As videogamers we visit violence on our make-believe enemies so often and with such prejudice that we’ve whittled the act of thumping a man until he resembles a beef sausage down to the punchline of an old joke; Max Payne’s slow-motion gore geysers; Hotline Miami’s death-dealing-doors; Bulletstorm’s, er, drilldo. One of my favourite memories of the last generation was booting up Rainbow Six 3 for the first time and giggling as the first of many tangos went carthweeling to his death with great enthusiasm.
We long ago transformed murder into comedy.
And so it is with Lucius, a 3D adventure game that owes more than a trifling debt to The Omen and other such works from cinema’s deep library of horrors starring weaselly, bastard children.
Plot-wise, things begin on the night of Lucius’ sixth birthday. Lucius is, of course, the son of the devil as well as our hero – and I do mean that for reasons I’ll get to, he’s no more an anti-hero or a villain than any of Call of Duty’s mustachioed meat puppets. Regardless of moral alignment, Satan visits our Lucius in the dead of night and, without so much as a ‘happy birthday kiddo’, demands he sacrifices his family and all their chauffeurs, servants and chefs for top-secret reasons. Lucius is a mute, so he can’t argue, and if you’ve spent as much time as I have in the company of these numpties you’ll be keen to oblige. Satan then teaches Lucius how to place a toy car in a box with telekinesis and then buggers off back to Satan Land.
And so on with the killing. Over the course of a game carved into seventeen chapters Lucius murders everybody he knows in ever-more comical fashion. This is not a horror game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a game that conjures the atmosphere of classic horror movies, yes, but it transports you into the mindset of its predator. You are death, your scythe is your mouse and your victims are no better than the cretins you love seeing maimed in slasher movies. In fact they’re worse; they’re not attractive.
For the most part you’re free to reconnoiter Dante Manor, the stately home-cum-madhouse that provides the backdrop for the whole story. You can putter about the place picking up matches and bullets, steal adult movies from your uncle’s porno lounge and barge in on family members copulating with the maids. While Dante Manor provides a lengthy list of amusing distractions, the true goal of each chapter is to find your target and then wretchedly figure out how the game wants you to kill them.
You may have heard that Lucius is Hitman by way of The Omen. Prepare to be punched by the callous fist of truth: Lucius is not Hitman by way of The Omen. When it comes to killing Lucius is as linear as a children’s bedtime story, choo-chooing you down its tracks to a destination set in stone. Any deviation from this course is met with written bellows of “Game Over.” You kill who you’re told to kill and figure out how to kill them largely through trial and error.
Shiver are miserly with the clues, which isn’t so much a problem at first but there’s only so many times you can jog through Dante Manor in search of, say, a tube of super glue. Or earrings. It’s vague at the best of times but more often plain obnoxious. One mission demands you kill your Uncle Tom. Fine. Uncle Tom’s an alcoholic and an adulterer. In a game that endeavours to justify its killings with excuses like “his smoking gives me a headache”, these crimes carry several life sentences apiece.
You have some painkillers handy so this murder’s a case of finding a bottle of booze, mixing the two and placing it within reaching distance of Uncle Tom – Lucius’ notebook tells you as much, although stops short of suggesting where you might find the only bottle of alcohol up to the task. The obvious place to head would be the wine cellar, right? Wrong. Next up, the bar. Of course! Any bar worth its salt ought to be rammed with alcohol. Not here, the game cries, before letting slip an almighty LOL. Turns out the correct bottle of booze is sat waiting in your uncle’s wardrobe. Obviously.
At another point Lucius finds himself trapped in a cage. Escape is a matter of grabbing the keys from the wall opposite using telekinesis. Simple, but when you break free an achievement pops: Frank Morris (Morris famously wriggled free from Alcatraz in ’62). This is the logical extent of the puzzles in Lucius; comically obvious or utterly bewildering.
It’s the same story for all 17 missions. Dante Manor is a sprawling warren of corridors funneling you into dead ends, yawning gardens and near-identical bedrooms. It’s an interesting-enough place that conjures a thick pall of doom but traipsing around looking for a tube of super glue is as far from fun as Pluto is from hosting fortnightly, ladies-only discos for which I am the sole host. Yet hunting these doodads is the meat of Lucius’ gameplay.
Ultimately solving puzzles comes down to clicking on the right things in the right order; a sequence of clicks chased up by cutscenes that together rob you of the hard-won satisfaction wrought from plonking the piano down on the janitor’s stupid face by your own accord.
The tragedy is the game’s practically buckling beneath the weight of its potential. Abusing, say, your mind-control powers to convince a man to merge his brain-box with a whirring lawnmower blade is obviously a fantastic thing to be able to do. But choosing to do that and being forced to are two entirely different things. The glee born from his grisly demise would be monumental if it weren’t so obligatory.
Or perhaps the real tragedy is that the cutscenes bookending chapters are an absolute riot. Or that there are so many little touches that bring Lucius’ world to life. I love how mum’s role changes from scolding matriarch to terrified wretch as she starts to suspect Lucius might be a touch maladjusted. I love that you’re allowed access to your uncle’s porno lounge later in the game, and that you use his perversions as another means to murder.
More than anything, though, it’s the cutscenes I love. They follow a pattern too. First comes a macabre death. Then mum goes a little more stir-crazy and finally Detective McGuffin arrives three and a half hours too late to perform something he claims to be detective work. But detective work in Detective McGuffin’s world amounts to banging his fist on a desk and crying observations like ‘this shouldn’t have happened!’ while staring at a corpse. It’s brilliant.
The people charged with caring for Lucius are terrible human beings too, so there’s no sympathy from my quarter. They let him wander around with a pistol in one hand, Pussy Hunters on VHS in the other. They berate and yell that they don’t have time for him. They make him tidy his room while they gorge on Christmas feasts. The police are buffoons of a calibre matched only by those from The Simpsons. His uncle doesn’t even stop serenading the maid with his penis when Lucius wanders in unsuspecting.
Through a mishmash of bungling dialogue, awkward voice-acting and a cast of characters all of whom wear expressions that suggest they’ve forgotten their own first names and all of whom have it coming, watching these dregs die never fails to elicit an almighty hoot. It’s genuinely funny, and it’s why I think Lucius is a real hero. I mean, if we can hail Call of Duty’s bipedal sacks of jingoism and virility as heroes and not xenophobic mass-murderers then a six-year-old with a penchant for murdering a few morons practically qualifies himself as Mother Teresa Mk. II, right?
At a fraction of the current price, Lucius has enough good ideas that if you’re willing to wrestle with the execution I think it’s worth a dabble. Yes it’s often a fumbling farrago of design faux pas replete with checkpoints that would make Grand Theft Auto blush, insta-kill priests and infrequent stealth sections that are seven rungs on the ladder below shameful.
But I can’t think of a single game in which I’ve loathed the characters to such a degree that I hoot and holler when their faces are married to industrial-sized circular saws. I wanted to see each of Lucius’ enemies meet their demise so desperately that I played it from start to finish in a single go. So what if my hatred for those characters stemmed largely from the game’s flaws? If you’re going to make it so that only one bottle of alcohol is fit for the job and that bottle is hidden away in an obnoxious place, of course I’m going to enjoy watching Uncle Tom writhe as his stomach erupts like the business end of a party popper. Through its obnoxiousness it’s almost genius. And as far as backhanded compliments go, they don’t come any greater than that.
This review was originally published on BeefJack.