Lucah: Born of a Dream review - an underworld memoir that's as brutal as Bayonetta

Black magic.

Content warning: This review and the game include mention of suicide.

Playing Lucah is like being swept along by a great dark river. While broadly a hack-and-slash game, it is always dragging you beyond such labels and into something more lively, tormented and fluid. There may be solid ground beneath your feet but the world appears unfinished, transient, its linework writhing and shivering against a pure black plane, as though unhappy in its own skin. You wander for a while amid the stark eruptions of trees and scribbles of barbed wire, searching for a door key or a checkpoint. You fight a few bladed, cloudy apparitions, tearing their guts out with serrated words of power. And then you find something - a person, a precipice, a peculiar tangle of light - and the water closes overhead. Solidity blinks out, and you are tossed on the flow with a host of memories, bursting open before you in bald white type.

Letters have different sounds. Sometimes, they squeak like fingers on glass. Sometimes, they clatter like gunshots. Between passages you'll catch glimpses of seabirds, dead suns and screaming faces, after-images snatched from the dark like mouthfuls of air. These memories, written in first or second-person, are only loosely tethered to characters and don't fit neatly into a plot; all have some basis in the Roman Catholic upbringing and emotional travails of the game's creator, Colin Horgan.

Lucah's status as memoir and "mood piece" operates like acid on what it borrows from both Christian scripture and games like Bayonetta. It dissolves everything into something you've not quite seen before. At times, it is a visual novel that makes a show of the player's futility, presenting you with dialogue options only to grey out all save one. Elsewhere, it extrudes and plays with the apparatus of design, offering up its own 2015 prototype as an arcade game within the game titled "I am not a machine". On some level it is a piece of music: areas are labelled "tracks" and divided into "verses", while your customisable combat styles are called "mantras". In the course of this shape-shifting, Lucah rescues the much-abused term "immersive" from banality; it is "immersive" in the sense that for much of its length, it denies you the distance you need to clearly picture its form. Rather than making its mystery a question of lore, it delves into the psychological potential of the video game as blackbox, reacting to user input but unknowable and not quite predictable, a well into which stones are dropped without the certainty of hearing a splash.

Lucah may not be your classic A-to-B quest, but it does begin somewhere. The game's protagonist is a cursed soul, battling for some kind of identity against the cowled eminences of a religious state and their own, all-too-tangible Nightmares. Following a (probably?) unwinnable fight with a mighty Harbinger creature, you awaken on a forested shore. A white spectre greets you, like Virgil greeting Dante, and invites you to find your way to the realm's centre. The ensuing landscapes slide from cathedrals and caves to scenes of modern urban decrepitude. You'll visit a metro station that evokes Silent Hill 4, and a pier where phantoms swirl like the undone crowds of The Wasteland. Everywhere you go you find other, defeated travellers, slumped against walls, fantasising about non-existence or clawing at a fading capacity to feel. And everywhere you go, you leave fire, blood and silence in your wake.

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It's the kind of limbo we recognise from Playdead's work, a scene of both socio-economic and spiritual collapse. Ticking along throughout your voyage is a Corruption metre, which imposes a variable time limit on your journey. Allow it to fill before you've found your way to the bottom of the labyrinth, and you'll trigger one of three endings. The timer feature sounds sadistic - it jumps forward a couple of percentage points whenever you perish - but is pretty gentle by the standards of video game Doomsday Clocks. It pauses during dialogue or when reading menus, and on Normal difficulty, I had no trouble reaching the final boss (with time for the odd detour in search of a secret room and a new mantra) before the Corruption swallowed me.

Lucah's world is an awful place to live, but it's never less than mesmerising. I can't think of a game whose art direction better supports its core themes - sorrow and isolation manifest as scratchy 2D wireframe designs that feel like they've been gouged into a prison wall. The architecture rakes unsteadily across the screen. Loose objects and floor textures resemble scabs of lichen. There are no cleanly proportioned objects save for the scarlet, flickering diamonds that seal you into battles. Lucah themself is a skull perched on a tatter of cloth, one eye crossed out, shrunken limbs dabbed on like leeches.

