Imagine clicking a link to a site that you know and love, like SwitchRPG (just go with it). You’re looking forward to seeing articles from writers discussing music, gameplay, and the history of the genre, and probably a review here or there. You spot the first one in the queue at the top of the page: “Lucah: Born of a Dream Review.”
“Well, this title seems mysterious and nonsensical. And Evan Bee is writing the review! He’ll probably have some choice words about the gameplay mechanics, some comments on the aesthetic quality and whether or not it meshes with the gameplay, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll comment on the narrative in a more substantial way. He’s a pretty verbose guy, after all, it seems like he would get all worked up about that part of the review.”
You click on the review, and although it seems like the writer is trying to go somewhere with his points, you just can’t quite get at what he’s trying to say. The review is spotty, literally and figuratively. It looks and feels like there are giant holes poked in it, where there might be something meaningful or pertinent to be noticed or enjoyed, but it’s just out of reach. Sometimes, trying to make sense of it is a slog, at others, it’s some of the smoothest sentence construction and coherent thought you’ve ever read (okay, maybe that’s a bit generous).
You finish the review feeling somewhat satisfied and go onto your preferred social media outlet – Discord, or Twitter, or Facebook. You make a remark like, “wow, Evan Bee must have lost his head trying to review this game, because that made absolutely no sense.”
And someone responds, “Did you read it a second time?”
Lucah: Born of a Dream has been described by its developers as a Nier-like experience, which is a pretty bold claim, until you realize it’s right on the money. In this Action Role-Playing Game, you play as Lucah, an initially blue little scribble of a dude who fights against nightmares. Though there is stamina management in the game, stringent recovery options, and a load of weighty choices, it’s not a slow and methodical sort of experience like Dark Souls. You’ll be weaving in and out of enemy attacks and switching attack styles on the fly, marveling at the monstrous enemy designs and getting the snot slapped out of you all the same.
The first qualm I have with Lucah is that its default control options have out of combat actions mapped to the B button, which causes all of the other combat options to be mapped above. Your light attacks are mapped to X, heavy to A, and minion attacks to Y. It’s unfamiliar and cumbersome, which makes me question the design behind the default options, but all these buttons can be customized in the game’s options menu, which makes it somewhat forgivable. If you find the combination that works right for you, combat will feel much more comfortable, despite its punishing difficulty.
You attack with Mantras, sets of attacks that can be swapped in and out in order to create the playstyle that is perfect for you. Although you only start with one set, you’ll quickly have two or three at your disposal, which opens up variety immensely. To clarify, your initial loadout is a set of close range attacks that have a quick startup time, but you’ll quickly obtain a set of long-range, higher stamina attacks. When crafting a loadout, you can take the light attack from the first Mantra and the heavy attack from the second set, if it suits you.
Once you’ve got three or four Mantra sets, you get to play with your attack approaches much more, but the real neat element is that you can swap between two custom sets, mid-battle, at no stamina cost. If one enemy type is best fought from long distance, you can switch to a range-heavy Mantra and swap back if a melee-based nightmare comes close to you. It’s a pretty thrilling system that’s only made deeper thanks to your minion equip, which is a purely ranged ability that works off of a completely separate charge gauge. When you deal damage, you build up charge, which can be spent by pressing the minion attack button. Charge also factors into “hold” attacks, which are a bit confusing to grasp at first, but are an additional attack option that can be activated by holding a light or heavy input.
Four attack options, a dodge roll, and tight parry function are all available from very early on in the game, which should say something about the focus of the title. During your first playthrough, you’ll be exploring environments, interacting with a sparse cast of characters with mysterious motives and dialogue, and obtaining some progression-based tools that move you from one section to the next. You’ll encounter a number of enemies along the way, but once you’ve cleared a room, the nightmares won’t reappear until you die, which (fortunately?) happens a lot. You’ll respawn at your last save point with the possibility of spending your accrued experience/currency La on a variety of level up bonuses, from charge gauge increase per hit, to stamina recharge time reduction. Likewise, there is an elusive merchant who will sell a few select items to Lucah throughout your journey, including virtue points, special equipment modifiers that add even more passive, powerful effects, such as stamina regeneration upon Mantra switch, projectile reflection, and the game’s very own Bayonetta-style witch time mechanic. This is more or less the general gist of the game.
On the first playthrough.
Upon completion of the game a first time, you’ll unlock a NG option, which adds a number of intermissions that act as semi-interactive dialogue sequences that fill in the obscured aspects of the narrative from the first run. While these don’t contribute much from a gameplay standpoint, the combat is repurposed entirely to facilitate a very different style of play. During the first playthrough, you’ll come across a young woman who will allow you to “train” with her, a short set of challenges that reward the player based on their performance in combat: taking low damage, little time, and scoring a high combo count.
Completing these sessions not only nets you some La, but it also negates some “madness” from the meter that steadily increases as long as you are not engaged in talking to someone in the game. If you max out your madness meter before the final battle, you’ll prevent yourself from facing the true final boss and the “best” ending. Your madness meter will spike when you die to a normal enemy engagement or boss encounter, so even though you get the opportunity to level up and respec your character, you still run the risk of getting the game’s “bad” ending. Similarly, in the NG mode, every enemy encounter now features the same training bonuses, so you can focus on strong performance and battle optimization in order to keep your gauge as low as possible in order to get a better, canonical ending.
