Take the Metroidvania formula for 2D exploration, sprinkle in some Dark Souls influence, and wrap it all up in a twisted, macabre world of Christian lore and Spanish art and you get Blasphemous, a dark and striking action-platformer from developer The Game Kitchen. Originally Kickstarted in 2017, the game drew attention for its haunting sense of style and classic gameplay elements. The final result is a game that leans a little too far toward punishment rather than penitence, but Metroidvania fans looking for a challenge should be pleased regardless.
You play as the Penitent One, a nameless, voiceless, masked figure set on a pilgrimage to find the Cradle of Affliction and potentially break the cycle of death and rebirth that binds the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow and seemingly all the world of Cvstodia. Blasphemous draws heavily from Christian iconography and Spanish art to create a world of dark, twisted repentance and punishment that is fascinating to explore though feels a bit disjointed at times. The game throws a lot of information at you initially and then only brings it up again sparingly which makes it a little hard to follow at times when you hear names of individuals and groups mentioned casually. There's clearly some great lore and world-building happening behind the scenes here, it just doesn't come through well enough while you're playing. Still, even if the narrative feels a bit unpolished, the atmosphere of the game is undeniable.
Blasphemous is a classic 2D Metroidvania game—leaning a little more toward the Castlevania side of things thanks to its religious symbolism—with some light Souls elements. That means you've got a massive, interconnected map to explore with tons of secrets to uncover, including equippable upgrades and opportunities to raise your health, magic, or strength. Save points are scattered around at fairly regular intervals which act as respawn points if—or rather when—you die, and using a save point also causes all defeated enemies to respawn. The Souls influence comes from the fact that, when you die, you lose a little piece of yourself. Your maximum mana (or Fervor as it is called in the game) is lowered and you'll earn less EXP (aka Tears of Atonement, which is also currency) until you return to the place you died and recover what you lost.
Essentially, Blasphemous provides a classic Metroidvania experience with the difficulty tuned a little higher to the kind of tense challenge that Souls games are known for, but thankfully not overwhelmingly difficult. The cycle of dying and retrying isn't as punishing as in Souls games, and the combat system has a decent amount of fluidity and action to it. You can easily get your attacks in and dodge away with some lithe movements. That said, the combat system still expects a lot out of the player. Even basic enemies can do a lot of damage so any hits you take will hurt a lot, which means the only real strategy oftentimes is a very basic cycle of attack, dodge, repeat. This can make your first couple hours with the game particularly frustrating while you're still learning enemy attack patterns and don't have a lot of health to spare, and makes combat feel pretty repetitive even against different types of enemies. The game instead builds tension out of the need to reach the next save point where you can recover health and refill your healing potions. It definitely makes progress feel satisfying when you reach the next checkpoint, though it can be a bit too formulaic as well.
Thorough exploration is a must in a Metroidvania game since you may be rewarded with various upgrades or side quests. In Blasphemous, you can customize your abilities with various upgrades or magic spells. There's a decent amount of variety that helps make your approach feel a bit unique even though the focus of combat is always on sword attacks. Side quests will reward you with some particularly useful items, including abilities that help you explore every inch of Cvstodia, but actually finding and completing side quests is frustratingly obtuse in Blasphemous. There's no kind of quest log so it's hard to remember what exactly you need to bring where, and that's when the game gives you any kind of clue at all. Oftentimes you'll find an item with no explanation for what it is meant to do and can only hope that you'll stumble upon its use at some point. Maybe the developers just want you to earn these rewards on your own, but a little more direction would have gone a long way.
Surprisingly though, the biggest threat in Blasphemous is the platforming. It is absurdly easy to die by falling or being knocked into a bottomless pit or a spike trap, which is instant death no matter your health. The game really pushes the edge of your character's jumping range at times, and of course some enemies are just perfectly positioned to knock you off of a cliff's edge. You don't quite have the kind of fluid platformer movement to justify such punishing hazards. These kinds of instant death traps pose just as much danger even when you're far into the game and have plenty of upgrades, and are really just an obnoxious obstacle to exploration.
The visual design of Blasphemous is easily the first thing that is going to stand out for you when you start playing. The world of Cvstodia is haunting, filled with grotesque religious iconography twisted into a bleak and hostile environment. This is all accomplished with some high quality sprite work which kind of makes it all the more impressive. The animation is smooth and fluid and the design is foreboding, perfect for the atmosphere that Blasphemous is creating. The music is a bit less striking since much of it is aimed more toward a low, background atmosphere vibe. It's not as in-your-face as the visual design is, and can be rather forgettable at times. Still, it's a decent soundtrack, even if it's not outstanding. The game also, surprisingly, features some voice acting, though the quality is a bit inconsistent.
Blasphemous takes players on a harrowing adventure through a twisted world of penitence and punishment that may lean toward the latter a little too often. The combat can be challenging but manageable with some patience, but the platforming is downright cruel when it comes to instant death traps. Exploration can prove a bit too aimless when it comes to side quests, and even for the main quest it can be hard to know what to do thanks to opaque item descriptions. However, players willing to overlook some of the rougher edges of the game will find a stylish Metroidvania in Blasphemous, one that truly makes you earn every inch of progress you make toward redemption.
Rating: 7 out of 10 Blasphemies