Where the environment is harrowing, the spectacle of combat is delicious. As with Bayonetta, Lucah is about the blasphemous joy of reducing immaterial things - celestial beings, psychic archetypes, faceless interpolations of the State - to brute, bleeding matter. Attacks comprise flared arcs of light, the snap of a flagellant's flail joined to the screen-ripping telekinesis of Akira. The sounds are no less mouthwatering, from the arcade thwop of a combo to the glassy crunch when you break a foe's guard, all of it floating atop a soundtrack of spectral drones and fuzzy, slow-building percussion. What the game lacks in resources next to a Platinum project, it more than makes up for with the style and savagery of its presentation. Freeze-frames evoke the catching of hooks in flesh, and the camera slams in on each fatal blow as though to crush the victim beneath its lens. Characters may seem squishy and uncharismatic when motionless, but in action they pop like lightbulbs against the dingy environments.

lucah_gif

The combat system is straightforward, but beautifully considered and flexible enough to make the prospect of New Game+ very appealing. You've got light and heavy blows, magic attacks launched by a trusty hovering Familiar, and a dodge roll that doubles as a parry when you time it perfectly. Melee and ranged attacks are governed by the tug-of-war between a stamina bar, drained by attacking or evading, and a Charge bar for Familiar abilities, refilled by landing hits. This creates a natural tempo of attack and retreat - diving in for a combo to replenish your Familiar's reserves, then dancing back to unleash all the Charge you've accumulated.

The game's automatic lock-on occasionally struggles to find the desired target in group encounters, but managing this is part of the fun: there are boss creatures, for example, that take cover behind swarms of smaller fry. Overwhelm a foe's guard or parry an attack, and you'll have a few seconds to pile on unmitigated damage, often sealing the deal in a single combo. Backing all this up is an elegant customisation system, with around 20 or so Mantras and Familiars to find, mix and match across two loadouts that can be switched in real-time. There are also new Techs or base abilities to unlock, including a hold-the-button modifier for each light attack, plus Virtues - eccentric mods that, for instance, slow enemy projectiles, or replenish your stamina when you switch mantras during a combo.

Given the abstract nature of Lucah's art, it's a shock to discover how readable the game is during these fights. The colour of your character indicates which mantra you have equipped, and there are pop-up health or stamina warnings for those moments when you simply can't tear your gaze away to the bars in top left. The Nightmares may baffle at a glance - some appear half-drawn, solid pieces floating within colour like bones in a witch's cauldron - but thanks to deft visual and audio cues, their patterns are easily recognised and committed to memory.

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As you settle into the rhythms of combat, you begin to disentangle yourself from the universe that engulfs you. The game's world is caught in a cycle of futility, the downtrodden overthrowing the system only to replicate within themselves its principles of self-loathing and alienation. The obvious comparison is Dark Souls, another anti-heroic fable poised indecisively between epochs, but Lucah goes beyond video game parallels to explore the psychic internalisation of oppression along similar lines to post-structuralist theory. If you're looking for a longer, and spoiler-heavy, dissection of this, I recommend this essay by Rebind's Catherine Brinegar and Paratopic developer Jessica Harvey.

There is a way out of that cycle of futility, but you'll need to complete the game twice (thrice, if you succumb to Corruption) to find it. It's advisable to play beyond the first ending, because the story during your first runthrough is one of unremitting bleakness and despair - of fighting for the sake of fighting, without knowing why or, indeed, who you're fighting for. The prospect of killing oneself is a defining theme, fretted at throughout the text interludes and dialogue like a raggedy fingernail. Other characters talk frequently of the consolations of oblivion. There is a description of somebody's desire to drift upward into thin air, shedding pieces of their body till at last they are without form. The game doesn't just recount such thoughts but at times, calls on you to participate, by throwing yourself from a precipice to reach a new area. This shouldn't be mistaken for advocacy - the game as a whole is about reclaiming one's identity and discovering self-worth, but getting there is a journey. Via its Messianic imagery especially, Lucah draws on the idea that transcendence and strength result from agony. This risks putting the cart before the horse: strength may come from pain, but it does not follow that pain is necessary for strength, and to suggest as much is damaging.

Given that it is fairly explicitly a game about mental health (some pieces of dialogue seem to reference breathing exercises for anxiety sufferers), I wonder whether Lucah might have drawn clearer lines on this count. But then, what I like most about Lucah is how its concepts are subsumed within one another. It's a "jewel" of a game in a less usual sense. Turn it in your hand and you'll see something different, refracted through murky, crystalline substructures. A dystopian fable in which lost souls take the lash to their own demons. A raw-knuckled climb from self-loathing to acceptance that begins with Horgan asking your name, and promising that, in the end, everything will be OK. A lo-fi homage to Bayonetta. A Twine confession. An exercise in formal deconstruction. All of it, somehow, one and the same, swept along by the same current, the same radiant darkness.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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About the author

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Contributor

Soporific jaundiced warbler, based in London. Likes poetry, weird fiction, Soulsborne and Overwatch.

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