What makes us scared? Fear is an evolutionary response meant to prolong our survival; because that rustling in the nearby bushes could be a hungry lion as much as it could be a harmless bunny rabbit. Fear initiates an adrenaline surge meant to aid us in either fighting or, preferably, fleeing. Humans don’t have much to be afraid of in the modern world and because of this we have created outlets for our untapped fear response. Video games are unique in horror entertainment, while films, books and theatre can make you afraid of what you’ll see next, games make you afraid of what will happen to you next. The interactive nature of the medium means that you’re one step closer to the action and they can activate your fear response much more effectively. Classic Horror titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil play with the idea of Fight or Flight pitting short term survival against long term item management, while modern titles have cut out the idea of fighting entirely focusing instead on escape. The Count Lucanor is a pixel art horror adventure that merges modern horror sensibilities with old school item management ideals to create an experience with a lot of interesting ideas that unfortunately never manages to produce any genuine fear.
Pixel art games seem to have become polarizing in recent years. Some enjoy the nostalgic throwback, while others see it as a crutch developers use to cut down on costs. I can certainly see why some people are being tired of seeing pixel games, especially considering how poorly the art style can be used. The Count Lucanor does not use the style poorly, but it doesn’t do it amazingly either. The cutscenes the game presents are very nice to look at and the environments are done well enough to create the intended atmosphere, but the characters are just detailed enough to tell them apart from each other and I can’t help but feel a little more effort put in this category would have helped complete the visual package. The music in this game is quite forgettable over all but it isn’t offensive by any stretch of the imagination, the best thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t imped the much more impressive sound design, which manages to create a sense of dread uncommon in most horror titles let alone low fidelity games like this.
I haven’t yet said anything about this games story and there is a reason for that: I don’t have much to say about the story. It’s not bad, but its not really anything interesting either, the story is more of a vehicle for the characters who are, thankfully, much more interesting to talk about. Everyone in this game feels somewhat deranged, even the most level headed of characters is a nervous wreck, and no one is who they seem to be. That being said, the apparent insanity may be a result of the poor translation. Maybe ‘poor’ is too strong, as everything is perfectly understandable, its just that there’s an awful lot of grammatical errors and phrases that just don’t hang together the same way they would from a native English speaker, and the way the player character reacts to everything by exclaiming “Zowie” is as off putting as it is hilarious.
Take a look at The Count Lucanor’s Steam Store page and you will see that the game proudly states its influences from The Legend of Zelda and Silent Hill and while I can certainly see comparison points for those games, this game has more in common with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Much akin to the aforementioned game, The Count Lucanor has a series of indestructible monsters that patrol dark hallways, and if you want to stay alive you will have to embrace stealth. On top of that, both games play with the idea of light being a limited resource. In Amnesia you are encouraged to find tinder to light candles along your way, as the light it what is keeping you sane, however The Count Lucanor presents a much more interesting idea. Throughout the game you are given candles to light your way, they only light a small portion of the screen (which is probably where the much touted Silent Hill influence comes in), and unfortunately for you, the monsters that roam around the castle are much faster than you are and if they make it within range of your candle light, then it’s already too late. To avoid being surprised by the monstrosities you must place candles liberally around corridors, increasing the amount of the castle you can see at any one time. The mechanic encourages you to make your own mind up about how useful each candle placement will be which leads to a surprising amount of freedom in player agency. Its the kind of game mechanic that breeds familiarity with your surroundings much in the same way constant backtracking makes a player so familiar with the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil.
Currency also acts as a limited resource in The Count Lucanor as gold coins pay your way to everything, including save games. It’s an interesting twist on the ink ribbons from Resident Evil, saves are limited, but only as limited as you make them. Coins are plentiful, but you will have to spent them in order to complete the game, so depending on how frugal you are, this game can vary in terms of challenge. It is easy to die in The Count Lucanor, but the game itself is only really moderately difficult lasting me only a handful of hours. That being said there are multiple endings to find, so there is a healthy amount of replay value, especially at this price point.
There are a lot of interesting ideas here, that do manage to create some tension, but there’s only so much I can be scared by this game and its pixel art style. I feel as though these mechanics would be better served in a more expansive 3D game that really pushes the player in terms of resources. I know there’s only so much a small team can do, but it is a shame to see genuine talent being so hampered by their budget. If another Amnesia game is ever released, then whoever ends up making that should be watching this game very closely for inspiration.
I would like to emphasise the word talent in my previous paragraph as there is a lot of it on display here. The Count Lucanor is a game that doesn’t achieve true greatness, but it brushes up against it so many times that it is definitely worth the price of admission. Any fan of horror will be well served well here.
Grab the game here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/440880