The main and only playable character is Alfie Banks, a young man eager to make his name in the world (or live up to his family’s name, anyway). Ousted from his late father’s New York real-estate firm via jealous co-workers, he decides to pack up and go to Florida to seek his fortune. It’s 1921, and the local housing market is booming, especially the development of Miama-near Coral Gables, masterminded by one George Merrick. Merrick is one of several historical people who appear as fictionalised versions of themselves in the game and functions as a sort of father figure for Alfie, giving him things to do.
With few exceptions, those “things” aren’t really directly tied to the real-estate business, but are indirect errands that benefit Merrick (and, later, a more shady character Alfie gets involved with). It makes for a somewhat repetitive structure: get a master quest from the boss, talk to the people involved, complete more or less non-linear subquests to get them to cooperate.
While there are various different types of puzzles (stealing stuff to use in another location, distracting an NPC, combining items in the inventory to form a new one, trying to persuade a character), they are rather easy. I’m not someone who requires an adventure game to tax my brain for a few days before I can find the right answer, but very rarely during the course of playing A Golden Wake did I even need to consider consulting a walkthrough because the solutions were obvious. The only challenges came in the form of minigames (such as finding building code violations in a picture, and a really frustrating arcade segment involving a car and a plane) and quick-time events (requiring quick thinking and quick clicking), both elements of adventure games I tend to dislike immensely (and do here, as well).
Some puzzles were just strange, too; in a game that seems obsessed with verisimilitude, there are not one but two hidden rooms opened by moving objects in a certain order (two puzzles that aren’t difficult in terms of adventure-game logic, but implausible in terms of real-world logic). Additionally, a number of puzzle-driven plot developments that feel like they should carry consequences don’t. For example, a rather shady-looking theft perpetrated by Alfie early in the game seems significant, but never comes up again; and an explosion caused by Alfie’s tinkering with an object doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than, maybe, as a hidden joke about the jury-rigging inherent in many inventory puzzles.
There is an impressive number of different locations in the game, but there’s little to do in them, and many feature clickable objects (like doors) that serve no purpose (not even as excuses for pithy observations) and thus are essentially red herrings. Add to that the story structure, which features several jumps forward in time, and the whole game feels rather disjointed. Alfie is something unusual, a protagonist who turns from cocky into entitled and unlikeable and goes down a pretty dark path. It’s an interesting character to construct a game around. In theory. Because of the chronological shortcuts, the player doesn’t really get to relate to Alfie’s character development, and some turns come across as contrived instead of earned. His relationships to other characters also aren’t explored properly; a brother and a bank robber are underutilised (and could have been used to mirror or contrast Alfie’s path), and four(!) different potential father figures are introduced without being used to their full narrative potential. Historical accuracy may have got in the way of telling a satisfying story.
It’s not all negative. The graphics are mostly pretty and the voice-acting is good, as usual. A Golden Wake is a decent, five-hour distraction if you don’t go in with high expectations. But it’s also a far cry from other recent games by Wadjet Eye, such as Technobabylon and The Blackwell Epiphany.