Retrospective Overdrive: An Engagement with Lugaru HD

I'd like to introduce the Silicon Sasquatch readership to our newest contributor. Dan Phipps, long a friend of Sasquatch editors Doug and Nick, is not just a good buddy but also a diehard gamer and generalized nerd. Equally at home behind a console controller, PC keyboard or 20-sided die, he has an intelligent and irreverent writing style. His look at Lugaru HD fits in with our Retrospective Overdrive. Without further ado, take it away, Dan!

I needed a break from Fallout: New Vegas. I had been playing it for what felt like days and had barely scratched the surface of my persistently increasing list of quests. In times of trouble like these, I’ll usually re-install Deus Ex and try to beat the game (again) with some absurd restriction like only using rocket launchers or swords. But not this time. This time I stumbled upon a treasure trove of games in my Steam account, and I have almost no recollection of how they got there.

One of those titles was Lugaru HD. I couldn’t find any record of buying it during the last Steam Orgy of Wasted Money this past holiday season. Because Steam allows one to acquire games without typing in credit card info or taking a breathalyzer test, it’s not unheard of for me to make bad financial decisions. It is uniquely odd for me to have no memory of the acquisition, though. And there sat Lugaru, a mystery wrapped in an enigma left in my games library.

It turns out that the first Humble Indie Bundle, which I purchased with the intent of only playing World of Goo, included this title. I must have activated it on Steam out of principle and promptly forgotten it existed. The time had come to actually give it a shot.

Lugaru HD is a rabbit-centric third-person brawler made by Wolfire Games. Responsible for assembling the Humble Indie Bundle, Wolfire has received a great deal more attention as an indie darling of late, though a cursory bit of Google-fu showed that Lugaru was actually something of a cult hit back in the day.

The original Lugaru was a shareware title initially available on the Mac, which in 2005 didn’t have many non-Blizzard titles available. As a result, an entirely unexpected mod community sprang up in its wake; as Wolfire moved on to larger projects, they upgraded the textures, slapped HD on the title, gave it a $10 price tag, and then turned around and offered it for as little as a penny as part of the HIB.

Lugaru should be commended for its unique approach to an established genre. I’ve not spent a lot of time reflecting on what an anthropomorphic rabbit knife fight would look like, but it’s obvious that Wolfire has put in that hard work. When you jump, you soar across the (admittedly barren) terrain. Combat feels fast and brutal, though the actual mechanics behind it are seemingly inexplicable. Some reference is made to knives and other weapons doing permanent damage, implying that your punches and kicks only hurt temporarily. Your opponents seem to either pop back up endlessly or go down after one or two solid blows. The visual cues that your character, Turner, is about to die are difficult to interpret and offer little help. Also, there’s a meaningless point system that feels out of place given how perilously close you are to dying in every fight.

When the combat works, however, it is brilliant fun. Sneaking up behind a patrolling bandit, knife in hand, and slicing their throat is thrilling, especially because it saves you a dangerous frontal confrontation. You will have to retry levels repeatedly once the going gets tough, but success feels glorious.

Everything else about Lugaru is Zardoz-caliber weird. Turner lives with his wife and child in a commune of rabbits that do nothing but hang around a weird, rocky outcropping in the middle of a grassy wasteland. After Turner’s family is murdered by bandits, he sets out for revenge, uncovering a royal conspiracy (?) that pits him against the rabbit bandits, the only force capable of defending them from an invasion of wolves. There is a bloodless coup, and Turner sets out to confront the Alpha wolf, staving off an invasion. I really loved the Redwall-esque setting, but the haphazard writing made me wish the upgrade to HD involved more than different textures.

As soon as I was pitted against a trio of patrolling wolves, the game was effectively over for me. Taking down even one wolf demands insane perfection from a game I had been enjoying for its sloppiness. Lacking a cohesive narrative to drive me forward, I didn’t feel all that bad stopping when it ceased to be fun. If you bought the Humble Bundle and haven’t played Lugaru yet, I’d heartily recommend giving it the time for a quick play through. However, given the wide range of budget titles available, I can’t say I’d be happy if I’d dropped the cash on this particular title. But if nothing else, I’m now excited about the proposed sequel.