It’s time to brush up on your Latin, polish that statue of St. Bartholomew, and bust out the cat-o-nine-tails for some self-flagellation, Blasphemous is here to remind you of what Catholics have known for nearly 2,000 years: suffering is not only a part of life, it’s the entire point.
Developer The Game Kitchen teamed up with Team 17 to release what can only be described as a Medieval Catholicism-inspired metroidvania, and the themes, setting, and general atmosphere hit the nail on the cross…I mean head. Oozing with brutal, grotesque, and ultra-gory visuals and lore, Blasphemous is also a tight, fluid, side-scrolling ARPG that plays incredibly well. While mechanically the game doesn’t do much to break the mould, thematically it’s like nothing out there, and I am actually shocked that this type of setting has never really been fully explored in a video game before. Catholicism, especially in the Middle Ages, was, quite literally, all about guilt and suffering, and Blasphemous takes this theme and brilliantly merges it with a game formula that perfectly suits the idea: die in violent and vicious ways, get resurrected, and do it again.
Players take on the role of “The Penitent One”, allegedly the survivor of the “Silent Sorrow” wreaked by “The Miracle” who must collect (and suffer) through various humiliations and deaths in order to save the land. Similar to games like Dark Souls, the lore in Blasphemous is handed out in vague, obfuscating methods like item descriptions and cryptic conversations with NPCs. The Game Kitchen went all out with committing to the themes of the game, and if you didn’t spend your whole childhood going to church or Catholic school, you may need to brush up on your terminology and history. The dedication to this idea, from the writing and level design to the enemies, weapons, items, and menus, is staggering and I loved every second of it. Your abilities come from customizable a customizable rosary with slots that can be unlocked to fit rosary beads that grant bonuses like extra health, stronger attacks, better dodging etc. and all come with thematically appropriate lore and reasoning. Collectibles come in the form of relics, AKA bits and pieces of the bodies of Saints that have been martyred in various savage and sadistic ways—another point for historical accuracy—and your “magic” spells/abilities are found in various prayers that can also be equipped. You can even essentially buy indulgences to remove the levels of “guilt” that are obtained during each death that lower your health and fervour (power meter for prayers). I can’t gush enough about how each and every gameplay mechanic is built to fit with the themes and setting of the game. Sure, the mechanics are similar to other titles, but the manner in which they’re implemented and the style choices make Blasphemous a truly unique creature.
As far as gameplay goes, it’s a 2D side-scrolling action platformer with non-linear levels full of branching paths and secrets. You’ll spend ages exploring the levels, especially once you begin to unlock new traversal abilities that allow you to backtrack and access areas previously locked or inaccessible. Combat focuses mainly on Mea Culpa, the giant thorny sword wielded by our hero, which has its own tree of upgrades and unlocks with more complex and powerful movesets. Combat itself is both challenging and satisfying, with a solid sense of progression and visceral impacts and executions. Did I mention how gory this game is? Right from the get-go in the tutorial when the Penitent one fills up his conical helmet with blood from a vanquished foe and slaps it onto his head, you know this game is going to be brutally violent and messy. Players can jump, dodge, and parry enemy attacks, and the slow-drip stream of upgrades and gradually increasing difficulty keeps things interesting but never overwhelming or stagnant. From low-level goons to boss fights, you’ll be using every tool at your disposal to hack and slash your way to the end of the game.
Now while the level layouts are excellent, and combat feels great, what truly makes Blasphemous stand out from the crowd is, again, the focus on (or inspiration from) Medieval Catholicism. Enemy design is top notch, including self-flagellating monks that heal by whipping themselves, women chained to angelic statues that are used to smack the player, floating bishops in gaudy golden chairs that stab downwards, and so much more. Suffering, guilt, and blood coat the game from top to bottom, and almost every major character in the game has been through some form of mental and physical torment that then becomes the stylistic choice for their movesets and attacks. One of the characters is notorious for being so beautiful she melted her own face off with hot oil because people were paying too much attention to her and not enough to worshipping The Miracle. The level design also mirrors this, ranging from standard snow mountains and dungeons to gothic churches and sewers rife with floating miasma. This game also has my favourite achievement ever in a game, awarded after killing 666 enemies—how perfect.
I enjoy studying history and theology, and I went to Catholic school for most of my life. I also love metal and gory horror flicks, and this combination of bias led to me appreciate Blasphemous on multiple levels while also being consistently impressed with the amount of research that went into the game. I am in love with the aesthetic of this game, and it’s honestly a bonus that it plays as well it does. The level design, the various little details squeezed into each enemy and character, the visuals, the music, the lore…it all adds up to being a game that will be fun for any fan of the genre, but even better for players who are familiar with the history and iconography of the Catholic church. This game wasn’t on my radar until my Editor send the code my way because he thought I’d like it (and I did), but I am super grateful it found its way into my living room. Blasphemous is an excellent metroidvania with a fantastically realized setting and gorgeous, albeit barbaric, aesthetic. Highly recommended.