Developer: Baroque Decay
Publisher: Merge Games
Format(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux
One of the best things about the Nintendo Switch right now (besides Mario Odyssey) is the plethora of indies that are making their way to the system. Of course, other consoles have homed a good variety of independent gems over the years, but there’s something about the portability and the convenience of the Switch that makes them a blessing to play – whether it’s on the go, during breaks in school or the workplace, or even when in bed at night. The Count Lucanor is the latest indie title I’ve had the chance to play through on the system and… well… it’s certainly unique.
So The Count Lucanor has a fairly interesting premise. You take on the role of Hans, a ten-year-old boy who decides to selfishly run away from home when his Mother doesn’t give him the gifts he wants for his birthday. After taking her last bit of money and food, he heads on a little adventure where he encounters a variety of peculiar people who all need his help in some way. One of these people rewards him with some wine, and upon drinking it Hans passes out – ten-year-olds just can’t handle their alcohol, it seems…
After waking up, he realises that the world is a lot more sinister than it was before. He tries to head home, but instead encounters a strange Kobold who tasks him with a simple trial: to explore a deadly castle and find out a way to figure out what the Kobold’s name is. If he succeeds, he inherits the mysterious Count of Lucanor’s riches and will live a life of prosperity. Simple, right?
It’s all very fairytale-like, with The Count Lucanor mixing up a fantasy setting with some very peculiar themes. It’s almost like a mixture of Rumpelstiltskin and Silent Hill, with a little bit of The Legend of Zelda thrown in for good measure. That might seem like an odd combination and believe me, it is, but it makes for an interesting experience that feels unlike anything I’d played before. It might not be for everyone, but it certainly had me intrigued.
Adding to the peculiar and somewhat dark premise of the game are the unique and often disturbing characters you meet throughout your adventure. You’ll interact with a variety of people, yet everything they say is never straight-forward and they often twist their words to take advantage of Hans, having him give them items that they’ll often use in an unconventional way. It’s very clever, but also designed to be utterly bizarre. It was one of my favourite aspects of the game though, with the unusual antics of those around you complimenting the game’s already anarchic set up.
Outside of exploring the castle and interacting with its citizens, you’ll also be solving a lot of little puzzles. A lot of these puzzles simply demand that you have the right item at the right time, but some take a little bit of thinking to solve too. The puzzles themselves are well-designed though and provide a decent little challenge for the player – most of them are surrounded by deadly traps too, so you’ll certainly be kept you on your toes.
There are plenty of fiendish monsters out to get you throughout the castle too, but you’re not able to fight them – instead, Hans just has to run away (at a frustratingly slow pace) or hide. You’re also hindered by the fact that most of the castle is shrouded in darkness, with the player needing to light and place candles to see around them. Once you’ve placed a candle it’ll keep a section of an area permanently visible to the player, but with a restricted amount available you’ve got to be careful with your approach.
There’s a restriction on how often you can save too, with a gold coin required if you want to save your progress. It felt a little like Resident Evil’s old ink-ribbon system in this respect, which is something that actually added to the game’s unnerving vibe. It might not be for everyone, especially with some of the game’s tricky later sections, but it was something I enjoyed trying to manage as I worked through the game.
You’re not going to see everything that The Count Lucanor has to offer in one playthrough, with the game featuring five different endings and plenty of alternate scenes throughout. How you interact with characters and what areas you choose to explore can affect your playthrough; there are plenty of variables that’ll change the outcome and ultimately offer you a different experience. Whether the gameplay will be enthralling enough to pull you back in for more will be down to the player, but there’s no denying that there’s a surprising amount of meat to the game.
There are also some flaws, though. One somewhat surprising issue that I had with The Count Lucanor was the random frame drops that would occur every now and then throughout the game. Now it doesn’t seem like the kind of game that would struggle to run on the Nintendo Switch with its simple visual style (especially since titles like Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart can run with no problems at all), yet there were plenty of occasions where everything would just stutter. It’s just strange and shows there might’ve been a few issues porting the game over from PC, but I’m hoping it’s something that can eventually be fixed via a patch.
Hans’ walking speed on the other hand was just plain annoying. Now I’ve played plenty of video games where the main character’s walking speed was sluggish, but in The Count Lucanor it was a little painful to see Hans slowly work his way around the environment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not designed to be an action-packed or quick-paced experience and careful exploration is certainly key here, but at the same time it doesn’t excuse making the main character move around at such a slow pace. It felt like it was done to prolong the game’s running time, which is already short with just a few hours on offer – I think most of that time was spent frustrated at the snail pace of movement, though.
The Count Lucanor is certainly an interesting title and unlike anything I’ve played before, but from a gameplay perspective it’s far from perfect. The slow pace of movement is frustrating, the frame rate drops are annoying, whilst the overall style of the game itself certainly won’t be for everyone.
There’s no denying that there’s some enjoyment to be had within the puzzle-solving though, whilst the anarchic world and its citizens are something I’ll remember for some time. Whilst its flaws are definitely apparent, there’re some stuff that it manages to get right too.
The Count Lucanor is a bloody weird game, but I couldn’t help but to find the whole experience rather endearing. I think it’ll certainly be a title that’ll be divisive amongst gamers though…