I have a love/hate relationship with Metroidvanias. Anything from the two titular series are fantastic, but I have real trouble finding the desire to play anything outside of those. They tend to be quite demanding games due to having sprawling maps that you need to navigate and memorise, since you’ll usually have to explore every nook and cranny for upgrades and come back later when you gain more abilities. If you invest in one, you really have to invest in it.
Blasphemous came out as part of a Kickstarter, which I backed, but I never had the desire to start it until now. The game looked beautiful, but a brutally hard Metroidvania sounded too intimidating to jump straight into
Almost two years after release, I finally got around to playing it.
THE PENITENT IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD
Set in the depressing land of Cvstodia; after being resurrected by The Miracle, our silent hero – The Penitent One (a dude with a metal ice-cream cone over his face) – begins a pilgrimage to the Mother of Mothers, seeking the Cradle of Affliction. This relic lies within atop the Cathedral in the Mother of Mothers, which is sealed by an impenetrable door. In order to prove yourself worthy of entry, you must perform the Three Humiliations. How you go about finding them is up to you (although I’d hold off on going to the mountains until later on). Cvstodia offers a huge area to explore, but the Humiliations only really reflect about half of the total map.
If the story sounds slightly confusing, that’s because it is. Modelled on Spanish Catholicism, predominantly from the Andalusian region, there’s lots of adapted lore here that has been twisted into this hellish world of pain and misery. Everything is all very mysterious as there’s segments of lore that you can find out by speaking to NPCs who need help, as well as items you can collect. It never really gives a full picture though, mainly due to a baffling lack of a bestiary. Heck, outside of the bosses, there’s no way of finding out the name’s of the enemies in game. It’s an odd omission. Mysteriousness tends to merge into cluelessness pretty often too, particularly as your objective after proving your worth isn’t especially clear. What’s even worse though is that those aforementioned NPC quests don’t get logged either, meaning you will inevitably forget who wants what and where the hell you found them in the first place. Despite that, the world is immensely compelling, and you’ll always want to see what’s lurking around the next corner.
Right from the off, there are two things that will become immediately apparent. The first of which is just how gorgeous the spritework is. Despite being reminiscent of the 16 bit era, this game offers an amazing level of detail that wouldn’t have been possible on those consoles: heck, I don’t even think the mighty Sega Saturn would have been able to produce this level of beauty. The Penitent One looks great, sure, but that’s nothing compared to the world and the enemies that you come across. Near the start of the game, you will encounter an almost naked lady carrying a concrete statue of an angel, which she will swing around to smack you in the chops with. The animation present here is absolutely jaw-dropping. The bosses are the true stars of the show, however, as the majority are behemoths that are both horrifying and beautiful at the same time. Just when you think the game can’t surprise you any more with its visuals, you’ll suddenly stumble across a robed skeleton chilling out on top of some massive hands. There’s so much life and colour in this world, despite Cvstodia being such a drab and depressing setting. It’s all capped off with a sublime soundtrack that is both catchy and appropriate to each setting, and certainly helps reinforce the dreary religious setting.
You’ve probably heard already that this game is effectively a Soulsbourne Metroidvania. That’s not entirely untrue, but I also believe that to be a lazy comparison as it also strays away from both of these genres in many ways.
The main thing that stands out with Blasphemous compared to other games in the Metroidvania genre is that your starting weapon, the Mea Culpa, is the only weapon you will get through the game. There are also hardly any ability upgrades, bar a couple of very minor ones, so you’ll be fighting and traversing in pretty much the same way throughout your 15-20 hour journey. The Penitent One cannot double jump, but he is able to attach his sword into certain surfaces in order to climb walls, and he is able to dash. Not air dash, mind you, just normal sliding dashes. This can function as a dodge in combat, which works well with your parry move to help you get one over on your opponent. One important thing to note is that the platforming and fighting mechanics are tight. And I mean tight. The ‘hero’ feels very satisfying to control, and you’ll rarely die due to mechanics not working properly. However, when you first encounter an enemy, it’s not always clear what can be dodged and what can be parried, so it can result in some initial trial and error. Despite this, enemy encounters are mostly fair, with some exceptions; although certain places can contain overwhelming clusters of enemies, which will result in taking multiple near-unavoidable hits. Worst still, some enemy placements seem to be designed to knock you off platforms, which may result in a frustrating insta-kill death.
