Welcome, dear students. Today, our lesson is on a game in a genre that is obviously never talked about ever: horror!
What? People already talk about horror? And it can be a financially successful genre that produces sleeper hits like Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Who is this “Pewdiepie” you speak of? Okay, okay, lemme specialize a bit. How about… religious horror? Yes! That’s it! Let’s talk about religious horror!
Our industry doesn’t generally focus on religious horror. I mean, occultism is a frequent topic, but organized religion? Barely touched upon. Which is a bit of a shame. After all, there’s a strength that comes from the more notable religions that can hone in on both awe and terror. However, that same power can be very easy to make silly rather than horrifying. While you can gain plenty of lessons from the greatest successes and failures, you can also learn plenty from the games that are in the middle.
Heavily influenced by The Omen, Lucius tells us a story all too familiar to fans of the flick. On June 6, 1966 (totally not ominous), the child of a U.S. senator is born, named Lucius (still not ominous), and brought to his home at Dante Manor (not, in any way, ominous). He gets a message from his real father (surprise! It’s Satan) to bring him sacrifices.
Thus begins a quest to kill everyone. Because… that’s what the Antichrist does? I mean, his dad’s a Congressman. I think you can be a bit more subtle and ride his coattails rather than killing all his workers, but that’s why I’m not the Antichrist and just an Aussie playing videogames.
Now, dear reader, how are we meant to kill a bunch of people as a small child? Why, make said demises “accidents,” of course! Each level has our devil kid focus their murderous ways on one person, where your goal is to make them reach a grotesque end. Luckily, you have powers gained from your kills, which can help you on your bloody quest. Whether it’s a memory wipe to make them forget that you’re holding rat poison or telekinesis to break lights, you’ve got some neat little tools that add some variety.
This might sound like Hitman, but it’s a more of a puzzle/adventure game. Instead of solving a jigsaw, however, you get someone crushed by a piano. This can be quite a problem, though. This isn’t a game that give you full reins. Rather, each level has a very specific solution, which can get obtuse.
Those times where you think about how to off your current target as you explore the estate of your home are some of the most enjoyable moments of the game. Dante Manor is large enough to feel like a grandiose mansion should, but small enough to make it personal and easy to remember the layout. It’s quite a welcome change of pace from the expansive open worlds that AAA developers are striving towards.
However, that enjoyment can be short-lived due to some unpleasant game design choices. For example, the changes in gameplay. A good change in gameplay can help prevent the whole experience from feeling monotonous, whether it be a neat little minigame or a boss fight with novelty. Lucius does not do that. In a game where you don’t flat out attack your victims, there are two boss battles and two stealth sections that make it a bit tricky to feel your surroundings.
Now, this may be just me, but playing a kid who’s secretly Satan and being discreet about your killings followed by fighting some guy with fireballs might be a bit of a tonal shift.
In fact, let’s talk about the tone of this game. It’s very silly most of the time. The moments of creeping eeriness are quickly overshadowed by Lucius picking up laundry for his mum, or getting a gardener to just shove his head into a lawnmower through mind control. That might be the developer’s intention, but it doesn’t work that well in this case. This isn’t helped by the body count, reaching twenty over the course of the game.
Looking back at the original Omen, there’s a huge tension that comes with the deaths that happen throughout the film. There aren’t many, but the ones that do happen are pretty grisly and unsettling. I feel a lot of that has to do with the time between them, which helps give the feeling of demonic forces at play. In Lucius, doing the bidding of Satan doesn’t have that same sort of punch. It feels more like a checklist, and you get quickly desensitized and bored from these horrific acts. With all the murder caused, you feel like a B-grade slasher villain rather than the Antichrist.
But if we’re looking at this by B-grade slasher values, would it succeed? Not really. The “accidents” don’t have much of a pattern to them. What do I mean by that? I mean that a death that might be grotesque and hardcore might be followed by something flaccid by comparison. Sure, not every death needs to be a circular blade to the face, but since your reward for a successful murder is more the violence than anything you earn in-game, it can be disappointing that all your work brings with it just a cutscene of a bland death. If your game’s focus is to be a bad person, and the guilty pleasures that derives from being a fictional villain, make it count.
So, even with the successes that come from the setting and atmosphere, the small problems can pile up. I don’t regret my time playing Lucius, though. It’s a novel tribute to one of the classics of horror, and that can be enough if you have a fondness to that subgenre of horror. If you don’t care to begin with, this will not change your opinion.
The Good: A genre that’s not explored often in games. It’s religious horror that tries to focus on a more puzzle-oriented approach to violence with a memorable setting and a fun (albeit obvious) soundtrack.
The Bad: Remove said novelty and soundtrack, and you’ve got a fairly clunky game with an unwieldy tone, uninteresting puzzles, and a body count that’s more fit for Friday the 13th than The Omen.
This game is like: A fan-sequel to a movie you liked that ups the ante to the point of the insanity. Made with love, but not necessarily skill. “Interesting,” but not “good.”
With All That Said, What Does Lucius Teach Us?
1. Be careful with cinematic influences
It’s very clear that this is heavily influenced by The Omen, the difference being that Lucius is three times longer than The Omen (more or less depending on how willing you are to use a walkthrough or if you’re just really good/bad at these sort of puzzles). That doesn’t work in Lucius’ favor.
Imagine if you needed to add a half-hour to The Omen. What would you add to that film? More death scenes? More scenes of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick being scared? The pacing of that film would die. The same thing happens with Lucius, and it really wants to be The Omen. But the length of time to finish Lucius doesn’t allow it to be The Omen. It becomes too much in the worst way possible and loses steam in the process. Pacing matters, and remember to think if you’re trying to stretch out a novelty too far. It’s better to have three hours of great than eight hours of okay alongside three hours of great.
2. Small doesn’t mean bad
Bigger is not always better. If you have a setting that’s smaller, that can be far more memorable than something sprawling and huge. A smaller play area can bring with it detail and personality that’s far more challenging to bring in a larger setting. It can seem desirable to make something as big as you possibly can, but restriction brings with it creativity: embrace it. Otherwise, you’ll bite off more than you can chew. Know your limits.
3. Make your violence count
With how violent our medium can be, it’s amazing how we forget how powerful its use can be. Violence can be titillating, terrifying, awe-inspiring, or all three. Lucius sometimes remembers this quite well (such as forcing a man to blow his brains out), and sometimes wastes its own potential (getting a man to die from inhaling chemicals? Kind of a miss after messy suicides).
Violence isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It’s an action that brings personal conflicts of animalistic aggression and humane disgust, and knowing what sort of violence you make in a game or any piece of media (if you so choose to bring violence into your art) will help you understand what will make your art leave an impact. Otherwise, you might face some unwanted dissonance in your work, much like Lucius.
I would love to hear your opinions on this game and other games like Lucius. Can religious horror be explored successfully? If so, how would you make a game like this? What would you add? What would you remove? Do you think Lucius is better/worse than I think?
Remember: True failure is not in terms of tech or narrative. True failure comes from art that breeds no discussion.