How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. While exploration is a major draw, and there are optional areas to explore, progression is relatively linear - similar to the Wonder Boy series - with few required returns to previous areas.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat, Spatial-Reasoning Puzzles
Time to beat: ~16 hours
Review Info: Cathedral was played on Steam.
Buy Cathedral if you like…
- Spatial Reasoning Puzzles
- Difficult Bosses
- Challenging Platforming
- NES Style Music
- Finding Secrets
▼ Review continues below ▼
Without turning this review into a bunch of theories about the current state of the game industry, it still surprises me that a game like Cathedral could fly under the radar as it seems to have done. It’s got adventure, it’s got mystery, and it’s drenched in that 8-bit era nostalgia that has made other indie titles successful, and it does it perhaps with better music than any of them. Sometimes it hits that “Nintendo Hard” levels of difficulty, but I feel like that should an expectation given its production values. While not without its flaws, Cathedral is a straight up great game, and if you’re even close to being in its niche, don’t let it fly under your radar.
In true old school style, Cathedral throws you straight into the fray and tells you to just explore. Without spoiling too much, the primary goal of game is the typical trope of “find X Macguffins to fulfill the prophesy”, but it comes along with enough mystery to keep you gripped as you watch it unfold. NPCs are full of character, with many of them being sardonic or similarly whimsical. In spite of the structures you visit being insanely “gamey” in that no architect would ever construct it that way, there are so many little details that give Cathedral’s world a sense of genuineness anyway. Coupled with music that has an unusually high number of movements and variation, it ends up being a place that is easy to become immersed in. It’s somewhere you want to explore and spend time with.
Exploration has a lot of depth to it, even though the critical path is technically linear. In your quest for the the orbs you will visit level-like dungeons that usually contain one or two tools that will let you progress the game further. This design style diverges a bit from the usual Metroidvania requirement of revisiting old areas with new meaning. Nevertheless, while you may not have much reason to return to a dungeon after completing it, there is still plenty of reason to backtrack to other areas, and there are many optional pathways to keep exploration feeling rewarding any time you do it. There was also nothing stopping me from grabbing the key ability from a dungeon and leaving it to progress the game without fighting the dungeon’s boss. The level design is master class, and you unlock shortcuts that make it easy to leave and revisit any area. Since the orb each boss guards is required to ultimately open up the final area, you can’t skip a boss forever, but it gave me an opportunity to collect more power ups when I ran into difficulty.
Thanks to puzzles, the exploration is never completely straight forward either. The usual strategy of looking at your map for blank rooms or doorways you haven’t entered is still a viable means of deciding where to go next, but often you’ll be faced with what looks like a dead-end when you get there. Sometimes the “puzzle” is just the Metroid approach of finding which block is breakable, but more often there’s a legitimate spatial reasoning puzzle for you to enjoy. This ends up being one of this game’s strongest points. Each dungeon has its main puzzle gimmick that it plays with, and expands on, as you work your way through them. Some puzzles really had me scratching my head and stretching my observation skills, and all of them were really satisfying to solve. They never got so hard that I couldn’t figure them out in a matter of seconds, but they were generally a highlight for the game. There’s enough variety in the kinds of puzzles you face that some might frustrate you more than others, and a few that you can technically brute force your way through possibly resulting in some tedium if that’s the route you choose. I think in general though the puzzles are as good as any Zelda game.
Besides puzzles there are a lot of platforming challenges to face in these dungeons. The way the knight controls is interesting in that it’s incredibly easy. Momentum doesn’t seem to affect him at all, almost as if his armor was simply possessed by a ghost. You move at exactly one speed whichever direction you press and you can shift your momentum in the opposite direction just as easily mid air as you can on the ground with no delay. Thanks to this, enemies can barrage you with bullets, or traps can shoot you with fireballs, and you can deftly weave between them without any issues as long as you remain alert. The game knows your abilities, however, and amps up what it expects of you accordingly. Hopping between platforms while staving off enemy offensives is tremendously addictive as you nail each dodge.
Failure of course means you take damage, but you get a convenient refilling potion that lets you sustain your exploration just a little longer. Managing your health as you extend yourself into new areas adds exciting tension to the process. Death means you lose 10% of your gold, but to protect your assets you can always deposit everything you can into a bank. If your pockets are empty, you’ve got nothing to lose, so you can venture into the unknown with reckless impunity – that is until you stumble on a new box full of jewels and gold, making you tip-toe your way back to the nearest fast travel spot.
This “gold loss” style of death consequences helps keep the bosses fair as long as you make a deposit before hand. Each boss follows that Mega Man style of pattern-based assaults that you typically learn to memorize if you can’t adapt to them initially. Easy repetition is always a welcome design choice to combine with this style.
Your options for attacking are never too complex. Most of the time you’ll be waiting for an opening, swinging your sword at the opening rapidly to knock off as much HP as possible, and then ducking away to dodge until another opening presents itself. You do get a dash ability, but nothing that gives you i-frames or wall jumping, or any of the other tools that allow other combat-centric games to have more depth. What you do have though is your insane control over your knight, which lets you manage pixel-perfect distance between you and your enemy. When you can’t just hit a panic button, knowing exactly where to stand and when to nudge your knight just out of the way provides more than enough depth to make boss encounters feel satisfying to take down. Not every fight has the best design, but the most important fights do, with Cathedral ending on a very high note in this regard.
Before the final boss fight, however, Cathedral does suffer a little bit from what I like to call “epic ending syndrome.” There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and sometimes even the best games don’t know when to quit when it comes to providing challenges. I’m not going to say the final dungeon is tedious or anything, but it can be fatiguing, and unfortunately I think some players may find themselves stopping before the final victory. “Too big” is something Cathedral suffers from in a couple of its dungeons as well. For the most part, no individual part of any dungeon is poorly designed, but as a whole a dungeon might make its “point” too long before it’s all over. It’s not padding, it’s just long. With that said, making it past all the long gauntlets and relentless challenges made beating the boss at the end feel like the end of an epic journey in a way that I don’t know could be accomplished without it being… well, epic.
Standing next to the similarly nostalgic indie giants like Shovel Knight, Cathedral compares in many ways, but it’s not impossible to see why it wasn’t quite as successful. Shovel Knight has punchy simplicity and a memorable gimmick, while Cathedral is nearly impossible to find with a search engine thanks to it sharing the same name as real-world locations that the non-gamer majority would prefer to learn about. Facetiousness aside, it’s a tragedy that so many gamers missed this when it came out, and it deserves way more attention than it’s gotten. While it’s not perfect by any means, Cathedral may just be the best game you never played.
While your options are relatively simplistic, bosses are nevertheless incredibly satisfying to take down
The Knight moves as easily as a mouse cursor, letting you weave around to exactly where you need, and the challenges are well-catered to this movement
There are a significant amount of hidden secrets, all of which are necessary to level up and succeed, making it fun to revisit old areas and discover things along the way
Has very well-designed ''Zelda-like'' spatial reasoning puzzles that utilize all your abilities in layers
Provides just enough mystery to help you see it all through to the end when the going gets tough
The 8-Bit Aesthetic provides that nostalgic feel while doing everything it needs to for the action
While 8-bit in style the music has a high variation of movement to it, creating the kind of composition you might listen to outside of the game.
The game is relatively linear so variation is low, but fun enough to play again on its own merits.
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