Golf Peaks turns mini-golf into a card-based puzzle game

It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play, we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

One thing about abstract puzzle games is that they often don’t have themes. Games like Tetris, Delete, or sudokus aren’t designed to look like anything in particular. Nothing about them can be compared to any real-world analog. However, games that use themes well use them to help players better understand what they are able to do. Resynth, for example, imitates the look and sounds of a music synthesizer to turn a game about solving pushing block puzzles into something where you can make music, and you understand how well you are doing based on how the music sounds.

Golf Peaks is a brilliant example of how to use themes because it communicates much of how the game works to the player before they even start playing. In this case, it uses your previously held knowledge of miniature golf. Describing it as a game of miniature golf where you use cards to determine how you hit the ball should be roughly enough for you to understand how to play the game.

Specifically, the game’s puzzle has you try to figure out how to use the limited moves that you have, based on the specific cards you’re given for that hole, in order to finish it. Each card tells you the number of squares the ball will travel, while also indicating whether it will move along the ground or move through the air. After picking your card, you want to use it to pick which of the four directions you want the ball to travel in. The ball then moves in that direction however far the card says or until it encounters an obstacle or hazard.

These obstacles and hazards are generally what you’d expect from a mini-golf course: walls that bounce your ball back the way it came, slopes that roll your ball to the bottom, and sand traps that stop all of your ball’s momentum. While it lacks some of the more zany accouterments like windmills or giant animals, as the game progresses, the hazards become more eccentric with the likes of quicksand, ice, and conveyor belts. Each of the game’s nine sections is based around a specific hazard, with the first few holes teaching you how it works while growing in complexity as you complete each section.

Despite the fact that there’s no text in the game, it does a great job of teaching through play. While this sort of trial and error teaching method can often be frustrating, Golf Peaks lets you easily restart a hole or just undo a single move almost instantly. Experimenting with new mechanics and obstacles is actually kind of a fun thing to do since there are no negative repercussions for just trying something out. It helps you not only learn new behaviors, but sometimes, it allows you to finish holes in ways that the cards never intended.

Even though Golf Peaks doesn’t have any randomly generated levels, the game is something I’d probably play on my commute if I had an iPhone. The puzzles are well-crafted, and the game is so relaxing to play that I don’t want to stop. In mobile form, knocking out a few holes seems like a great way to unwind after work, especially when you only have one hand free on the subway.

Golf Peaks was created by Afterburn. You can get it for the Nintendo Switch for $4.99, Windows and Mac on Itch.io or Steam for $4.99, or on the iOS App Store for $2.99. It can take about four hours to finish.

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