Platform: PC (via Steam)
Developer/Publisher: Baroque Decay Games
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A (but it’s NOT for the kiddies!)
When a game’s press info mentions classics The Legend of Zelda and Silent Hill as inspirations, it’s either going to be really great or really lousy. Fortunately, Baroque Decay’s excellent The Count Lucanor is not only really great, it’s one of those smartly designed “retro” games that does pretty much everything right. The game is funny, a bit frightening (and best played in the darkness) and definitely disturbing on a few fronts. While it’s not a lengthy experience at all, the about 5 hours it takes to play (which is your average 8 or 16-bit game length, not counting RPG or strategy titles) means it won’t wear out its welcome when all is said and done. Five different endings mean there’s replay value to be had if you want to see every possible outcome, but you can mildly abuse the save system if you don’t want to start from the beginning each time.
You play as Hans, a 10-year old boy who’s a bit of a brat. It’s his birthday and as he and his mom are poor as church mice, she doesn’t have a single thing to give him as a gift. Little Hans decides to run away from home and off to wherever he can get sweets and presents and amazingly, his weary mother lets him go scampering into the woods. Granted, she’s of the mind that Hans will grow tired of his tantrum and roll on home once he’s cooled off. Let’s just say the brat gets a bit of a shock when those woods turn out to be a deadly place and he wakes up in a complete nightmare scenario straight out of… well, straight out of Silent Hill. After waking up in a twisted version of the forest and escaping from some demon goats, he runs into a strange floating blue kobold that leads him to a mansion where Hans is given the task of trying to guess the creature’s name (and nope, it’s not Rumpelstiltskin or Mxyzptlk). If he guesses correctly, Hans gets his gifts aplenty, but if he can’t figure it out… well, you can probably guess things won’t go so well for the kid.
The gameplay is a mix of adventure game and exploration elements and choice comes into play right from the beginning. Before things get weird, Hans will encounter a number of people and animals as he makes his way to the forest and can choose to assist or avoid them. Being less of a jerk is one way to go, but you can also ignore everyone completely and miss out on some helpful items and clues when things go south. In the mansion, there are keys to find, rooms to explore and soon enough, monsters to scoot away from. Hans doesn’t have a run button, so the pace is quite methodical and using those candles he finds to light up dark corners comes in really handy. Add in some deadly traps and treasures to be found after navigating through a bunch of traps and you get a game you’ll be sucked into until you reach one of its endings.
Given that the save system here uses one gold coin per save, you only get a limited amount of gold and you need that for upgrades. The choice of saving liberally or more carefully ends up a sort of red herring because the game won’t take all that long to complete. But if you go in sans a walkthrough and stay the heck off message boards, you won’t know this and you may spend a few coins on saves just because you like to be SUPER sure you won’t lose Hans. That said, a huge part of the suspense here is seeing how you can get Hans out of danger or avoid certain death by simply paying attention to what NPC’s say and what’s in the environment. Traps are fairly easy to locate (the floor tiles are different), certain items you’ve collected may turn enemies into more friendly types, and when you do encounter a monster, it’s going to make your heart all jumpy until you figure out how to get past it.
The deceptively simple visuals are animated extremely well and there are quick “cut scenes” that look as if they’re taken from an anime (and yes, one should be made at some point down the road). There’s no voice acing, but the choice of classical music (Bach, doing it up right here) is excellent and fits the mood perfectly. Of course, those looking for a big-deal current-gen game with super realistic visuals might want to ignore this game thanks to their bias against any indie or other developer that’s doing these types of game experiences. But it’s their loss at the end of the day because they’re missing out on a modern classic that deserves a big audience. Baroque Decay is also working on another horror game called Catequesis, and if The Count Lucanor is any indication of quality, it’ll also be a must-own title for genre fans. Anyway, go get this game, sit back and prepare to be mildly to moderately jolted by its overall weirdness and how well it’s been put together.