Lucius is a game that really surprised me when it launched roughly a week ago. I had never heard about the game and nobody even talked about it until right after it was released. This is an issue that has to be resolved though, because this is most definitely a game worth talking about.
In this game you take control of a young boy called Lucius, who lives in a huge mansions with his rich family and servants. On his sixth birthday he however learns that he is not just some ordinary kid, he is actually the son of Satan and has inherited some of his dad’s powers. To appease his newfound father, Lucius has to sacrifice the inhabitants of his mansion to him, a job he is more than willing to perform. Each murder plays out as a puzzle in which the player has to set up traps for the targets and use demonic magic to finish them off. The player must also make sure that he isn’t spotted while doing so and this often means hiding the evidence after the deed has been completed. After and before each mission there is also a short cutscene in which a detective leads the case and performs research, which is a nice addition because the plot escalates at a decent pace, so you are always looking forward to what will happen in the next scene.
I liked this setup and I can’t say that they failed to execute it either. The most entertaining about committing the murders is that the characters in the house react appropriately to your behavior, so you better not start summoning anything nasty during dinner. I found it to be quite amusing when a character I was supposed to kill started asking me to leave after a while, because I had been observing him for a long time and that made him “feel nervous”. The boy also has personal reasons to kill the people, so he’s not just doing it for the sake of having gameplay. The second guy you have to kill is a chain-smoker and Lucius himself writes in his notebook that “it gives him headaches”, for example. It’s a very small touch, but it nicely covers up the fact that we are actually just moving from level to level and it’s interesting to see how Lucius slowly loses his own morals as the targets run out. The only real problem there is with the story and the way it has been set up is that the kid himself is not terribly interesting.
He is given mastery over the powers of hell, is the son of the most feared entity in biblical history and yet he goes through the entire game with a dull, expressionless face. He never smiles, laughs or looks disgusted at any point in the game, so he simply ceases to be a character. A silent protagonist can be done, but not when he is surrounded on all sides by people who clearly have an established idea of what kind of boy he is.
Gameplay consists of two different sections: the very fun puzzle-sections and the not-fun-at-all sneak-sections. The puzzles are the best, because they require you to observe, explore and think. The first step is usually to find somebody in the house that annoys Lucius, upon which he’ll write the name down in his notebook. Once you found the target, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to put them in harm’s way. I already mentioned that the second guy you have to kill is a chain-smoker, so let’s continue to use him as an example (minor spoilers for a tutorial level incoming). At first I spend like half an hour running around the room and trying to use telekinesis to drop heavy objects on his head, but then I noticed his matchbook lying on a table. I picked up the matches and sure enough, he had to find an alternate way to light his cigarettes.
The character then moved to the kitchen and started using the oven instead, which was a very obvious clue on how to get to him. A nearby carpenter was kind enough to borrow me his screwdriver and with that I rigged the oven (end of spoilers here). It’s the perfect example of a logic-puzzle, one that the player is perfectly capable of solving without demanding any sort of obscure knowledge. Using a tool on an oven is not a stretch and if you don’t have the tool, then the game gives you a brief hint about tools. Since the entire game plays inside a mansion, you’ll also never run into situations where you need to combine coconuts with holy water or some other crap that steers you towards gamefaqs. Batteries and a flashlight create a working flashlight, that’s the kind of stuff you can expect in this game.
So the puzzles are good and the story is good, this means that the game is going for the gold star, right? Well, that would be true, but there is one problem that literally sours up every aspect of the gameplay. That problem is the controls.
Lucius controls a lot like Bubsy 3D, except with a human who never speaks, instead of a cat who never shuts the fuck up. The biggest problem is that the game plays in third-person, so you are both responsible for controlling the camera and the character. It took me a while to figure out what the problem exactly was, but in the end I figured it out by playing Psychonauts (my favorite game of all time), which is also in third-person. The most modern method of controlling a protagonist when not looking directly through their eyes is to have them turn along with the camera and use WASD-keys for moving forward, backwards and strafing.
Lucius doesn’t do this though, instead the camera is completely separated from the character and you use A&D for awkwardly turning around. Now admittedly Psychonauts is a lot more fast-paced and many horror games use stiff and confined controls as a way to make players feel weaker, but that still doesn’t excuse the camera. Having to turn two elements at the same time is bothersome enough as it is, but there is also a huge difference between how fast the camera turns and how fast the character turns, so what ends up happening is that you get disorientated while playing. You do get used to this after a while, but there will never be a point where you no longer notice just how strange it feels.
