A nightmare can be a powerful thing. Locked inside your own mind, it can be a place where your worst fears, regrets and moments of shame emerge from the shadows to haunt and taunt you. Thankfully, we all tend to wake up from these imaginary hellscapes, but it’s not quite that easy for the hero of Lucah: Born of a Dream. They’ve been cursed, sealed with a dream world where their inner demons have been brought to murderous life. Now it’s a question of whether they can survive their psychological turmoil and make it out with their sanity intact.
From the off, Lucah’s stark art style lashes out at you like one of its many nightmare creatures. It’s one of those artistic choices that you’ll either love or hate. The ‘living sketch’ look can often be a difficult one to pull off without making the player’s eyes bleed after a while – take the failure of David Jaffe’s Drawn to Death as a prime example – but Lucah really doubles down on that aesthetic. It's purposefully harsh, full of jagged lines and scribbled level boundaries. It’s clearly meant to evoke the drawings and musings of a darker mind, with hand-drawn sketches that stand out vividly like an animated blackboard.
This spartan visual approach does make navigating its open-ended levels more of a challenge than it really should be, since so many areas look the same – an issue that forces you to constantly rely on the game’s map for any sense of direction. This gradually opens up as you explore more areas, Metroidvania-style, but considering the map isn’t one button away (you have to enter the menus and skip to the map from there) exploration is often the game's weakest element. One area that is one of Lucah’s strong points is its combat. A top-down RPG by trade, you’ll travel through your dark dreams and hack and slash your way through a malicious menagerie of monsters.
You have a light attack and a heavy attack as standard, as well as a dash manoeuvre. All three consume stamina which, in the traditional fashion, refills when not in use. On top of this, you’ll collect various Familiars, which provide different types of ranged attacks. These rely on a charge meter, which only refills when you land a successful strike on an enemy. It’s a symbiosis of systems that requires you to balance melee attacks and ranged griefing or risk running out of the latter during a particularly challenging encounter or boss battle.
There are also different forms of attack, known as Mantras. Distinguished by colour, each one comes with its own style of light and heavy attack, as well as a unique set of combos when mixed together. You can have two of these Mantra sets active in your loadout at any one time, and you can switch between them by pressing ‘ZL’. Building combos and learning how well one style blends into another when activated is one of Lucah’s most rewarding aspects. You’ll discover more Mantras and Familiars, as well as Virtues and Techs (which provide passive boosts and modifiers to your loadout, such as the ability to slow time or leech life from enemies), so you’re always in a position to customise. You can even equip consumable Rewinds, offering the limited ability to undo mistakes in battle.
While its striking visuals might make some enemy designs a little harder to distinguish than others, you’ll still find plenty of them pose a challenge in battle. Strike an enemy enough and they’ll enter a stunned state (known as a Break) where they’ll be left open to further damage. Simply spamming one kind of strike will often reward you a Break, but it’ll often leave you out of stamina and similarly vulnerable. The key is building combos while keeping just enough stamina to either finish an enemy off or dash away to relative safety. You can also Parry enemies by dashing into them at the apex of a strike, adding another dimension to the defensive/offensive cycle.
Comparing games to Dark Souls is beyond cliché at this point, but we’d be doing you a disservice as a reader if we didn’t acknowledge the influence of FromSoftware’s groundbreaking series. That reliance on stamina management is one nod, but so is the bleak and often obtuse approach to storytelling. You’ll even become corrupted the more you die, much like Dark Souls’ hollowing. You’re meant to feel disorientated and at odds with your environment, and in this regard Lucah really ties into its own concept really well. There are even mounds with swords buried hilt-deep, which serve as (you guessed it) rest points, fast-travel markers and levelling-up stations. It’s a very familiar model, but Lucah’s levelling-up system is a little too basic and not particularly intuitive compared to the fluidity of its combat model.
We’re aware that screenshots of Lucah: Born of a Dream really don’t do the game justice. That aesthetic is going to put off some potential new players, but look past the purposefully jagged looks and there’s something far more palatable beneath. With its slick and deep combat system and the unashamedly bleak nature of its allegorical story, Lucah uses its visuals to help bolster its unique identity and stand apart amid considerable RPG company on Nintendo Switch. Sure, it can be a little frustrating to navigate in places, but it’s a small price to pay for the elements that shine bright elsewhere in the darkness.