a game about inference and deduction and, well, literally providing your own answers. I was hoping that an expansion of the game might similarly expand on the themes already present in the original, of greed, envy, and human ugliness, and build them into something a bit more cohesive.
Golden Idol Mysteries: The Spider Of Lanka has less ambitious intentions, though. It simply wants to treat amateur sleuths to three more mysteries that flesh out the backstory of the original game, explaining, among other things, how that damn Golden Idol ended up on the Case in the first place. As such, the expansion can’t help but feel like a mix of disappointment and delight; the DLC really is just more Case Of The Golden Idol, for good and ill. (And despite the philosophical gripes laid out here, let’s be clear: We’ll take it; the fact that we got something this good-looking out of a two-man studio remains amazing.)
The three mysteries on offer all clock in at serviceable, telling a story about chaos surrounding a mystical ritual on the titular fictional island. And the DLC certainly puts its best foot forward, with its first case asking you to decipher a massacre at a card game tournament gone bloodily awry: Tracing the “who harpooned who” logic of the bloodbath is an early delight. But its nature as DLC seems to hamper Spider’s design in places; while the main game could build on information from earlier cases—most notably the rules governing the use of the Idol itself—the three cases here end up feeling far more standalone. And, thus, simpler, with nothing here rising to the complicated webs of cause and effect that dictated detective work in Case.
(The fact that it’s a prequel to Golden Idol also makes certain elements easier to predict than they might otherwise be; after all, something has to explain how that very first mystery sequence—one pudgy British guy shoving another off of a cliff on some distant island—came to be.)
The worst thing you can say about Spider—which retains the lush, gorgeous, horrific art of the base game, human beings looking almost uniformly monstrous in both life and death—is that it suggests certain limits to the formula that both games traffic in. (While also leaving us wishing for more.) No matter how many notes or diaries people are carrying in their pockets for your invisible detective to sniff at, or how many coded messages are floating around just begging to be deciphered, there seems to be a potential limit to the complexity of information you can derive from a single static moment in time.
And more complexity is what I found myself craving while playing The Spider Of Lanka: More elaborate mysteries, more esoteric rulesets to decipher, more culprits and red herrings to pick through. The basic gameplay of Idol (filling in identities, plot beats, and killers in a notebook, which confirms or rejects your deductions and guesses) is still incredibly satisfying, the vigorous mental exercise of picking through a complicated scene of beautiful images and working out who did what to whom. But the expansion lacks the shocks of the original game, and has no moments that turned my understanding of a situation on its head the way certain moments in the original did. There’s beauty, for a certain grisly value of it, but no epiphany in this return trip.