It’s fair to say that Hans could have had a happier childhood. With dreams to one day explore faraway places, uncover treasures, and to visit lavish castles, he had to stay at home to help his mother when his father had left to fight the war. It is his tenth birthday in The Count Lucanor, and, while other children in the village are given presents, sweets, and throw parties, his mother has little money to spare meaning that he never gets to have any of those things.
Upset, he decides to leave home in search of fortune and warns his mother that he will never come back. But, while she doesn’t put up much of an argument against the decision, she gives him his grandfather’s cane that has great sentimental value to her, her last three pieces of gold, and some cheese – which is all that they had left to eat.
As you walk into the forest, it isn’t long before your selflessness is put to the test in The Count Lucanor. An old woman asks for help after her cane broke trying to herd a pig to the market to make some money, a famished donkey wants some apples to satisfy its hunger, a merchant panics that his master will punish him unless he returns with some money to make up for the wagon that he has broken, and a goatherd’s belly rumbles after he forgot to bring something to eat with him.
It is for you to decide whether to part with the items that your mother gave you, with the air of mystery that Baroque Decay has swathed their game in meaning that it is unclear whether the favours that they promise in return will be beneficial. Regardless of your choices, Hans will eventually wake up in the woods in the dark, with only a flickering candle to light his way. It soon becomes clear that something unexpected has happened, though, as the world is far more twisted than it was before, and, rightly scared by what he sees, Hans spots a mischievous kobold back to a castle for safety.
This is where The Count Lucanor really gets going, as, entering the walls of Tenebre Castle, the scheming kobold reveals that you have entered the fortress of the Most Illustrious Count Lucanor. Explaining that his master does not have a son to take his place, the kobold has been tasked with searching for young noblemen who deserve to inherit his wealth as the new Count Lucanor.
It’s a seemingly simple task, with Hans being given the night to guess the kobold’s name. And, it’s almost worth not spoiling what follows in this horror adventure set in a fairytale world, so I’ll tread lightly at this point. As Hans, you wander the castle’s darkened corridors under candlelight, completing puzzles locked away in rooms with keys that are colour-coordinated to the banners that drape outside of them. Your reward in each is one letter that is part of the kobold’s name, with some red herrings thrown in to be forever cautious about.
You are not alone in the castle and not only will you stumble into treasure hunter Giulia and the magic mirror Ambrosius, but you will also live in fear from the evil creatures, underworld beings, and hateful ethereal entities that stalk the halls, seemingly under the command of the frightening Red Camerlengo. That will see you evade their watchful gaze by hiding under tables and behind curtains – using spare candles to illuminate the dank hallways to see where they wander.
The save system, which sees you throw a piece of gold into a fountain for a crow to ‘save’ your soul, adds to the mounting pressure as Tenebre Castle becomes increasingly hard to wander. And, the puzzle design is strong enough to make you rack your brains, often requiring you to recover items scattered in rooms or dodge merciless death traps.
The retro aesthetic and animations readily capture the mood that the developer wanted to achieve with The Count Lucanor, the characters that you encounter suitably being creepy enough to unsettle you on repeat occasions. But, the audio direction lacks menace, with much of the game seeing you listening to Hans’ hesitant footsteps and an unending gust of wind.
Unravelling the mystery around The Count Lucanor was one of the more memorable, and chilling, gaming experiences that I have had on Nintendo Switch, and something that you shouldn’t overlook on the Nintendo eShop. It’s a shame, then, that it is over all too quickly, your time in Tenebre Castle being over in two or three hours. But, with the promise that every decision that you make counts, there are five different endings that you can reach. It just depends on whether you dare go back, to hunt them out.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Merge Games