Review: The Count Lucanor
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In the ancient, faraway days of my childhood, Nickelodeon would show anime fairy tales every weekday around noon. They were familiar stories but owing to their international source and localization, there we always parts that wandered pretty far afield from the expected. The gentle animation and unusual twists of those halcyon afternoons have stuck with me, and now The Count Lucanor has brought that magic back in a vivid way. Featuring some lush pixel art, unexpected story beats, and a seriously creepy vibe, this is one adventure that fans of the offbeat can’t afford to miss.
Precocious young Hans has tired of his poor peasant life in the woods with his mother, and elects to set off in search of fortune and glory. He soon finds that those woods, so familiar in daylight, become wreathed in terrible magics by night. An evening of terror ends with him at the gates of a mysterious manor belonging to one Count Lucanor, an estate that can pass to Hans if he can but guess the name of the blue kobold steward. To do that he’ll need to search the halls of the enchanted castle, dodging deadly traps and grotesque servants to find the clues which will reveal the treasured name. But riches are not the only reward on the line, as secrets about the reclusive Count and even Hans himself can be revealed in time.
Based on the obscure (to me) fairy tale of the same name, The Count Lucanor bears much the same structure as a classic fable. In his journeys Hans will meet a number of colorful characters, each with their own secrets and their own requests of him. Fulfilling them will likely reward Hans down the line, while spurning them will most assuredly teach him (and you) some hard lessons about kindness. This is where the game steps back in though, providing different approaches to puzzles based on how you’ve treated your companions. Give the old lady a cane, and she’ll reward you with a special item. Keep the cane, and she’ll chastise you but that cane can still be used to skip part of a particular puzzle. Your choices feel like they have weight here, thanks to some snappy writing that lends every character an air of deceptiveness.
Collecting items, solving puzzles, and talking to folks amount to pretty much the entire game. It’s very much an adventure game first, with long treks through the forest and much scurrying around the castle to use new keys and retry confounding puzzles. You have a number of resources to manage, including health to keep from dying, candles to light the pitch-black halls, and gold coins for both purchasing important items and saving your game. That last bit actually adds a fair bit of tension and horror to the game, because you want to hold out as long as you can without saving but there are absolutely some things in the castle which will kill you stone dead. Hearing them traipse about in the darkness or spot you from the shadows can get your blood pumping thanks to some excellent atmosphere, and later areas ratchet up the sense of doom significantly.
Bear in mind this isn’t a long or particularly dense game, but what there is happens to be top-notch. You’ll probably finish it up in about three hours or so, with the meat of the game spread across two main areas and then bookended by the intro in the forest and a short (but sweet) conclusion. Lots of serious choices, multiple endings, and plenty of diverse achievements provide reasons to replay the game but the puzzles aren’t really complex or clever enough to hold your attention a second time.
The mystery and horror of The Count Lucanor comes buttoned up in some precious pixel art, which may seem incongruous until you encounter your first severed head. While not as understated as something like The Last Door, the chunky art still evokes plenty of wonder and dread with some very interesting designs. The sound design similarly carries a huge amount of the atmosphere, featuring breezy corridors and guttural grunts from the darkness. It’s not your standard horror adventure fare but it’s all the richer for it, packing plenty of charm and curiosities into a polished package.