You know those nightmares where everything feels innocently real apart from that odd, horrendously creepy, strangely out of place, potentially rabid, demon-like goat in the corner of the room? Well, developer Baroque Decay has kindly wrapped up these fears into a small, puzzle-adventure video game package for us all to enjoy – yay for us! The Count Lucanor is (as you may have guessed) not your typical game, then; the blend of horror, puzzles and light RPG elements result in a rather interesting experience that leaves you with mixed feelings. Let’s delve deeper…
You follow the story of Hans – a ten year old boy who resents the low quality of life in which he and his mother are stuck. Following a small tantrum, Hans runs away from home in a bid to find something better for himself and is eventually found by a kobold who promises him eternal wealth and glory if he can complete a simple trial. Things aren’t as cheery as they seem, however; the trial leads Hans on a dangerous quest through a castle full of puzzles, traps, demonic creatures, and signs of imminent death at every turn.
Gameplay mostly consists of puzzles and exploration; there are rooms dotted around the castle, each containing a puzzle to be solved and a reward for completing it. The rewards are letters of the alphabet – these letters need to be collected to figure out the name of the kobold (and therefore complete its task). Often, rooms will contain a puzzle that you cannot solve at present – as you explore further you’ll find items that might be useful in earlier rooms, allowing you to go back and finish off any puzzles you started. The tasks are pretty straightforward for the most part, as long as you have the required equipment to get the job done, although a couple did leave us stumped for a short while as we tried to figure out the solution.
As you explore the castle you will come across non-playable characters who can give you important hints. Interestingly, you actually meet several of these characters in a short prologue and choices you make in those early conversations can have an impact on how they treat you within the castle. In fact, the game features five alternate endings (although some of them are pretty similar) and several subplots that can play out as a result of your actions – there is a rather rich backstory behind the game’s characters which can be very easily missed. The game contains several things (be it characters, plot points, or pure aesthetics) that leave you part horrified and part intrigued – you’ll likely want to find out more about the strange world you’ve been thrown into, so exploring these story routes doesn’t feel like a chore.
After a short while the castle starts to become a play zone for mysterious monsters who stalk the pitch-black corridors in the hope of feasting on you as you walk by. You will find candles and gold coins in treasure chests as you investigate each room, and these can be used to help against the threats lurking in the dark. Candles can be positioned anywhere you like – the best strategy perhaps being to stagger their locations to illuminate as much of the castle as possible (you have a limited supply so you can’t just throw them around all over the place). Gold coins on the other hand can be offered to a black raven who will “save your soul” (or progress) in return. If a monster catches you it can be hard to escape so saving regularly is important but, again, coins are quite limited so you have to carefully plan when you want to spend them.
Despite being a primarily fun experience, there are a couple of issues that unfortunately let the game down in some areas. Very occasional frame rate drops can occur at times (although we only noticed this early on in the game) and for some reason the volume levels of particular in-game sound effects seem a little off – when you enter a room containing fire, for example, there is a noticeable ‘bang’ in the audio because it is ridiculously loud compared to everything else. These things don’t ruin the experience by any means but any patches to fix them would be most welcome. On one occasion, however, we were forced to reset the game when our character became completely stuck after following a non-playable character under a table.
Aside from these points and Hans’ annoyingly slow movement (which you do actually get used to after some time) The Count Lucanor does, for the most part, work very nicely in terms of its general feel and aesthetic. The horror aspect of the game is arguably exaggerated by its pixelated art-style – cutscenes are intentionally ‘jerky’ which adds a nice sense of unease – and the world feels even more nightmare-like as a result. Despite the issues mentioned above, we’d still recommend giving the title a go if you like the sound of the plot and are a fan of horror or puzzle-type gameplay – it isn’t going to stand out as one of the eShop’s best, but there is definitely some enjoyment to be had here.
The Count Lucanor is a mostly enjoyable horror tale that is only prevented from being a truly great game thanks to a couple of performance issues and relatively short duration. At its best, the game offers a surprisingly rich story, intriguing (and genuinely creepy) characters and surroundings, and enjoyable puzzle-based tasks to ponder over. The candle and saving systems add to the stress imposed by the castle, forcing you to choose between being safe in the present or keeping supplies for later on (although a harder difficulty setting which provides less of these items could have worked wonders). If you’re looking for something a little bit different, this could well be the game for you.