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Played on: PC | Steam
Released: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS.
BLASPHEMOUS is all about grief.
Something called The Miracle has left the world a ruined husk of what it once was. A bizarre mixture between a Stephen King inspired wasteland and the middle ages. Nightmarish creatures walk the expanse, some mutilated beyond belief, others oddly captivating. In the middle of it is The Penitent One, the mute hero of the game. Without personality or gender, they are driven by nothing but a burning desire to reach the end of their pilgrimage, wherever that may be.
Taking cues from games like CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT and DARK SOULS, BLASPHEMOUS is another in the long, proud line of side scrolling adventure games done right. It’s an immense adventure, filled with nooks and crannies to explore, each potentially deadly without warning. Enemies can swarm you easily, and you’re outnumbered at every turn. Yet it never feels unfair, even when the sometimes fiddly controls plummet you to an umpteenth death. It’s challenging, sometimes due to an oversight in design, mostly by choice, yet consistently captivating and rewarding. There’s a genuine sense of victory reaching consecrated ground, which serves as a checkpoint system for the game. By the time you’ve spent ages combing through a deep dungeonscape, and you begin to notice that not only are you out of health potions, but you haven’t seen an alter in ages, there’s an exhilarating mixture between panic and adrenaline. Will you risk going further down into the depths in hopes of finding a new resting place, or will you return, potentially slipping and impaling yourself on one of the many traps along the way back towards the surface?
The game establishes most of the mechanics very quickly. Health is restored by bottles of bile, which are limited at first, but grow quickly in number as you find and buy more. Your trusty sword, The Mea Culpa, can be upgraded to wield stronger attacks. There is no armor to speak of, but you’re equipped with prayer beads, each boosting a specific attribute. You can only equip so many, and usually a boss fight gone wrong will pretty quickly inform you of what items you need going forward.
Such choices quickly become the main thrust of the game, as you’re forced to weigh your own skills as both a fighter as well as explorer the further you disappear into the wilderness. Enemies usually can kill you in a few hits, and traps are always an instant kill. It’s punishing, yet fun. Like Catholicism.
And what a wilderness it is! The game utilizes a retro pixel art style, with hand crafted flourishes hidden in every animation. The Penitent One is beautifully illustrated, each of their actions carefully and methodically designed to help create a visual library for the player to understand their move sets. The same goes for the enemy and boss design, which is at once repulsive and thoroughly compelling. The world of BLASPHEMOUS is likewise a wonder, with massive ruined castles, hugely vertical mountain ranges, and sunset kissed valleys all waiting to be explored. Each of these areas populated by an intriguing cast of pilgrims and victims, all in need of help in one way or another. It feels like the world moved on, and those left behind have nothing but anguish to comfort them.
Being an action game, much of your time is spent fighting a large variety of enemies both big and small. Combat is almost exclusively tied to a single mode of attack, with some variety coming from counters and spells that you pick up along the way. There is a parry mechanic, but I found it fiddly to say the least. Some attacks are very clearly telegraphed and fun to attempt to block, but the bigger the monster, the harder it was to figure out at what point the game actually wanted me to hit the parry button. Since The Penitent One is also apparently a couch potato, as they take ages to get up off the ground once knocked down. Doesn’t matter if there’s one enemy or ten around, there’s always time for a good lounging. At its best though, the combat is fluid, fast, and desperate. One of the best moments in the game is a battle between The Penitent One and a pilgrim on a long stone bridge with the sun at their backs.
The adventuring itself is fun for the most part. Exploring and deciphering new pathways is especially immensely rewarding. There’s a real sense that you can go anywhere at your own pace, and finally figuring out a shortcut that will cut you hours of backtracking is a pleasure I will never tire of. But the controls are fiddly and sloppy, leaving me often falling into easily preventable deaths far too often to be fun. For a game demanding extremely tight controls to navigate multiple puzzles involving sharpened spikes, BLASPHEMOUS is a little too happy with what they’ve released. Compare the game to the brilliant DEAD CELLS, released last year, and BLASPHEMOUS feels downright sluggish to play.
But, and this must be emphasized, even with these issues, I spent a good ten hours with BLASPHEMOUS enjoying every minute of it. It’s aggravating in the same way that DARK SOULS is, meaning that even with all the rage quits (and there were many), I still found myself returning again and again to this dark and miserable world. When I wasn’t playing it, I thought about tactics to use for my next dungeon crawl. I needed to know where this world had gone wrong, and I didn’t want to stop until I finally had answers.
If that’s not a solid recommendation, I don’t know what is.