The Count Lucanor

The Count Lucanor has one of the most misguided marketing approaches of any game I’ve ever encountered. It’s not the intentional bait and switch of Gone Home or the malicious falsehood of Infestation: Survivor Stories, though. It seems like the developers honestly didn’t know what component of their product to emphasize, so they just drew some descriptors from a hat, and a slight majority of the results referred to the game’s horror elements. That doesn’t make the game itself bad – in fact, I refuse to see any malice in its inaccurate Steam description largely because its content is consistently decent – but it does warp the frame of mind that most players are going to enter it with.

I went into this thinking, “How is this a horror game?” and ended it with that question largely unanswered.  The developers list Silent Hill as an influence, but its closest parallel in the genre is probably The Last Door, in that they both seem to be reaching for a record scare-to-pixel ratio. But while The Last Door’s atmosphere benefited from indistinct environments and faceless characters, The Count Lucanor is working with a sharper, brighter style that hides nothing and gives its characters either goofy dot-eyes or a wholly inoffensive anime style. There are a handful of potentially effective shocking moments to the narrative, but they’re not highlighted by the visual irony; they’re only weakened by it.

When I eventually accepted that it wasn’t going to get any scarier, I realized the kind of game The Count Lucanor really is: a choice-driven narrative with a traditional video game attached to it that happens to have some creepy elements. It stars Hans, a poor peasant boy who runs away from home, only to immediately stumble into a surreal nightmare with an ancient castle at its core. Hans is told that if he can navigate the castle and overcome its trials, he’ll acquire it and its associated wealth. It’s not the most exciting or groundbreaking concept, but it was engaging enough to hold my attention steady throughout the 5-hour campaign and not feel like it had been wasted by the end.

The most original aspects of the title are its peculiar setting and characters, and the ability to illuminate the castle halls by placing limited numbers of candles (which is more interesting than it sounds, since a larger field of view is the only advantage the player has over their enemies). That’s obviously not much, but the game is probably stronger for its reigned-in ambitions. It feels like the solid implementation that “proof of concept” games like Dear Esther and Home have been laying the foundation for, where player-directed narrative is not the sole focus, but a tool used to craft a larger experience. Specifically, the experience of a classical fable whose archetype (i.e. Grimm, Disney, and everything in between) organically shifts with the player’s actions.

“Actions” is the key word there, because choice is not presented with glorified radio buttons, but integrated into gameplay. For example, to retrieve an item from a character, players can use collected tools to trap the character and negotiate a trade, or enlist a local psychopath to kill the character and retrieve the item from his corpse. Moments like this are liberally sprinkled throughout the campaign, and while they’re rarely as momentous as that one, they almost always affect future events or gameplay. Said gameplay is primarily composed of a mix of physical and text-based puzzles with a very agreeable difficulty. Notably, the most complex puzzles are also the most localized, ensuring that multi-room riddles elicit minimum frustration while retaining their inherent satisfaction.

Unfortunately, The Count Lucanor’s genre identity crisis is not the only thing that distracts from its positive qualities. The writing is a notable mixed bag; while its sense of humour is an unexpected and welcome inclusion, its casual, prepubescent tone (Hans’ catchphrase is “Zowie!”) constantly pulls you out of the experience. Similarly, the effectively eerie sound design is undermined by its constant repetition, and the soundtrack’s appropriate composition is tainted by its clichéd instrumentation. Unsurprisingly for a game with so many intersecting, debatably symbolic plot threads, there’s also a fair amount of underused and unexplained content, particularly towards the end of the tale. It’s possible these things have some significance in the 14th century short stories the game is based on, but whatever it is, it’s not articulated here.

The game’s most grievous fault, however, is the non-puzzle gameplay, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that it’s the facet that most embraces the ill-advised horror label. It’s theoretically sound, if a little simplistic: the castle corridors are stalked by imposing creatures, against which the only defence is running and hiding under tables. It’s the details that spoil it; the creatures’ ability to draw in Hans from a distance without actually touching him feels cheap and inconvenient more than frightening, and the impression is only compounded by the finite number of saving and healing items available. The official description also namedrops The Legend of Zelda as an inspiration, but the only thing they seem to share are the frustratingly inconsistent movement patterns of the original Zelda’s enemies.

Many of these flaws can be overlooked or even outright forgiven thanks to the swift pace (regarding structure and progression, at least; movement is still on the slow side). The genre confusion dissolves quickly enough, the stealth portions are essentially interludes between better segments, and the inevitable desire to view alternate branches of the story can be satisfied with relatively little hassle. This will never be anyone’s favourite title, but it’s a riskless purchase for anyone who wishes that story-focused games had a little more gameplay to them.