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[Warning: the following review contains references to suicide]
Some of the most beautiful and affecting art pieces, whether it’s a song, a film or a game, are those that take a risk, that actively seek to distill an emotion or a feeling into a message that is universal in tone and true in nature. Lucah: Born of a Dream does just that.
This top-down character action title from developers Melessthanthree, released for PC last year and for Switch in July, paints an abstract and visceral depiction of the darkest corners of the mind. However, Lucah ultimately champions a healing message of love and self-love that gradually sinks in when played and replayed, wrapped in an engaging but flawed combat system.
A quick setup finds your character, a young child with angelic wings on their back, left stranded and alone on a nameless beach. You explore a dark and unrelentingly bleak world, seeking out the mysterious ‘Null Sun’ to escape and rid yourself of your growing corruption.
This world is populated by doomsday cultists seeking oblivion, other angelic children pursuing their own goals, and a host of Nightmares, flickering monsters silhouetted in red against the game’s black background.
Lucah’s storytelling owes huge debts to the modern retro-revival movement, particularly the Souls series, doling out small pieces of information through increasingly despondent NPCs and interpretive environmental storytelling in a progressively fragmented world. Emotional beats are bolstered by brief and electrifying visual poems scattered throughout the game.
Lead director, designer, developer and animator Colin Horgan’s game is hugely introspective, delving into feelings of worthlessness, alienation and anxiety.
Lucah frequently goes into upsetting and graphic territory, both with extreme violence directed towards children [reminiscent of the brutal death animations of Playdead’s Limbo] as well as depictions of suicide. These moments are rare and often abstracted but are definite trigger warnings to be aware of.
Lucah has a remarkably distinct art-style, outlining apocalyptic caverns, religious temples and abandoned forests with stark, scribbly lines that constantly shift and waver like half-remembered images from a nightmare. Composer and sound designer Nicolo Telesca provides an unsettling score that mixes organic percussion and guitars with growling electronics over beds of synths, each layer being introduced dynamically as you delve deeper into a level.
The levels themselves are structured as dungeon crawls. You fill in a rough map as you look for key items for progression, but moment to moment gameplay revolves around fast-paced combat.
Your health items and ‘re-wind’ items, which zap you back to the beginning of an encounter to try again, are used in real-time and enemies re-spawn when you rest at a checkpoint, Souls mechanics no less effective at driving up the stakes and tension of exploration here than in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s work.
Checkpoints are generally well placed, coming as a wave of relief to rest at after barely scraping through a gantlet of enemies.
Lucah borrows liberally from some of the best action games in recent memory. You equip two sets of ‘mantras’ that emit energy waves and two different ‘familiars’, small creatures that float beside your character and fire orbs. Each mantra, a unique fighting style, has a powerful special ability that consumes ‘energy’, a resource pool shared with familiars that can, initially, only be regenerated by hitting enemies, a mechanic directly inspired by Hyper Light Drifter.
Just like in Heart Machine’s masterpiece, this forces you to ebb and flow in and out of danger constantly and adds a hugely engaging layer of decision making, resource management and dynamism to every single combat encounter. Combat ultimately feels more like a shoot ‘em up than a strategic action title, however.
Enemies generally have a limited move-set that they repeat in specific and consistent patterns, bar boss fights. This allows you to reliably read battlefields quickly, navigating the negative safe spaces between intricate weavings of attack patterns to launch a barrage of pleasingly crunchy attacks.
Your character chains light and heavy attacks – each a dedicated button – into simple combos, relying on a smooth and satisfying dodge to avoid enemy attacks. All enemies have auras that severely reduce damage taken until they are broken down, a clever mechanic that encourages the payer to engage with parries, a high-risk tactic that instantly breaks through an enemy’s defenses when timed right.
Many game details are really well done; in particular, swapping between your equipped load-outs prompts a lovely melodic sound effect and the colours of each equipped mantra bleed into each other for your attacks.
Equipping different ‘virtues’, combat modifiers bought from a mysterious shopkeeper and discovered through exploration, adds huge layers of depth to combat.
Further Reading: Ambiguity and Blissful Ignorance in Hyper Light Drifter.
Every new virtue I discovered felt like a revelation, a mechanic that became integral to my combat styles, and this sense of discovering powerful new abilities persists through the entire game. One lets you regain health in a small time window after receiving an attack, like in Bloodbourne, one slows down time after a perfect dodge, just like Bayonetta’s witch time Another lets you smack back enemy projectiles like Roger Federer, and mixing and matching different sets of abilities is a pleasure.
All these mechanics might sound remarkably derivative on paper, but in practice they create a consistently fresh and exciting experience over the game’s short and snappy runtime. For the most part, combat sings on new game plus, where every risk-reward mechanic baked into combat comes into the foreground as you fight new enemy layouts and re-tuned boss fights. Unfortunately, new game plus also highlights the key fault of combat: locking on.
Your character automatically soft locks onto whichever enemy the camera is centered on. This works most of the time on lower difficulties without much frustration, as you generally deal with two or three enemies at a time. However, larger mobs become extremely frustrating to fight. I often assumed in the heat of combat I was locked onto a different enemy than I actually was, which leaves a lingering, maddening feeling of not being quite in control of what your character is doing.
In particular, this turns one mid-game boss, a tanky enemy that spawns a stream of familiars and enemies, into a frustrating mess. Additionally, the game occasionally snaps the camera’s focus onto ranged enemies when one of their projectiles hits you. In large arenas, this can leave you operating in the dark for a crucial half a second. Thankfully, most boss fights are teeth-grinding highlights of juggling multiple tough enemies, reminiscent of classic action game double-acts like Devil May Cry 3’s Agni and Rudra, or complex one-on-one encounters.
The first ending I encountered felt somewhat anticlimactic and unsatisfying, a resolute bleakness that flies in the face of the importance of persisting through the darker times in life, but Lucah is a game designed explicitly to be played through multiple times and this is far from the end.
Certain storytelling elements shift your second time around, filling out world details wonderfully, and my second playthrough ended up being oddly meditative, coalescing my fractured understanding of the game world into something more solid.
However, an extremely severe mechanic that I won’t spoil here will force you to play and re-play entire sections of the game to progress if you die too often in NG Plus encounters; I appreciate the thematic relevance, but I found it frustrating.
However, Lucah displays a list of ‘cheats’ prominently in the main menu from the word go and allows you to adjust the amount of damage you deal and receive on the fly, so consider that complaint a nit-pick. Above all else, Lucah takes risks and is always engaging and interesting to play through. When I wasn’t enamoured with or frustrated by the combat, I was wrapped up in a violent, angry and heartfelt depiction of characters struggling with their mental health.
If you persist and see it through to the very end, Lucah champions the restorative qualities of love and companionship as much as it deals with the pain caused by their absence.
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