Aesthetics and Narrative
Lucah’s artistic elements may be some of the hardest to rationalize or even come to terms with, but they are also a crucial part of the experience. The Switch icon for Lucah depicts several characters in different hues, but this image is only representative of the Mantra mechanic and the character colors in the game. The rest of the title looks… well, pretty different, if you haven’t already noticed. If I had to be as polite as possible, Lucah’s artstyle can be accurately described as “angsty teenage MSPaint,” and I say that lovingly. Dark backgrounds are punctuated by scraggly white plants and level geometry, character designs are simplistic, but bold due to their neon colors, and nightmares are immensely foreboding thanks to their blood red hue. Everything is relatively discernible, but still doesn’t do the game justice – it’s the animation that helps bring these characters to life much more, with simplistic, but very effective movement implemented to give weight, personality, and speed to each movement.
Though enemies do telegraph their melee attacks with an orange glint in their eye, the hitboxes on their moves are sometimes impacted negatively by the art design. Large, jagged effects burst forth from nightmares like predatory talons, but a casual player might become frustrated by their range, damage, and speed. Likewise, as monstrous as many of these creatures are, some of their designs blend together in ways that might lull a less-observant – or visually stimulated – eye into a false sense of security, only to be struck by an entirely new animation or attack that is not telegraphed.
Likewise, the scratchy nature of the game is at times moody and contemplative, but it also obscures a number of basic gameplay elements. I was unaware that there was a map function until two-thirds through my first playthrough simply because the L and R bumper symbols were too obscured by the art style on the character equipment screen. It is an extremely effective art style at its best, and a mild annoyance at its worst, but overall, I commend the developers for managing to bring movement and character to such horridly warped designs.
Lucah’s main narrative is almost entirely obscured throughout your first run, and this is coming from someone who studies dialogue and cutscenes closely. There are recurring characters and motifs throughout the game, as well as a whole lot of semi-religious imagery, lingering dread, and emotional turmoil, but Lucah is a voiceless protagonist and a passive participant in the game’s narrative. The point of the world that Lucah lives within, and the characters who you interact with, is that it is a series of vignettes stitched together from the memories of the named characters whose representations the player meets along the way. The NG mode’s vignettes give a great deal of context to each of these environments and the stories that Lucah witnesses, though the overarching conflict between Lucah and Christian is not necessarily resolved perfectly, or even elaborated upon substantially, in NG mode.
While I don’t think a completely indiscernible narrative for a first playthrough benefits the product all that much, I do at least respect the opportunity to unlock more context behind the bleak, harrowing narratives of the cast of characters, as well as a potentially more positive ending through an additional mode. Perhaps the first run is meant to be an extended tutorial to teach the player about the mechanics, but a decent story that doesn’t feel like the blind leading the blind wouldn’t hurt, either. For the most part, Lucah is just as terribly dour and relentless in its mood and tone as it is in its gameplay, and for those who struggle with religious guilt, body image, and mental health, it may be a sobering look into a creative and interactive expression of these concepts. While I didn’t necessarily feel at peace or even comfortable a great deal during Lucah’s run, I don’t think that was ever the intention. If that was the developer intent, then kudos.
Lastly, Lucah’s atmosphere is further enhanced by its pulsating electronic soundtrack, reminiscent of some tracks found in Hyper Light Drifter, but much more in-line with the more simplistic, scraggly, dark aesthetics. Sometimes, the environmental noise is simply a quiet drum beat, at others, oppressive and foreboding tracks that evoke the darker thematic elements. Although it doesn’t look the part of a highly-polished game with sharply designed mechanics and storytelling, a few minutes should be more than enough to convince you that Lucah isn’t your average ARPG, and its soundtrack, which is ultimately very unlike the material found in RPG contemporaries, enforces extremely well.
Impressions and Conclusion
At its best, Lucah is a technically challenging title that offers a great deal of self-expression in its combat. At its worst, it feels like stumbling through the dark, unsure of a narrative through-line or any indication of your preparedness for the tasks to come. Its more memorable boss encounters don’t really do all that much to reinvent the wheel, simply existing as mechanically unique engagements in comparison with the standard enemy encounters. For a player who loves challenge, Lucah exists for you, and its last several engagements, including the true final boss, are true testaments to the game’s technical difficulty and polish. Not only is there a NG mode, but also a NG+ that offers heightened difficulty and new enemy attack patterns to push the combat to its extremes.
Running parallel to this, however, is its narrative, and while I do think an audience exists for the specific brand of macabre malaise, melancholy mood, and magnificent action, the placement of the narrative through-line, or at least, the enlightened version of it in the NG mode, doesn’t really make sense to me. Players who want to understand and enjoy the story should be able to play the base campaign and experience a good narrative, not a flimsy one that feels incomplete. Likewise, I doubt a player who is committed to the concept of playing an intense character action title would wish to start up the game only to find a series of unskippable, lengthy storytelling sequences in their way. Sure, an incomplete narrative might be something that a game like Nier: Automata offers and is able to pull off due to its pedigree, but that is a larger-budget title that feels ambitious enough support that kind of design, unlike Lucah.
I’m very torn, because the game does offer multiple modifiers in order to make the play experience easier for those who might be invested in the narrative alone, such as extra health, unlimited stamina, and weak enemies. But once you’ve stripped the challenge from Lucah’s combat system, you’ve also done away with a key part of its oppressive atmosphere. While I could discuss the nature of developer intent and difficulty options in games as a whole, perhaps now is the time for me to bluntly state this instead: there are few other budget titles on the Switch that can compare to Lucah: Born of a Dream. This statement can be made from multiple perspectives, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those are positive. Lucah might be a game that you deeply resonate with, or maybe it’s just a title that you enjoy booting up just to mess around with its insanely versatile combat system. There might be something for everyone in this title, but you’ll have to struggle through one “something” that was made for a completely different kind of person.