Developer: The Game Kitchen
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Exploration Focus
Platforms: Windows, Steam, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2019/09/10
Languages: English, Japanese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese
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An ancient force of nature, a God, or some demon from another plane, whatever it is “The Miracle” affects all of the denizens in the world of Blasphemous. It fills them with guilt and provides them with seemingly everlasting life to suffer for their sins. You play as “The Penitent One”, a survivor of a massacre, who must slay all of the icons of penitence and possibly discover the truth. It’s a premise that makes for a good video game based around the usual violence of slaying bosses and powering up, but thanks it being caked in some obvious real world religious imagery; it has the potential of providing some symbolic meaning to its players. I am personally a student of many religions, but this game at least makes me realize I’m wildly deficient in Catholicism, since I personally look at the narrative with some confusion (which I’ll discuss later.) What’s left for me, and I’m sure for most of the people playing this game, is its “Souls-like Metroidvania” gameplay, and from that perspective I think it’s a very good title, but some may be a little disappointed.
Part of that disappointment will come from expectations. The hype surrounding Blasphemous – thanks to reviewers and word of mouth – places it in two genres that it doesn’t exactly fit into. In fact, during the entire development cycle the developers kept saying that it’s ”not actually a Metroidvania”[www.gamereactor.eu], and I can confirm that Blasphemous is indeed something new, or at least different. You don’t find ability upgrades to progress, and the abilities that you do find to assist in the unlocking the game’s true ending don’t actually upgrade your character. Instead the environment reacts to you as a result of equipping these relics. If your favorite part of Metroidvania Games is exploring and finding collectables, both meaningful and superfluous, then I think you’ll find a fulfilling experience here; but it’s not an exact match.
The other side of the hype is calling the game a “Souls-like”, and similarly while I think there are some things that are reminiscent of that Hidetaka Miyazaki design, the comparisons are almost superficial. There is no stamina bar – you can spam attacks like you were playing The Messenger. There is no leveling up, no customization, and there are no builds or avenues of player expression. Instead your money is spent on purchasing a select few upgrades for your sword, and you’ll likely be able to afford all of them by the end. Since money isn’t as important, it’s not money that you lose on death – but there is a death penalty. When you die, you leave behind “guilt” which reduces your maximum magic meter. Magic is something I used very little, so the penalty was minor to me. Plus, dying twice does not cause any permanent loss – you just create more guilt clouds. Even then, the hassle of picking your guilt back up can be subverted by cleansing yourself at one of the many shrines in the game. If you go intoBlasphemouswanting a souls-like, I think you’ll find these changes completely alter the feelings of tension and release, as well as player choice, that the genre is associated with. The result isn’t something that is necessarily bad, just something that is different, and maybe not what you want.
The combat is mostly fun, and it enjoys the slower, more cerebral pacing of the Souls-like genre, which is where I think most of the comparisons come from. You have a parry button which you’ll necessarily need to get past some foes that you basically can’t hit except on a riposte. Thanks to the lack of a 3D space and the ease of a lot of these telegraphs though, a lot of encounters end up just being speed bumps on your route to your next destination, which can sometimes make backtracking through the middle areas a bit of a slog. The bosses are a mixed bag, with some being as excellent and memorable as the graphical style makes you want them to be. Too many of them are flying creatures with bullet-hell style patterns, however, which do not really mesh well with how the Penitent One is designed to fight. You get a lot of sword upgrades that you just don’t get the opportunity to use in these boss fights. Often your only safe option is to use normal swipes at the enemy’s face during the brief windows that they’re vulnerable. The sliding attack is almost overpowered, but charging up your sword was something I only tried for the novelty, and the plunge attack was nigh useless for how slow the startup was. You also get a lot of spells to work with, but even though your mana bar can be replenished by attacking, it was never a reliable enough of a source for me to make spells a normal part of my strategy. Some games can still stand on just having a basic attack for the entire game – many Metroidvania games do – but not every boss supports this style.
The incongruent boss design isn’t helped by some likewise inconsistent difficulty and straight up bugs. The first boss you face will likely be a challenge, but by the time I faced the second and third I barely felt like I was trying. Then, I was suddenly thrust into a very hard boss fight in the only pathway forward – no other choices were available to me – that took me ten or so tries to finally defeat. I personally really enjoyed this fight, but it’s an example of the kind of sudden difficulty curve that will have some players rage quitting. I don’t know if it’s because that boss forced me to get better at the game or not, but after that point the remaining bosses were back to the standard difficulty that I faced in the beginning. One boss near the end of the game was simply broken on my play through. It had a pattern where it flies across the screen to attack you, but it kept getting stuck out of bounds, making me wonder if the game was going to soft-lock at any time. There are still some good combat experiences to be had in Blasphemous, but there definitely needs to be a lot of patchwork done, especially on the bosses.
What really saves Blasphemous for me is the level design. Shortcuts are clever and are very fulfilling to find. That feeling of gradually conquering your environment that makes so many Metroidvania games memorable is very strong, especially with the way the relics make the world seemingly bow to your feet. Unlocking these relics is a little bit of a pain – you have to carefully solve the game’s various quests to do so and sometimes it has you backtracking in a boring way. By the latter half of the game though, Cvstodia was like my backyard; and I especially enjoyed completing the final quests.
With all of its highs and lows, I’d argue that Blasphemous is an above average game, but there was still this nagging feeling that it was missing something. I think to me the biggest opportunity to stand out – besides polishing up the boss encounters – would be the “deep and evocative narrative core” that the store page advertises. True to the souls-like comparisons, the story presentation is fluid and obtuse – leaving most of it up to player interpretation. When I start a game that involves anything resembling the Catholic church, I usually expect some “twist” down the line that reveals the church as Evil. Blasphemous subverts that expectation by not saying anything at all, instead just presenting things as they are in the game world. I personally think this is a great narrative tool in game design, but even when it’s used it’s important to have SOME kind of direction, and I simply didn’t detect any in my Blasphemous playthrough.
Like some of the game’s other design the narrative elements seemed somewhat contradictory. If I’m supposed to be the good guy, how come my character seems to delight so much in violence – other than some meta-attempt to appeal to that juvenile lust for blood that video game players apparently have? The main character’s motives can very well be tied to what the player decides, but I never got a sense of what the key NPC’s motives were either. Two in particular seemed bent on stopping you from doing whatever you’re doing, but without a clear idea of what it was that I’m even trying to do I found it hard to relate to, or even understand their zealousness. There’s a very real possibility that I’m simply missing something, and certainly I can be convinced if someone can organize what Blasphemous is trying to say. I definitely think an exploration of the concept of guilt, the idea of repentance, and even a depiction of the folly of hubris in relation to the subject could be useful to any given audience. Unfortunately I can only see surface level motifs in Blasphemous, which suggests to me that it may just be pretentious.
There are a lot of memorable moments in Blasphemous; some of them are just because of the grotesque and disturbing imagery, but there are some unique and challenging encounters to be found as well. My favorite thing about the game was exploring around and discovering secrets, and from that perspective I feel like it succeeds fairly well as a Metroidvania-like game even if some of the backtracking can be slow. I know this whole review has been fairly negative, but that’s merely because I think we were all hoping this would turn up as a candidate for a perfect score thanks to its meticulously animated pixel aesthetic. In its current state it’s a little wonky though, with basically all of its elements falling just short of greatness. That doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t find a good game here – just make sure you set your expectations to the right level.