Kids can be terrifying. I think we can all agree on that. After all, why else would there be such a longstanding tradition of creepy kids in horror stories? From Damien in The Omen to the Little Sisters from BioShock, it's safe to say that if you run into a cute little kid in formal wear with a predisposition for staring and talking in weird voices (or not talking at all), you should run far, far away. Chances are they aren't smiling because they want to play "Guess Who?" with you.
In these stories, the nightmare demon-child is usually cast as the antagonist or the innocent victim who must be saved from forces beyond their control. Similarly, the vast majority of horror games position you as the victim who must escape or fight back against the their assailants. Lucius, from the aptly named Finnish studio Shiver Games, has something different in mind. This game has the window-dressing of a classic possessed-child horror story and the structure of a slasher film, except that this time, you're the slasher.
And that slasher is a six year-old child.
Lucius is the eponymous protagonist, but certainly not the hero. Born on June 6, 1966 (this isn't a subtle game) to a wealthy United States governor and his wife, Lucius is raised with silver spoon in mouth. The family estate, Dante Manor (did I mention this game isn't subtle?), is expansive and packed with servants, relatives, and close family. Lucius is a quiet child, but nothing seems too terribly out of the ordinary until his sixth birthday, when none other than Lucifer himself appears and compels Lucius to commit his first murder. That night Satan reveals the boy's true lineage—he is the Son of the Devil, and is commanded to begin harvesting souls for his true father.
So yes, this is a game about controlling a small child as he devises ways to stealthily murder everyone in a mansion on Satan's behalf. For some of you, that will be enough to tip your hat and say "Thanks but no thanks. Not my thing." For those of you who are still intrigued—you're a little scary.
The game is divided into nineteen chapters taking place over the course of several months, most beginning with a kill order from Dear Ol' Dad and ending with a body and/or explosion of viscera. Nearly every chapter follows the same formula: find out who needs to die, gather information and items until you figure out how the target needs to die, and then, ahem, execute the plan. As you work your way through your demonic hit list, the members of the household slip into insanity and depression, all while your own powers and bloodlust grow.
It's a fantastic idea for a game, and there is a solid foundation here with its fair share of memorable, satisfying moments. Unfortunately, the experience is dragged down from greatness by questionable design choices, inconsistent quality and polish, and small but pervasive bugs. As often frustrating as it is compelling, Lucius is the very definition of a mixed bag, and that's a shame.
When Lucius succeeds, it's primarily because of the developer's commitment to their unique concept. There's a lot of potential to the idea of a household beset by demons and serial murder, and the story is actually quite good. While the dialogue itself is generally tin-eared and poorly-translated, it convincingly conveys the sense of dread falling over the estate. Lucius himself never talks and has little character development, but this isn't the story of his seduction by the forces of darkness. He never questions his purpose or methods. Essentially, he's all-in from the very first murder and never looks back. That's okay—his purpose is to be creepy, and friends, he is exceedingly creepy.
The real story is the downward spiral of his family as the body count rises, and it's here that the game is surprisingly meaty. Cutscenes between chapters and overheard conversations during gameplay explore the futile attempts by the family to cope as everyone they know turns up dead in their house. Relationships are strained and minds are fractured by the trauma. The story is narrated by one Detective McGuffin, who tries desperately to explain an increasingly inexplicable series of deaths through reason and deduction. What at first seems to be a run of bad luck morphs slowly into a murder investigation and then something even darker. It's nothing new if you've seen any of the films or read the novels from which Lucius is clearly cribbing, but my initial cynicism regarding "Demon Child Murder: The Game" was stripped away when I realized it didn't run away from the personal and intellectual side of the horror. It would have been easy to focus entirely on shock and gore, and thankfully that's not the case here. Lucius's mother and father in particular are well-drawn and multi-dimensional as they try to deal with the insanity around them.
It's grim, but there's a dry humor to the game that keeps it from being utterly distasteful. There are no explicit jokes or winks from the developer, but there is a level of absurdity to the proceedings that can be undeniably hilarious. Lucius rarely kills people in simple or obvious ways. More often than not his victims die in grotesque and bizarre fashion, and the developers are more than happy to dwell on these moments with comedically drawn-out slow-motion sequences of gore flying through the air and such. Add the child's creepy, dead-eyed stare to the scene and you've got moments that are equal parts disturbing and friggin' hysterical.
So the story's pretty great, if not the actual script. The rest of the experience, unfortunately, veers between a competent adventure game and a hair-pulling orgy of frustration.
Players control Lucius in third-person, using the standard WASD keys and mouse controls. Items and people that can be interacted with are outlined in faint yellow when moused over in close proximity, and interacting with them is as simple as a mouse click. Beyond simply walking around and using objects, Lucius can store things in his inventory and combine items if necessary. In addition, over the course of the game Lucius is granted powers that can be switched out at will. These rely on an energy bar that quickly dissipates during use and automatically regenerates over time. Among these are Telekinesis, used to move objects around the environment as well as to interact with hotspots from a distance, and Mind Control, which can be used on vulnerable minds to force characters to perform certain actions (often leading to their own demise).
For the most part these powers simply involve selecting the appropriate number key, then pointing at your target and clicking. The controls are simple and work well enough, except for the abilities that rely on aiming and reflex, which feel loose and unpolished. Objects moved with Telekinesis fly around willy-nilly and never seem to end up where you want them, and the rarely-used Combustion power is only ever broken out during the game's two unfortunate "boss battles", which do nothing to undo the stereotype that there are no good action sequences in adventure games. Both are kept short, but they each provide more than their fair share of frustration. The climax, which involves weaving through narrow corridors trying to dodge enemies who cause an instant game-over if you so much as come within two or three feet of them, is not fun. At all.
The endgame wasn't the first time I was forced to restart, either. Since there are no checkpoints or saves allowed during individual assignments, failure at any time means starting again from the very beginning. Considering chapters range anywhere between 10-45 minutes in length, that could be significant. For the most part, though, failing a mission isn't hard to avoid, unless you get caught using supernatural abilities or carrying a suspicious item by another member of the household. This happened to me accidentally perhaps once during the entire game, so it's hardly a major frustration. However, there are some chapters that introduce a more immediate fail-state: For example, one chapter involves sneaking through the house at night without being seen, and failure is instant upon being caught. These are generally short sequences that aren't awfully challenging, so although annoying, they're easily forgiven considering the structure of the game. Lucius is less a game about fearing failure than about simply figuring out how to succeed.Continued on the next page...