You won’t really need tight controls during the puzzles, especially since the game is nice enough to not bog you down with a timer while doing them. However, it does get really problematic during the aforementioned stealth-sections. From time to time you’ll have to navigate the house at night, avoiding your parents and other people as an additional challenge. This is where the very worst of the game starts to show, especially when the characters decide to glitch out. I had to stop playing after two hours of trying to pass the first mission where you need to sneak, simply because I got sick and tired of one NPC constantly getting stuck in the doorway. Doorways are your worst enemies, by the way. Characters have the tendency to get completely stuck in them, especially when they need to carry something.
Another problem with doors is that you are often supposed to hide in closets when sneaking and wait for an NPC to leave the room. It’s not a bad idea, but the game never tells you when it’s safe to come out, so you just need to guess and hope to get lucky. Nothing breaks the flow of a game more than having to spend ten minutes in a dark room, doing absolutely nothing at all, only to open the door and discover that somebody was still hanging around and you need to do it all over again. This problem could be completely fixed if they just outlined other humans (like how the zombies see the survivors in Left 4 Dead), so you are always fully aware of your surroundings. They could also do something more subtle and give a small animation to the footsteps when they are close (little tremors or waves). It would be even better if characters had actual patterns when patrolling and were not just left wandering around randomly, because that often left me with arriving in a room filled with five characters that just didn’t want to leave.
At this point I made the game sound like a very mediocre title and one that has no real stand-out features at all. This would probably mean that the title would just come and go, it would be released, nobody would buy it and then it would be lost into obscurity. The kind of games you’d find in budget bins really come to mind. Lucius however does have something that makes it a memorable title, a feature that will probably help it achieve the status of cult-classic over time.
I am talking about the game’s amazingly gory presentation, which was so well done that it actually convinced me to play this all the way through (I am usually very terrible at puzzle games). Lucius is quite the little sicko and he doesn’t feel content with just having people die in simple car accidents or by falling off a roof, he wants them to suffer as much as possible or at least make sure that it shocks the hell out of whoever finds the corpse. A lot of the early murders involved leaving the victims with half their face gone, sometimes even shattering their entire skull in the process. The entire game is filled to the brim with realistic gore caused by simple household appliances and there is a lot of blood to go along with that too, so fans of the Hostel movies will find a lot to love in this game. The game also has some very outstanding graphics and while it’s not as good as Heavy Rain (that finger-cutting…), it still makes sure the death scenes are entertainingly brutal.
There are some minor optimization problems that harm the presentation, though. The most obvious one is that game tends to stutter during cutscenes, which was a shame, because they were pretty entertaining to watch. I figured I could fix the problem by messing with the settings, but this became difficult when it turned out that there were no settings. That is rather shameful for a PC/Mac exclusive, since I personally prefer this platform for the improved graphics and the ability to alter them to my will. I could only change the detail and resolution or switch Full Screen and Vertical Sync on and off. The framerate during actual gameplay is good enough, so if you don’t care about the cutscenes, then this is only a minor problem. Even console games at least offer the option to change the brightness though, so why can’t we do so here? The lighting is usually appropriate, but there will be times when you can’t see a damn thing.
I could go on and on about various minor pros and cons, but it’s about time to wrap this review up. Lucius is a very unique game and one that was clearly made by a capable studio. The graphics are surprisingly detailed, the puzzles creative, the story acceptable and the pacing is pretty good as well. Usually new concepts like these are realized by small indie-studios, so I am glad that Shiver Games was willing to take a risk and put some money into their work. This however doesn’t excuse the many control issues, obnoxious AI and the many glitches and bugs (I spend too much time trying to drag my character out of walls than is acceptable).
It’s however worth remembering that not every studio can instantly create a perfect gem, I already mentioned Heavy Rain earlier in this review and the studio behind that game also started out with the mediocre Indigo Prophesy. If you are either a fan of 90’s PC games (and can thus deal with inferior controls) or just very intrigued by the concept, then I can recommend getting this game right now. It does not disappoint. If you can’t really decide, then waiting for this game to drop down to $10 is probably better than taking a guess.
I am personally looking forward to what Shiver Games might produce in the future and maybe, just maybe, their next game will be a true 10/10.