A little over two years ago, Spanish game developers The Game Kitchen introduced the world to a dark and brutal 2D non-linear platformer by the name of Blasphemous. They were seeking just $50,000 US dollars, but ended up smashing their target goal, ending the campaign at over $333,000 US dollars. Everyone was itching to talk about just how good the game looked in motion, while having a religious undertone that set the uneasiness factor at an all time high for what the game could truly become.
Developer: The Game Kitchen
Available On: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: September 10, 2019
Game Provided By Team17 for the Purpose of This Review
Blasphemous is set in the land of Cvstodia where a foul curse, The Miracle, has fallen upon the land and affected all the inhabitants. This nightmarish world of twisted religion takes inspiration from Spanish folklore and infuses it together with a very Medieval feeling that will have you thinking you’ve been transported back to the Dark Ages and the Inquisition. It’s painfully obvious that inspirations for everything we’re seeing come from Dark Souls and Castlevania.. so much so that the level designer at The Game Kitchen, Enique Colinet, name dropped those two franchises in a recent interview about the game. It’s also heavily a metroidvania type of experience, where you’ll be backtracking to previously explored areas to keep progressing forward, and to look for secrets and additional powerups.
Players are thrust into the role of The Penitent One, the sole survivor of the massacre of the ‘Silent Sorrow’. This nameless protagonist is trapped in an endless cycle of life and death, as each time he perishes, he resurrects at the previous Shrine he interacted with. Those familiar with the Dark Souls formula, Bloodborne, or any game in recent memory that has taken inspiration from the series will be familiar with this particular gameplay loop. Blasphemous doesn’t do anything particular new to reinvent or shake up the formula, but it follows it so perfectly with a beautiful pixelated art style that it’s hard not to appreciate everything going on around you.
Before we get much further into the review, I want to focus on the religious aspect that the team decided to explore with Blasphemous. One thing everyone knows who listens to any of our content or reads any of posts here at Level Down Games is that we do not willingly dive into discussions about religion and politics, and generally like to keep those two separate from our favorite past time. But when it’s this engrained and a core portion of the game, we absolutely must speak on it for just a few minutes. The entire world of Cvstodia is predominantly based around Christianity with some slight influence from Catholicism as well. It’s imagery and use of self-sacrifice is evident, especially when looking at The Penitent One. The giant metal faceplate he wears over his head is surrounded by a crown of thorns. Sound familiar? Everything is very much “A Procession of Flagellants”, an oil painting depicting a procession of Roman Catholic men dressed in white, wearing pointed hats and whipping their bare backs in penitence. The painting was done by Spanish romantic painter Francisco de Goya between 1812 and 1819 and is still displayed at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.
Everything is incredibly detailed. The cutscenes, the animations that take place throughout the gameplay, the architecture that you can fully explore throughout the world, and the background pieces that come to life with an unsettling eeriness. Blasphemous is one hundred percent pixel art, as the team is very proud of their usage of this graphical style and how long it took them to get everything just right. In terms of the pixel art style, what we see here is undoubtedly one of the better examples of how to best utilize this format for an overall amazing looking game.
Exploring, much like traditional metroidvania style, is very rewarding in terms of finding new abilities to use in combat and well tucked away secrets. However, this is also very time consuming and tedious, as the developers did not provide nearly the amount of fast travel points we’ve come to expect in this genre. Several areas that need to be revisited do not have a fast travel point in them at all, with the closest one being one or two whole sections away from where you need to be. Couple that on with the respawning enemies each time you visit a Shrine, and your playtime with Blasphemous will keep going higher and higher without making much progress. There is a map to follow, but the game will not hold your hand, and even the simplest of directions or finding out where to go next after a boss encounter can prove to be quite challenging.
Combat feels very brutal and very gory while being addicting all at the same time. You have the traditional light and heavy attacks, as well as a dodge ability to get around enemies and help from taking damage. Keep in mind at the core this is following the Dark Souls formula, so enemies hit hard and you only have a limited amount of flasks to refill portions of your health before you’ll ultimately succumb to death and be reborn again. Every strike and parry feels grounded and deliberate, and the executions (which can be pulled off after staggering enemies when they’re low on health) are a sight to behold.
Weapon wise, there’s only your primary sword, the Mea Culpa. Upgrades are available throughout the game as you collect souls and visit the nearby Shrines located at several different points throughout the world of Cvstodia. Each Shrine strengthens the sword when you first interact with it, but from there, you can also access a Skill Tree for further customization and upgrade options. It’s not a deeply invested system by any means, but it works rather well for just the one weapon the game gives you access to.
Blasphemous pulls off the combat, the formula, and the exploration so well, there was bound to be something that didn’t quite hit the mark. That mechanic is the platforming. It’s very precision based it seems, where you have to land on just the right spot on a platform for it to register, or else you’ll completely miss and fall to your death or go sliding off. It reminds me a lot of early platforming games on the NES and SNES, and several videos have been covered by the Angry Videogame Nerd on this entire phenomenon. Not every platform registers the same way, with The Penitent One sometimes clinging to the platform before pulling himself back up. This entire mechanic definitely needed a bit more attention, as it just feels somewhat out of place in an otherwise mechanically impressive experience.
If you’re in the mood for some gothic, horror-esque tunes, look no further than the soundtrack, composed by Carlos Silva. Also taking inspiration from all the religious aspects the game has going for it, while maintaining the Spanish flavor and the Age of Inquisition vibes.. everything comes together in this shaken (not stirred!) soundtrack. “La Muerte de Los Relinchos” is one of our favorite pieces of the soundtrack, and has a very Wild Wild West feel to it while still being quite unsettling. In fact, a lot of the tracks on the official OST feel very inspired by what you think when you picture the traditional Western setting. “Ten Piedad” has a very black metal feel to it while still maintaining that gothic feel. The entire soundtrack is a pleasure to listen to, and Carlos really did a fantastic job with it.
A welcome addition to an increasingly overcrowded subset of Soulslike games, Blasphemous really captures that formula and does the best job it possibly can while presenting a gorgeous pixel art style that will leave you in awe. The lack of fast travel rooms and the unnecessary precision-based platforming leave a bit of a sour after taste in an otherwise satisfying main course meal. If you’re itching for that difficult experience with some incredible boss encounters and over-the-top gore, Blasphemous is sure to be just what you ordered on the menu this year!