Review: The Count Lucanor

Playing The Count Lucanor made me realize how rare fairy tale games are on the PC, and this game is very much a video game of a fairy tale. A tad on the grim side, perhaps, much like pre-Disney stories were, but a fairy tale nonetheless. With its pixel graphics and Bach’s works turned into chiptune as a soundtrack, as well as a few cutscene sequences that’ll remind you of a Studio Ghibli film, there’s little doubt that in the aesthetics department the game is well furnished – and what of the rest?

You’re Hans, a ten year-old boy who lives in a small cottage in the woods with his mother – your father, a man of the military, has been away to fight the war for as long as you can remember. Disgruntled by the lack of cake on his birthday (don’t judge – have you ever not had cake on your birthday? Exactly), Hans decides its time to strike out and make his fortune.

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Yes, being poor sucks, Hans.

How you interact with the world is fairly simple and doesn’t change much as the game progresses – as you play you’ll find items, which can be used given certain circumstances by equipping them and interacting with a specific person/location/object – and doesn’t diverge much from what you’d expect of a typical adventure game. Your health can be recovered by eating food, of which there’s an abundant supply.

After a first, relatively short section where you go through the woods in search of adventure – interacting and helping (or not) the people and animals you meet – and where everything is shiny and sunny, you might start questioning if the ‘horror’ tag is legitimate. That question is answered soon after you wake up from a drunken stupor to find yourself in a night-twisted, horror version of the world you’d seen up to now.

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*hanged

It begins with you meeting a red-eyed raven, an ill-omen as you’d earlier observed, and then crossing a river of blood. The goatherder you’d met is now a decapitated, bloody man, the goats he watched closer to weregoats, bipedal and with ranks of sharpened teeth. It is as if the world went from what people expect fairy tales to be to what they usually were – somber and grim, and certainly not the best place for little children to play hero.

Your hero’s trial is soon presented to you, as a mysterious Kobold with a jester’s cap guides you to a castle where the Count has set a series of trials to find a suitable heir, as he managed to father none. Your task is rather simple: to find out the name of the Kobold, which you’ll do by going through several puzzles and hazards in different rooms to recover each letter and then piecing them in the correct order.

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Not all is terrible, though, as a mere donkey becomes a donkeycorn that poops gold.

While things quickly escalate, with caped monsters, goatmen and a crimson man who will kill you on sight, the puzzles and hazards of the game are never particularly difficult. As a treasure hunter you’ll meet tells you, it isn’t your job to face these monsters, but rather to avoid them – and armed with just a few candles to illuminate the dark castle, that’s exactly what you have to do. As the puzzles never stray too far from the obvious, it isn’t on this merit that the game rides, but on that of its ambiance and your interactions with the other denizens and visitors to the castle. While the game had no bugs during my playthrough, the pathing for the monsters glitched several times, getting them stuck in a loop or blocking your progress until you reset the room by leaving and coming back.

The people you met when you first ventured out from your cottage are all here, with their own peculiar nightmarish twists, and interacting with them will teach you more of their personality and story, and of what they feel towards the other people present in the castle. Throughout these interactions you’ll not only gain tools to further your interests, but decide (some of) their fates and how much you’ll actually bother do aside from what is presented as the ‘main trial’. A single playthrough took me around four hours, though if I were to go back in order to see the different outcomes certain actions could have, and all of the separate endings, that time could easily have been doubled.

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The cutscenes, while one of the game’s highlights, have particularly grim and somber imagery.

With gameplay that doesn’t really set it apart from other adventure games (though you control your character more like you would in a 2D Zelda game than your typical point n’ click adventure game) and a forgiving difficulty, what set The Count Lucanor apart from other games – and it does stand separated, with a charm of its own – is its macabre presentation and the beautiful cutscenes. While pixel graphic games have been hit or miss recently, the presentation in The Count Lucanor – sound effects, graphics and soundtrack – is entirely cohesive and only furthers the whole fairy tale aspect of the game, and was enough to make me thoroughly enjoy my short romp with it.

The Count Lucanor was played on retail code provided by the developer.

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