As a Scotsman born and raised, there is no fate I would dread more than being cursed to play the game of golf forever. And yet this is the premise of Cursed to Golf, a roguelike 2D recreation of the sport where you have to work your way through 18 holes of golf purgatory, having been cast down there due to being struck by lightning during a golf tournament. I have no idea if this is a common occurrence during golf, but if it is I might actually start watching the sport. So, is Cursed to Golf a hole in one, or a bogey? Let’s find out.
Once you’re down in purgatory you meet the massive, green and very jovial Scotsman, another soul who has been cast into the fiery sand bunkers and who takes the time to explain the details of your horrendous situation, bestowing upon you the nickname Wee One. I appreciate the many nods’s to my nation’s contribution to the world, even if the rest of said world fails to realise that we made up golf as a joke. He lays out the details of your incarceration; beat all 18 holes and you can escape back to the real world, and all that stands in your way are your skills with a golf club and the Greenskeeper, the golfing equivalent of the Devil.
When it comes to whacking the ball, Cursed to Golf follows the same basic template as other golfing games, such as Nintendo’s fairly recent Mario Golf. You choose between three clubs (the driver for long-range, the iron for mid-range shots and the wedge for short but high strikes) and then set the strength of the shot by using a meter. As the meter rises and falls you hit the button, hopefully nailing the intended power or else overshooting and having to watch forlornly as your ball bounces straight into the water. Then it’s just a case of hitting the button again to set the angle of the shot, and listening to the satisfying thwack of the club hitting the ball. For more subtle control you can also add spin to the ball in mid-air, a skill which becomes more and more important as you advance toward the ultimate goal of ascending from purgatory. Good use of it can help you land pinpoint shots.
Your golfing skills (or lack thereof) are key to traversing purgatory, but mastering the use of Ace Cards is also a major part of the game. Gathered by purchasing them in shops or from random booster packs found along the way, these provide access to a range of powerful abilities. Some are simple, like taking a practice shot that doesn’t eat up your Par count, but others do cool shit like phasing through the level, opening portals or letting your ball drill into the ground. The biggest and best of the cards can let you skip through huge parts of the courses, provided you use them smartly. I certainly wasn’t using them to their fullest at first, relying too much on pure golfing to get through tough courses. Once I started employing my deck of tricks to their fullest, I went from struggling to pass the first boss and improved quickly. These cards are the best part of the game, adding a fun layer of strategy to a golfing experience that could otherwise become a tad stale.
Sometimes, though, you need to realise when a run is going wrong and start planning for the future. At the Eterni-tee shop, found between holes, you can opt to store cards in the binder, keeping them pristine for any future runs. Ideally, you want to hold on to your best cards until you have to face off against the three guardians in fun levels where you take it in turns to shoot, with the first to the flag winning. Burn through cards in the early courses and these moments will be much, much harder. Again, it’s a strategic edge to the game that really works.
Speaking of the challenge, that’s where the game’s mild roguelike elements come into play, forcing you to battle through purgatory again and again. You’re given a par of 5 on each hole, with every shot you take reducing that total by one. You can increase par by smashing special idols or by playing certain Ace cards, but if the total reaches 0 then it’s game over, sending you all the way back to the very first course. It doesn’t matter if you’re on hole three or hole 18, back down you go. All Ace Cards not put into the binder disappear and absolutely nothing else carries over with one exception – the three guardians each boast a permanent benefit they’ll grant upon their defeat. The mighty Scotsman, for example, gives you a checkpoint you can drop once per round that you’ll jump back to if the par count reaches zero. But since a single run can last up to 2-hours and because earning something permanent is so infrequent, failing can send you back to the start with a frustrating feeling that the last hour or two has been a waste of time.
Roguelikes are a tricky genre to nail correctly because they’re designed around failing, and failing is not something humans like to do, usually. The key is making sure players feel like failing isn’t actually failing by making them think they’ve gotten something of value. Returnal is an example of another game that doesn’t quite get that balance right, while Hades does it damn near perfectly because each run is fast and even failure brings with it rewards. Cursed to Golf doesn’t manage to nail the concept
Being trapped in golf purgatory unsurprisingly means the courses aren’t the usual Earthly selection where elderly men potter about and get stuck in bunkers where future generations can stumble across their bleached bones. Sure, purgatory does contain some sand bunkers, but there are also teleportation devices, spikes that can destroy a ball and boxes of dynamite that can be detonated to open up a new route. Courses are often complicated with multiple routes, gaps, obstacles and more, so you need to make use of the birdie cam to scout ahead and figure out where you want to go. A course plays out as long drives, barely made shots and tricky little zig-zags.
That brings me to the default view adopted by the game when you take a shot. It’s quite tight, constricting your vision and making it difficult to judge where things are. Later levels often require a lot of precision to get through obstacles that will not only destroy your ball but also take an extra point off your par count. This demand for precise golfing skills can feel a little at odds with both the controls and the view, both of which add a lot of variability to shots. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of judging things, but even then there will be plenty of moments when an otherwise stellar run for the final hole is ended because of an obstacle off-screen that needed a pin-point shot to bypass.
I do think that the developers perhaps played things a little safe with the premise. Considering that Cursed to Golf is set within purgatory there’s a lot of thematic room to mess around in when it comes to the challenges you’ll face, so it’s a wee bit disappointing to see a lack of creativity. Teleporters and drill balls are cool, but they don’t exactly evoke the whole golf hell aesthetic. The closest it ever really comes is a type of obstacle where a hand comes out of the ground and seizes the ball. There isn’t much variety across the three settings. This isn’t really a criticism per se, just something I think was a missed opportunity. A lot more could have been done.
Mixing golf and roguelike gameplay together sounds like the dumbest thing since somebody decided to give Michael Myers cooking lessons, specialising in how to use a chef’s knife. And yet somehow the melding of concepts does work, gifting us a fun and challenging golf game. It doesn’t quite nail the roguelike elements in the way I’d like but it’s a damn good try, and I couldn’t tear myself away from it until I’d finally managed to conquer every hole and escaped Purgatory. Even now, I’m itching to go back and see if I can wrap up all of Cursed to Golf’s trophies, including getting a hole-in-one. If you like the dying genre of 2D golfing games, Cursed to Golf isn’t just par for the course, it’s an eagle. Look at me throwing golf lingo around. Heh.