The yawning void stares at you. An infinite murk, resting beneath a cloud-tumbled sky. In the distance, a tower reaches out into the heavens above, a light atop it blinking. You sit beside Christian, another soul lost in the ether, like you. You call yourself Lucah, at least, now you do. The Marked One. A cursed child tossed into this realm of madness, damned to fight a Sisyphean battle against the twisting horrors that await your ever deeper plunge into this beckoning unknown.
Christian decides time is up for this moment of peace. Your heart-to-heart finishes abruptly, and they demand a fight from you. Death is the only true peace in this world, so far as they can tell. And they desperately want to be at rest, finally, entirely; to find an escape from this world is to find hope and love once again.
LUCAH: Born of a Dream is a game built upon dream logic and surrealist fantasy, morphing into an esoteric action-RPG from developer melessthanthree. It plays lightning quick, battles flitting in and out of your focus as you dance between rooms, a choreographed sequence of challenges and failures. Two attacks are your bread-and-butter, light and heavy, dictated by the interchangeable skills called “Mantras.” You equip these, two at a time, as Paradigms, alongside a Familiar for each Paradigm, that gives a unique, particular attack. These two sets can be swapped at any time during combat, allowing for experimentation with equipment set-ups to discover combos that work best for you. And, as you dodge incoming attacks, you can time it right for a Parry, then lay into your foes. Should they withstand attacks long enough, you can also always Break them, exposing them for a combo or two.
On top of Mantras and Familiars, you’re able to utilize a Rewind during combat, resetting the current encounter to its start with your status back to where it was then, too. As well as that, you carry a very sparse amount of Health Essences, which is basically your only way to Heal. There’s also a plethora of skills you can equip, called Virtues. Each once can drastically change the game, or your playstyle. For instance, I was infatuated with Parasitic which allowed me to regain some health via attacks for a short period after being hit. Others allow you to teleport to an enemy, regain Charge passively instead of per hit, or make you stronger—as well as your enemies.
These few parts seamlessly blend together into one of the smoothest action experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. Much as you’d expect of a Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, you find yourself swapping between fighting styles, identifying which foes to prioritize, managing a stamina and charge bar, as well as keeping track of your health and watching for enemies to wind up their attacks so you can get the hell out of there. It makes for a ridiculously speedy game, further accelerated by the slick presentation of combat: finishers cause the top-down camera to snap-zoom to you, a hit-frame holding for just a fraction of a second before you blast the enemy’s corpse across the room and speed into attacking the next one.
Comparisons to Souls titles are readily made toward LUCAH as well, but they only really apply in the barest sense. Defeating enemies raises your coffers of la, the experience system and currency here. At Rest Points, you refresh your stores of Rewinds and Health Essences, respawn enemies, and spend your la to level up one of four randomly selected skills. Each level, the choices refresh, lending to a sense that you are not the one in control in this place. Growth itself is difficult, a tedious choice, and sometimes not in the way you want it to be. But, outside of those few elements, the game is a far cry from Souls, especially considering that you don’t lose la upon death. A welcome benefit, that is, with fights having you grip the controller until your knuckles go white, moving at a speed that would put Bloodborne to shame.
Given the speed, the art style does a lot of work to help keep track of everything. Fights can get hectic, with several massive enemies filling the room. However, since the game is nothing but bright, primary colors, it’s quite easy to keep track of Lucah amongst the baddies. Environments are typically grey and black, letting the bright red enemies take focus easily, never muddied against background. You swap colors based on which Mantra is equipped at the time, allowing you to easily keep track of what fighting style you currently have going.
It makes for a game that is extremely easy to fall into a state of “flow” with, where you enter what feels like a zen mindset, focusing entirely on your movements from second to second, and reacting instaneously to those of your opponents.
Outside of the combat itself, there’s a surprisingly massive world you explore over the course of the story. Each area is themed: a forest, suburbs, a subway system, and so on. You float between locales, usually suddenly waking up in them after being knocked unconscious by battle or otherwise. This murky sense of place plays no small part in the overall dream-like feel of the game. The story feels obtuse in a way only a nightmare can be: terrifying entities haunt you, only to be replaced suddenly by the eeriness of a literal ghost town. Chunks of dialogue are spurted from characters, near-faceless people who seemingly come out of nowhere yet have no place to go. You have a sense of urgency, but you can’t quite figure out why.
The plot itself revolves around Lucah, having arrived to this world recently (or perhaps arriving to this loop of it recently), and their plight to try and attempt saving it, by destroying it. You and everyone else here knows that a different world lies outside this one, a place much better for some, a reminder of nothing but horror for others. This place corrupts its denizens, a percentage counting ever upward in the corner, and spiking when you die. Against this looming threat, you have to force yourself through, find the harbinger of this place’s miasma, and stop them. Others stand in your way beyond the nightmare creatures, such as Christian. Friends are found in these people, but they quickly give way to being foes. It’s hard to feel anything but anger down here, and these are people who have been hurt too much to pull themselves out of that spiral.
Gnawing at the inner machinations of all this is a thematic sense of cruelty, usually with religious overtones. A sense of rejection lies at the heart of all: rejecting a status quo, rejection of yourself, of a god, of you being rejected for being different. LUCAH concerns itself with those typically underfoot, the marginalized, those who have always been in this nightmarish place that you’re tearing apart; a place that has no hope, no harmony. Instead there is only bright, red pain. Fury. Hatred. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your struggle shows that, and you know that salvation doesn’t come from above, but from within.
All of this, story and combat and art, mesh beautifully with the wondrously designed soundtrack and ambiance. Fights ring out with satisfying crackling and thumps, blows ringing out true every time they connect. Beneath that, a pumping bass line grows dirtier, corrupting a synth melody. It’s easy to find yourself bopping along to the music, the rhythm giving way to a pace you find yourself in for each fight. As you wander, the world feels genuinely frightening, something absolutely unknown, and definitely dangerous. Dissonance fills the voidspace surrounding you, static and beats holding the place together with some sense of cohesion. Not only this, but the story is framed within musical terms: chapters of the plot are Tracks and rooms are Verses (including Bridges serving usually as mid-bosses). In the end, there’s even a B-Side to delve through the remixing that New Game Plus offers, it becomes a different view of the world, another half of the whole.
An excellent game, overall, and one worth giving a deep dive into. You’ll come up, refreshed and reborn, seeing things from a new perspective. LUCAH is tough as nails, a baptism in fire, rewarding in equal parts punishing. If you do decide to trek its horrors, keep a tight hold on yourself. It’s easy to be lost in the murk of agony. But, you’ve a heart of gold amongst them.
Don’t let them take it from you.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.