The Golden Heist

by George Lockett and Rob Thorman

2021

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A classical romp, December 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Iím a firm believer in playing games in the random order that the Comp page spits out. Sure, itíd be easy and immediately-rewarding to jump around looking for games from authors I know and picking the ones with blurbs that immediately appeal. But that would mean I wouldnít give as much attention to games by new or lesser-known authors, and would probably make me burn out on getting through the full Comp, since Iíd be front-loading the stuff Iím likely toto dig and backloading games that might take more of an effort to play. With that said, I am only human, and every Comp, thereís a game or two that strikes my fancy right off the bat, leaving me to furtively scroll down, drool over the blurb, and anticipate the moment when I finally get to play.

Reader, since October first Iíve been jonesing to dig into The Golden Heist, since it seems laser-targeted to appeal to my interests. Iím a sucker for a good heist, and the record will show Iím quite a fan of lightly-comic Classical settings (ahem). And Iíve long wanted to visit the ruins of the Domus Aurea Ė while I havenít managed it yet, I have walked past the entrance while pestering my wife with fun facts about it (she really appreciated that, Iím sure). So while I think this is a fun, well-designed game that anyone will enjoy, you might want to take the following rave review with a grain of salt given how many of my buttons it manages to hit.

To be successful, The Golden Heist needs to walk a tightrope between breezy accessibility and historical grounding Ė anyone drawn in by the specificity of the premise is going to want to see the game reflect what we actually know about this time and place in early-Imperial Rome, but at the same time, a heist needs zippy dialogue, narrow escapes, and surprise reversals that canít be too indebted to plodding realism. Itís a tough balance to strike, but the game manages it really well, with incidental details about things like the fire hazards endemic to ordinary life in Rome lightly scattered throughout the story. The take on Nero, too, is pretty pulpy, but I think is closely modeled on the portrayal in Suetonius (whether or not the dishier bits of the Twelve Caesars were anything other than scurrilous gossip is whole separate question).

Of course, the player needs something to do in this well-realized setting, which brings us to the heist. Itís all well-motivated Ė your father was an architect who helped build Neroís new golden palace, but was cruelly cast aside after an injury, so now youíre out to rob the place blind as an act of revenge that will incidentally make you rich Ė and while thereís not much of a separate planning phase, which is something I enjoy in these kinds of stories, you do get to choose one of three mutually-exclusive partners for the caper and bring their particular specialty (fists, wits, or brains) to bear. I went with charming rogue Felix Ė he seemed lucky Ė which had a major impact on how things played out, both lending his talents to overcoming some of the obstacles we encountered and adding some complications of his own, as some of his past swindles caught up with him at the wrong time.

The heist itself plays out as a series of obstacles that need to be confronted in sequence, from making your way in (I had the choice to blag in the front or sneak in the back) to connecting with a contact to setting up your distraction to the light puzzle-solving required to get into the vault, and climaxing with the desperate rush to escape once things go inevitably pear-shaped. While the tone stays breezy (and bringing Felix along set up some pretty good jokes, including his threatening bluff that the main characterís a Macedonian known as Alexander the Great With His Fists), thereís definitely a ratcheting up of tension.

Iím not sure whether itís possible to have to abort the heist early if things go too wrong, but it certainly feels like there are degrees of success or failure that have consequences later, especially in the push-your-luck escape bit. I have to confess that my run was more Benny Hill than Danny Ocean, with a few small missteps in the opening cascading into big problems on the way out. Still, I managed to get away with a reasonable chunk of loot (though the game seemed to think Iíd lifted Neroís golden lyre when Iíd actually left it behind), and Iím eager to replay post-Comp to see if I can do any better. And given how big a role Felix played, Iíd imagine that picking one of the other sidekicks would feel like a substantially new experience.

There are certainly some parts of the game that donít work as well as the rest Ė in particular, the puzzle to unlock the vault feels too adventure-gamey to me Ė plus there are a couple typos, and itís a little disappointing not to have the larger cast and cross-cutting of scenes that you sometimes get in heist stories. Still, even discounting the way the setting and vibe play to my preferences, Golden Heist is a fun, fleet piece of work that lived up to my high expectations.

Highlight: Picking just one is really hard, but I did especially enjoy the bonkers way the running-away portion of the heist played out, with priceless treasures of the Julio-Claudians bouncing across the marble floors.

Lowlight: Iíve refrained from mentioning it so far, but much of the gameís text is timed, fading in sentence by sentence. It comes in pretty quickly, but still, why must authors do this?

How I failed the author: While I was 2/3 of the way through the gameís major puzzle, Henry woke up hard from a long nap, with a dirty diaper, a gas back-up, an empty stomach, and a nose stuffed with boogers. Seeing to all that took quite a bit of time, but itís a testament to how much I dug this game that I felt like Iíd barely missed a beat when I came back to it.