Build your vocabulary and your putting skills with Vertiginous Golf. This sports game might be one of the most awkwardly titled releases of all time, but its bizarre blend of steampunk and mini-golf adds up to an experience that is almost as appealing as it is peculiar. The developers have created something truly unique here, mashing together the world's greatest first-date sport with steampunk Victoriana so that you can putt to your heart's content on courses in the clouds. And it all works, with the bizarre background and the elaborate design of the courses turning a familiar and predictable sport into something new and intriguing.
Floating islands high in the sky is the domain of Vertiginous Golf. The game is set in an alternate dimension where the upper crust dwell in a pristine cloud city called New Lun-donne while the plebs get by far below in the polluted burg of Scudborough. One of the only joys of being down on Earth is being able to hook up to a virtual reality gadget that uses electrical blasts to fire this vertigo-inducing golf game straight into your head. Gameplay itself, however, is grounded with rules that include fairly typical golf stroke play, speed rounds, arenas, and a driving range. Multiplayer support is offered both locally and over the net, although the empty servers sure seem to indicate that virtually nobody is playing the game online.
No tour or career mode means that all matches are one-offs, and the three-course story mode telling the tale of a society revolt in Victrola-played snippets is a poor substitute. While these courses are spectacularly hard (it took me close to 100 shots to beat one of them on my first try), the dialogue is made up of annoying Clockwork Orange-styled future slang and sci-fi claptrap that's impossible to follow. Nothing you do on the greens affects the plot spinning away in the background, either, so forget about starting the revolution with a cool hole-in-one.
Only the cash made on each hole serves to tie things together, as it accumulates steadily regardless of the mode of play. These purses can be used to buy smart-looking clubs and clothes, although both are of questionable value. The clubs don't seem to improve your skills and the clothing is only visible when you're first sliding into the virtual reality machine, as the game is played with a first-person camera where all you can see on-screen is a floating club.
Its bizarre blend of steampunk and mini-golf adds up to an experience that is almost as appealing as it is peculiar.
Vertiginous Golf comes into its own with course design. Every hole is hosted on its own little cloud, creating a surreal atmosphere that is both whimsical and slightly disturbing (a mood that is emphasized by a morose piano soundtrack that reminded me of something the Phantom of the Opera would noodle around with in his lair). Nearly two dozen courses of varying length and difficulty are featured, and all are loaded with eccentric features that make them play out like puzzles. It's reminiscent of the classic Mouse Trap board game, lavishly accentuated with tips of the (top) hat to the Gilded Age. Holes boast multiple levels, ramps, sliding platforms, moving rollers and carpets, lavish Oriental rugs in place of plastic grass, luxurious metal railings and fences, Victrola horns sprouting up like metallic flowers, steam tubes that fire balls up and down, fans that blow balls to and fro, special holes that take a stroke off your score, and much more. It's all compellingly trippy, and it makes every hole as much about solving puzzles as it is about mini-golf heroics.
Accoutrements unavailable in terrestrial mini-golf help with these out-there challenges. You can switch from the traditional putter to a chipper when you aren't on the green in many circuits. This lets you shoot longer distances and get the ball off the ground. Holes can be scouted from a distance with a remote-control robot hummingbird. A little jet on the ball called a bug (which actually looks more like an electrified Faberge egg than anything produced by Nike or Top Flite) can be activated on a limited basis to move toward the cup (a big help on the often curvy greens) or put the brakes on if your shot is going long. A rewind bar powers the ability to pull back bad shots--at least for a limited time, as it drains fairly quickly as you deploy the feature. And multiplayer mode can become a zany free-for-all, with players using various weapons to attack rivals. Bombs knock balls right off the course, slime sticks balls in place, and mini whirlwinds send shots all over the place. It's just a shame that the multiplayer servers are so vacant right now.
Gameplay remains true to real mini-golf while still embracing the bizarre series of puzzles that are crammed into every hole. I was constantly forced to plan out my approaches in advance, and choose to either play it safe and try something conventional like a bank shot or go crazy and attempt something such as chipping the ball over a bank of fans onto a rolling platform so that I could catch the green without careening off the edge of the course and plummeting thousands of feet to the ground below. But even though the structure of the holes elevates the stakes of the game well past the windmills of terrestrial mini-golf, the heart of the game is still about making the shots when needed.
Ultimately, the challenge is two-fold. Not only do you need to putt for dough, you also always need to be thinking two or three shots ahead. As a result, the game can be impressively difficult, especially when playing the tougher Median and Dark Hole courses (these can be as difficult to follow as an MC Escher print), as opposed to the pick-up-and-play mini-putt ones. I found that I had to learn these harder holes with a few run-throughs (even with the hummingbird contraption, which wasn't nearly as useful as experiencing the holes first-hand) before I even had a chance at finishing close to par.
Every hole is hosted on its own little cloud, creating a surreal atmosphere that is both whimsical and slightly disturbing.
All this trial and error can be frustrating, and I initially felt like I was being cheated. But the sheer necessity of learning holes also pumped up the replay value, as I kept going back for more. Such intense early difficulty pushed me to better my scores. I particularly enjoyed the speed rounds and the driving range for their many challenges, which made them feel as much like logic puzzles as mini-golf. Discovering smart routes to pins and then actually pulling them off was incredibly satisfying.
A few problems are caused by the visuals and the controls. The camera can be very awkward to maneuver, mainly when you're close to the cup, as these areas are often enclosed. Shooting with the ball up against a grilled glass wall can be nearly impossible simply because you can’t get a good look at the hole. Controls are a little lacking in finesse, no matter if you use the mouse, keyboard, or gamepad. Instead of the expected light touch, the club pulls back in a somewhat jerky fashion. As a result, it is all too easy to fire a rocket when you want a gentle tap. In-game physics are very rigorous at the cup, too. Any ball moving a touch too fast will skip past the hole, and balls only rarely grab the lip and roll in as they will in real golf.
I'm not sure how big the audience for dystopian steampunk mini-putt in the sky is. But if you've got a hankering to see what fictional high-tech Victorians would do with this staple of modern amusement parks, you can find out with the oddly captivating Vertiginous Golf. Its puzzling, challenging, and deeply weird characteristics make for a unique and engaging experience that brings new life to the staidest of sports.