Review: Cursed to Golf is a stroke of genius

It’s often said by pedants that “golf is a good walk ruined”. But what if walking was replaced by teleporting?

This is just one of many supernatural quirks to be found in Cursed to Golf, a hugely entertaining indie title that claims to be the first ‘golf-like’ – that’s part golf game, part rogue-like. Cursed to Golf puts the player in the plus-fours of an unnamed golfer who’s on the cusp of superstardom when tragedy strikes.

Just as he’s about to make the winning putt to claim his first international tournament trophy, the fittingly named Eternal Golf Championship, a massive bolt of lightning strikes his club and kills him. It’s not all bad news, however (though it mostly is). The lad finds himself in Golf Purgatory, where he’s welcomed by the Scotsman, a massive ghost golfer wearing a kilt.

The Scotsman tells our hero that he can escape Golf Purgatory if he can make his way through an 18-hole course in a set number of shots. If he pulls it off, he’ll be resurrected and put back to where he was right before making that final championship stroke.

Naturally, this is easier said than done, because each of the holes is a lengthy affair that looks more like a platformer stage, complete with the likes of teleports, TNT blocks, fans and various other hazards designed to get in your way.

Cursed to Golf gameplay | VGC

The gameplay loop in Cursed to Golf is straightforward enough: each stage gives players a set number of shots, and the aim is to reach the hole before they run out. There are almost never enough shots to reach the hole, so players have to hit the ball off gold and silver statues along the way, which tops up their shot count.

If they can reach the hole within their set number of shots, they proceed to the next one, but if they fail to do so, the game is over, and they have to start an entirely new round on Hole 1 again (hence the rogue-like comparisons).

Your journey is aided by special cards which can be collected along the way. There are around 20 variations of these and give the player a range of abilities and perks, ranging from simple things like extra shots and mulligans (allowing retries of messed-up shots) to more elaborate tricks.

If you’re trying to make your ball drop through a small gap, or want it to land on a small platform without rolling off it, the Time Stop card lets you stop the ball dead in the air and drop like a rock. Meanwhile, the U-Turn card lets players press a button while the ball is in mid-air and set a new angle for it, allowing you to entirely change the direction of the shot.

If the player is skilled enough, they can build up a healthy collection of these cards as they make their way through each hole (especially if they don’t need to use them), but in true rogue-like fashion, should you fail on any hole and get Game Over any cards in your possession are lost forever.

This can be countered by storing cards in a binder at the course’s shop, but naturally, this means they can’t be accessed during the current round – they’re essentially banked so you can build up a load of them for a “right, I mean it this time” playthrough.

All this would be for nought if the actual golfing mechanics left something to be desired, but Cursed to Golf is brilliantly tuned to give the players a great deal of control while also keeping things relatively simple.

There are only three clubs to choose from (a driver, an iron and a wedge), each with its own shot arc and distance. After choosing a club, it’s simply a matter of two timing-based button presses: one to set the power then another to stop a moving arc which shows the ball’s entire flight path.

It’s a great system that gives players a level of accuracy that’s crucial for the later stages and their intricate obstacles, but still demands a degree of skill to properly time each shot. Essentially, the game shows you exactly where the ball is going to go, and it’s just up to you to time it right, so if you mess up a shot, it’s entirely down to you (which is how the best games do it).

The holes are also brilliantly designed. It wouldn’t be a rogue-like without some sort of random element, but the holes in Cursed to Golf aren’t procedurally generated. Instead, each time a new round is started, the game pulls from a library of around 70 pre-designed holes.

The result is a happy balance which ensures that no two games play the same, but also provides a standard of level design that can only be achieved when each stage was laid out by an actual person.

“The result is a happy balance which ensures that no two games play the same, but also provides a standard of level design that can only be achieved when each stage was laid out by an actual person.”

Mixing things up are ‘cursed’ holes, special challenge stages where every so often, the player is given a handicap for a number of shots. You may be forced to hit the ball in a specific direction, you may be banned from hitting trophies to increase your shot count, or the entire game may flip upside down to make aiming more awkward.

These stages are generally optional, due to the game’s branching map, but tend to result in a greater payoff as you receive more cards and in-game cash for taking on the harder routes.

Then there are the boss battles, in which you and a rival take turns to get through a course that’s longer than usual, as you try to hit special statues that stun them and make them miss a turn. Losing one of these is an instant Game Over no matter how many shots you have left, so they’re tense affairs, and pulling off a victory is an enormously satisfying feeling.

Satisfying is the word that best describes the game in general, really. The pinpoint accuracy offered to players who can perfect the game’s timing can lead to some genuinely gratifying shots that make you feel like a golfing supremo, while the numerous quality of life features make sure the unavoidably repetitive nature of the gameplay loop never feels like a chore.

The ability to fast-forward the action as soon as you hit your shot and skip cutscenes at will means starting a new round from scratch is an entirely acceptable endeavour, rather than a frustrating exercise in retreading old ground. And while anyone good enough to make it through all 18 holes will have to play a lot of golf to reach that point, the game can be saved and resumed at will, meaning players aren’t forced to complete all 18 holes in a single session.

This is accompanied by a fantastic chiptune soundtrack by Mark Sparling (A Short Hike, Shantae), exceptional pixel graphics and a genuinely entertaining script that doesn’t hold up the action by trying too hard to be funny, a crime numerous ‘quirky’ indie games with unique gimmicks can be guilty of.

The 70-odd holes have been meticulously designed, the shooting mechanic is wonderfully executed, and it nails that ‘one more go’ urge that only the best rogue-likes manage to accomplish.

It speaks volumes that we can lose a lengthy run by getting Game Over on the 16th hole and get sent all the way back to the start of the game, and our first response is to happily start a new round rather than being tempted to balance our controller on a tee and drive it through the wall.

It’s clear that the game has been designed with tremendous care and attention, and everything feels so perfectly tuned to ensure that players never feel frustrated, despite the entire premise being tailor-made. That’s an exceptionally hard thing to pull off, but we take our golf visors off to the team at Chuhai Labs, which has done so with gusto.