What the game does have in common with the genre is that there is a huge map to explore, as well as shortcuts to uncover and many, many secrets to find. As aforementioned, you rarely get areas that are blocked off by abilities – usually it will just require finding another way around to open the path forward. The initial door to the Mother of Mothers section is the main barrier you will need to overcome, but once you open the way you will gain another huge map to explore at will. Initially, you can use shortcuts or special teleport rooms to manoeuvre around the map, but you can also fast travel between save points after you donate enough money to the church in Albero (do this as soon as possible!). This fast travel will help you a lot, as the game has a ton of collectibles to find, some of which can upgrade your cone-headed character. The notable upgrades are in the form of Rosary Beads and Prayers. The former will grant you minor buffs, such as reduced damaged by certain elements or increased health; the latter is a special move that can be used to deal heavy damage. They’re useful, but don’t feel particularly game changing – bar one super powerful prayer that can make short work of bosses. Not quite a Crissaegrim, but still a little bit OP regardless.
As for the Soulsbourne element… well, that is the second thing you will notice as you start your adventure: the game is hard. Very soon after taking control, you’ll be pitted against a huge boss who will inevitably kick your ass. The game wants you to know off the bat that it expects you to pay attention to each enemy and deal with them appropriately. If you die in battle, you will leave behind some guilt, which will limit the amount of Fervour (basically mana) that you have. In order to get it back, you need to pick it up from where you died. All very Dark Souls, but in reality it’s actually quite lenient. Your punishment may be respawning at the last save point and having a little less Fervour (which you probably won’t use much anyway until you get the better Prayers); however, picking up your guilt will give you a big chunk of Fervour and health back, which will make surviving and continuing all the easier. Leaving your guilt hanging around in boss fights can be a lifesaver, too, making subsequent tries a tad easier.
Saving results in all defeated enemies respawning, which prevents you just save-scumming your way through, but they are also very generously scattered around meaning that things aren’t too tough to get through – especially as these shrines will restore The Penitent One back to full strength. It’s not perfect though, as not all save points are well-placed. The mountain area I mentioned earlier is a difficult slog, with persistent wind and many pits of death to battle against as you climb your way up. And it’s a very long climb. The first time I made it up, I had next to no health left as I approached the monastery at the top. I breathed a sigh of relief whilst walking through an empty corridor and approached the nun within. She was not an NPC. She killed me. Other lengthy areas in the game tend to throw in insta-kill traps or precarious platforming to make you curse at the screen. It doesn’t happen too often, but it certainly happens often enough to piss you off.
Bosses are much fairer, with save points just before, along with an NPC beforehand who offers to lend a helping hand should you require assistance. They’re not too useful, but they can also make the difference between success and failure. You probably won’t beat many of these bosses first try, but very few are overly challenging. The hardest boss for me appeared around the halfway point, but then some of the later bosses were a cakewalk – including the final boss, who was surprisingly easier than I had anticipated. Regardless of difficulty, they all feel very fair and they are all rewarding to take down. Beating the game will also unlock a boss rush mode for those who want to refight these monstrosities; or you could ascend and attempt the harder New Game + mode to make everything more challenging.
Blasphemous is a very meaty game, with a lot of content available for your first playthrough and a lot more available after beating the game (NG+ contains stuff that you won’t encounter during your first completion!). Overall, the game is a visual treat and a delight to play. Its refusal to help you with your quests, the lack of bestiary, and having some areas that could have done with an extra save area or shortcut, all prevent the game from being the masterpiece it deserves to be. However, it is still a great game that deserves to be played. It’s [thankfully] nowhere near as challenging as the likes of Dark Souls or Hollow Knight, but it’ll still provide a tough challenge for those who want to be punished.