I’ve always considered fairy tales to be an underutilised resource for inspiring video games. Dark and filled with monsters, cruel consequences and hidden meaning, these infamous folk stories have been used to threaten and cajole children into behaving properly for hundreds of years. Games often use specific monsters such as griffons and jabberwocks within their own story arc, but it’s rare for an entire game to feel as if it is a comprehensive, modern representation of a previously untold fairy tale. The Count Lucanor actually manages to do so extremely well and not only does it feature a proper make believe world, it’s also a very good game.
I played on the Nintendo Switch, so the chip tune renditions of Bach and the largely smooth, detailed pixel art graphics really bring the world to life considering the small, high resolution screen. The game looks okay on large TVs, but the uncomplicated gameplay works well with its graphics to offer an ideal game for portable play. There are no Switch-specific features that I am aware of, but that’s fine — it’s a solid conversion from a technical perspective and Nintendo’s portable console makes a superb host.
The game begins with a poor, perhaps slightly bratty boy called Hans moaning to his mother about their lot in life and ultimately concluding that he wants to leave home. Packing him up with all of their remaining food and money, Hans’ mother gives in to his desire and sends him off on the road. What follows is spoilable, so I shall avoid describing it in detail, but suffice to say what I thought was an exercise in RPG in-jokes turned out to be an important lesson in decision making within the world of The Count Lucanor. You can play this game however you want — benevolent, cruel or indifferent — but what you will learn very quickly is that your actions will have consequences, just like in any other fairy tale.
Following a somewhat frightening change of pace, Hans finds himself in the Tenebre Castle, which is where most of the action takes place. Again, a detailed description of who and what goes on here would lead to spoilers aplenty, but let’s just say that Hans is given a choice: solve the mystery of the castle and inherit boundless riches, or remain trapped in the castle for all time. Obviously, Hans accepts, leading to the player exploring Tenebre Castle and unlocking various secrets held within the rooms throughout.
The Count Lucanor is structured around a number of puzzle rooms interspersed with item puzzles. There are several ways to complete it, with the most manual method requiring players visit and complete every single room whilst collecting gold and other resources to close out some of the essential side missions. There are also shortcuts littered throughout the game which can speed things up, usually relating to helping one of the characters so that they provide you with a key item earlier than you would otherwise be able to access it.
Some of the rooms in Tenebre Castle contain box-pushing puzzles, some are outright mazes and others require the tactical pulling of levers. In all cases, each room takes only about five or ten minutes to complete, which feels about right considering the relatively straightforward gameplay. Other sections are stealth-based, with the castle halls littered with curtains and tables that Hans can crawl behind and hide under. There is also a cool mechanic for leaving lit candles behind in the otherwise pitch black corridors and whilst the world is hardly large enough to get lost in, it really helped me feel affinity for the poor, lonely Hans, who by now had lost all signs of the insolent attitude he began with.
It all ends with a final conundrum that can result in several different endings, none of which I want to spoil for you, but you should remember at all times that The Count Lucanor is a fairy tale, so you should always expect the unexpected. I have to say, this variation on the familiar childhood theme is something I really loved about the game. I felt as if I knew Hans and the other characters instantly from the stories I used to read as a child, but not a single one of them is a poor parody of someone else’s work. If I have anything to criticise about The Count Lucanor, I’d say it was a little too short — but at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
In the end, I consider The Count Lucanor to be a really nice surprise and a bloody good game. It’s a very light RPG by most standards, but you shouldn’t play it with such expectations. Instead, treat it like a fairy tale and immerse yourself in the simplicity of the puzzles and the black-and-white nature of each decision it asks you to make. It’s short and sweet enough to complete several times over, with enough variance in the endings to make it worth your time to see them all.
The Count Lucanor is available now on Nintendo Switch, on which we have reviewed the game, it is also available for PC via Steam.