Latest posts by James D Ollero (see all)
- Wonderful Looking Wonder Boy Remake Is Adorable - June 3, 2016
- Bastard Bonds Review – A Mature Game for Mature Gamers like Myself - May 9, 2016
- The Count Lucanor Review - March 10, 2016
Disclosure: The writer received a copy of the game from the developers for the purpose of this review
Developer: Baroque Decay
Before we start things off, I would like to say that I am sick and tired of this inconsistent “Retro” art trend that’s been running through independent games. So understand that’s my perspective when it comes to current pixel-art games.
With that out of the way, let’s look at The Count Lucanor. This game has been released for Steam on the 3rd of March 2016 after getting Greenlit back in November 2015.
Just by watching the above trailer, a giant honking red flag sprang in my mind: The Artstyle. The first twenty seconds gave me a jaw-dropping pixel animation with a level of detail and fluidity that blows modern cartoons out of the water. That opening cutscene gave me high hopes for the in-game aesthetics. Every single one of those hopes were sucked into a glowing red occult summoning circle, eaten out by worms, burnt to a crisp, and left to lie in a pool of blood immediately afterwards when I was greeted with this:
In one trailer’s description, the channel states that The Count Lucanor was inspired by “inspired by classic games like The Legend of Zelda, Yume Nikki, Silent Hill or Dark Souls, among others.” One important game they forgot to mention is Sword and Sworcery, because these character sprites would be right at home in that game.
Everything I’ve loved about the cutscene, I’ve detested in the gameplay. The level of detail’s wildly inconsistent, with the beautiful character portraits and decent looking backgrounds, further emphasizing just how ugly the sprites are. One human character’s wildly out of proportion with the rest, standing almost twice as tall as the mother.
The right side wants to be a 90s RPG, while the left side seems more inspired by an Atari game. Similarly, the chiptune Mozart renditions end up clashing with the realistic sound effects. Without a consistent level of detail, games with this “style” do not pull me back to any single platform in the past. On the contrary, this “aesthetic” just serves as a harsh reminder of the cynical pandering rampant in today’s game industry.
Another case of jarring inconsistency comes from the game’s writing. To be specific, the dialog varies from Modern English to Medieval English to Scottish Accent among the few characters in the game, leaving players to wonder just what kind of alternate universe they stepped into. Hearing a kid who is supposed to be living in Medieval Europe shout “Zowie!” and mention that a raven “looks pissed” is groan-inducing, to say the least. The Spanish and French developer duo released a beta of the game a week prior to its official release to get players to help them iron out kinks in the English script, but for games like these where story and writing are central to the experience, the fact that they left this to fans with dubious literacy raised some concern about the translation’s quality in my mind. However, according to some native speaking friends I showed the screenshots to, the translation is pretty sound, at least in regards to this line.
As well as this line:
So while the dialogue is all over the place in terms of time period, it seems that not much has been lost in translation. Once you peel back the jarring speech patterns, the story isn’t much to write home about.
The Count Lucanor puts players in the shoes of a ten year old boy named Hans, who leaves home after not getting any gifts or sweets for his birthday. After grabbing some parting supplies from his mother, the boy runs off to look for adventure, running into an old lady, a merchant, and a shephard boy along the way. As day turned to night, the boy wakes up in a graveyard in front of a river filled with “the blood of all who died in the war” according to a sign. He encounters the head of the shephard boy surrounded by monstrous goats and promptly decides to go home. Along the way, Hans encounters a Blue Kobold and follows it into the mysterious Castle Tenebrae owned by the equally mystifying Count Lucanor. The Kobold offers Hans a chance to become an heir to the throne in exchange for passing a test, which is to figure out his name, which he can do either by finding letters in the myriad rooms in the monster and trap-infested castle or sneaking into the Kobold’s room and letting him unwittingly tell it to you.
This game, said to be inspired by Dark Souls, has a relatively shallow lore. The game talks about a war, but never elaborates on it besides mentioning the death of a character during it. The only answer we’re given for any of the monsters out to kill Hans boils down to “A Wizard Did it.” All of the major plot points are thrown in the player’s face in the best ending without letting the player connect the dots on their own, in spite of the fact that they’d need some sort of clue on the plot to solve some of the major puzzles.
Gameplay is as straightforward as it gets for a puzzle adventure game. You walk around with arrow keys or WASD, press I to open the inventory, equip items, and press E to either interact with objects or use whatever you have equipped. Without weapons or a means to attack, Hans is forced to sneak around the castle to avoid certain death while he solves the puzzles of Tenebrae Castle, avoiding the myriad traps and monsters prowling about the area. To assist the 10-year-old’s stealth, the castle is scattered with tables to hide under and curtains to hide behind. However, one monster can still detect Hans even under the cover of a table.
Besides Health and food, limited resources scattered throughout Castle Tenebrae include candles and coins. As long as you have one candle, you can see what is going on near Hans, but you can also place them down to keep a certain area illuminated while you explore other areas, or keep track of key locations. Meanwhile, coins allow the player to “Save their soul” in the castle’s central fountain as the game describes it. However, in that same area, there is also a merchant that sells goods for Hans to purchase with coins, and this is where most of the risk vs. reward comes from. Do you buy that super special gold key or save your coins to make backup saves down the line?
The risk vs. reward mechanic loses its impact when the player realizes that his old saves aren’t overwritten, which takes away a player’s fear of locking themselves into a disadvantageous position. If I had to guess, they added this option to allow players to backtrack on their decisions so they can exhaust all possible actions the game has laid out for them, which ends up cheapening the consequences of these decisions as the player can just load an older save if they run into an unfavorable outcome. For example, one character has eaten up one of the Kobold’s letters and Hans can choose to either give in to his demands and kill another character, get him killed, or find another way to take it from him. While Hans takes this decision as seriously as anybody in real life would, the player can just save the game, see what happens, and load if he doesn’t like the outcome. Without going into spoilers, this decision also has no impact on the ending the player receives.
Just like the plot, the gameplay, even for a story-based horror game, feels incredibly shallow for me. The tunnels that you crawl through could have been much more scary than they were if they actually had any hint of actual danger in them. There are also cases where the game does not allow the player to think outside of the box. One letter requires the player to fill a bucket with water from the fountain in order to put out a fire. Later in the game, Hans is given a bean to plant and water to grow an escape tree. Crafty players might consider bringing this bucket of water to this point in the game and skip the bit that the story would otherwise force you to go through, but the developers take the bucket away from Hans after he discovers the Kobold’s name to prevent this from happening.
After spending 5 hours running through the campaign, getting three endings, and figuring out the Kobold’s name in all of two possible ways, I can say that The Count Lucanor is not worth the $10 asking price. Despite being “inspired by classic games like The Legend of Zelda, Yume Nikki, Silent Hill or Dark Souls,” this game fails to come close to the scope of any of these games. The puzzles are somewhat clever, but near the end when ingenuity really could have shined, the game railroads you into only one possible solution. The animations for the CGs are beautiful, but the in-game aesthetic is inconsistent and facepalm-inducing. The story is nowhere near as deep as “inspired by Dark Souls (or even) Yume Nikki” would imply. The dialogue is also jarringly inconsistent with the time period, but at least the translations are sound. All in all, I cannot personally recommend The Count Lucanor. With more work, and a more consistent artstyle, this could have been a fine horror adventure. In the end, it’s a curious game that adly suffers from a lackluster execution.