A bratty ten-year-old runs away from home, unhappy with not having presents and his father lost in the war. Now he’s trapped in a derelict castle exploring danger-filled rooms, all to pass the trials and become The Count Lucanor.
Genre(s): Horror | Adventure
Developer: Baroque Decay
Publisher: Baroque Decay
Release Date: March 2016
Played: Full story (1 ending)
Purchase At: Steam
The Count Lucanor opens with Hans’ tenth birthday. He rushes home expecting sweets and presents like any other child in the village, but his mother tells him they can’t afford any of that since his father left to serve in the war. A bitter Hans snaps at his mother then and leaves home. Before he leaves, his mother gives him what little food and money she has—instead of, you know, taking is butt back inside and tell him to stop his nonsense as any sensible good parent would!
So begins Hans’ adventure and at first it’s relatively calm, just walking through the map. You meet people on the way and they each ask for one of your items and it’s up to you to give it to them or not. I ignored them all. I had a feeling that things would turn sour soon enough and wanted to have as many resources as possible on me.
I was right.
On finding a tombstone with a familiar name, a raven attacks Hans and he wakes up in a nightmarish version of the world, with rivers of blood, man-eating goats and a strange blue Kobold that invites you to the Count Lucanor’s castle. Inside he tells you the Count is looking for an heir and you could be the successor if you finish the trial: guess the Kobold’s name. With a few candles to light your way in the pitch darkness of the castle, it’s up to you to avoid the trap-filled rooms and find enough letters to make your guess.
The Count Lucanor is a wonderful mix of 8bit and 16bit. The characters are as low-res as possible, with blocky bodies that remind me of the Atari 2600 era, but the environments are gorgeously detailed, reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. But even in their low-res sprites, I was amazed at how detailed the characters were as well. You can tell all their features apart, which helps sell some of the disturbing stuff that happens to them. Then there are the frankly beautifully animated 16-bit cutscenes. They are simply breathtaking (and really freaking disturbing depending on the scene), which is odd to say about a low-res game, but I didn’t expect them to be this good.
The best part of the visual style though has to be the effective use of shadows. In The Count Lucanor, you’re in pitch darkness without your candles, and these only brighten up a small radius around you. You can put down one of your many candles and add more light to the room, but you’re still dealing with a lot of shadows obscuring important environmental details, making everything seems scarier and more dangerous, as it tends to happen in real life. A small object in the distance, partially obscured, could seem like a trap, until you come close and discover it was just a chair. A wall could suddenly have jutting spikes but the shadows hide them.
The shadows in The Count Lucanor play together with the derelict depiction of your surroundings, the wonderfully detailed and grim castle, and help build and powerfully chilly atmosphere. It might be low-res but I was scared, nervous of my surroundings and afraid of taking a wrong step. Every time a new character showed up in the courtyard, a nightmarish version of the people you met as you left your home, I was both curious and apprehensive. I knew they could help me, but they could also tell me horrific things.
I have only ever played another game with a similar powerful atmosphere while being low-res and it’s The Last Door. It goes to show you don’t need powerful graphics to grip your audience and shake them to their booties. Clever use of your visual style is enough!
The Count Lucanor’s gameplay is simple but with a lot of depth. As I mentioned you have candles, but also gold and food. Each of these is a different resource to manage. Gold is to buy things from the creepy and I suspect paedophile merchant but also to save your game—more on this in a bit—and food to recover your health. There are many dangers in the castle and you’ll lose health if you’re not careful. Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk now, take a hit and save your butt from something much more dangerous along the way. Sometimes spending money is the best way to make more money or to advance with the quest. Leaving candles or carrying them with you also has that strategic factor. It’s really interesting.
But while these elements are pretty good, the sluggish movement is horrible. I don’t just mean slow, I mean hobbled James Caan in Misery walks faster than Hans does. It’s that slow. It makes exploring the castle a chore, taking too long to go from one room to the next and making it very difficult to get away from enemies.
Enemies are my major complaint in The Count Lucanor. The game has a wonderful atmosphere, as I mentioned, but the moment the enemies come in—even the bloodthirsty goats—the atmosphere evaporates. You’re no longer fearful of shadows, no longer exploring while being wary of your surroundings. Instead you’re waiting out enemy patrols, getting away from them, or dying to their attacks because you move so slowly. Instead of enhancing the fear factor of the game, enemies are counterproductive to it. They hurt the game.
My last issue with The Count Lucanor is the saving. This is a very difficult game even without the enemies, and dying is very easy so forcing characters to spend money to save feels unnecessarily harsh, especially considering you need the money to get more important items for your quest and the resources are scarce. It almost feels as if The Count Lucanor punishes you for both saving and not doing so. At a later stage in the game you even have a character tell you “have this coin so you can save,” in case you didn’t have any money. If you need to give me money to save, then perhaps this isn’t the best mechanic.
Music is amazing. Baroque Decay took the classic music of Johann Sebastian Bach and through chiptune turned it 8-bit. It is fantastic and adds so much to the atmosphere. It becomes a gothic horror (or maybe Baroque Horror to be precise) when the music kicks in, and I was blow away by it.
If The Count Lucanor hooks you, you’ll probably spend a long time playing it a few times, trying to discover the many endings. I only got one of them, and discovered there were a few more once I was done with it. I might return to it at some point, but to be honest the gameplay elements I disliked put me off a bit—though faster walking would convince me to return.
The Count Lucanor does amazing things with a low-res visual style and clever use of shadows. Combined with the powerful classic music, it creates one of the most chilling atmospheres I’ve experienced in a video game. I only wish the enemies weren’t around to ruin that.
4/5 – EXCEPTIONAL