The Old Is New Again
HIGH That open-world feeling after the first level.
LOW An enemy shooting from above with no way to kill it.
WTF Checking FAQs to find out where to go next.
Perhaps it’s the game critic’s curse — repeatedly finding out that there are way more 8-bit inspired titles than one might suspect, and that trying to play them all is an exercise in futility. As soon as one is finished, three more have popped up. However, despite this constant influx, Cathedral from Decemberborn Interactive offers a solid experience, even for those starting to tire of retro-themed nostalgia.
Cathedral is as classic-as-it-gets with its 2D NES-inspired platforming action — jump, kill enemies, get power-ups, unlock new rooms, and collect gold to buy new equipment. Along with the main weapon (the sword) it’s possible to pick up additional items that shoot arrows or light candles. Both are also used to solve puzzles which are intricately designed and not too easy to solve.
The gameplay doesn’t try to innovate on its tried-and-true formula, but instead sticks to its strengths by offering a near-perfect balance of old school hard-as-nails gameplay that’s minimally sweetened by modern concessions. The story is equally simple and to the point. Demons have taken over, and the main character has lost their memory. Any players old enough to have spent time with the NES or similar will likely feel right at home.
While it wouldn’t be fair to call it a metroidvania, Cathedral does take a bit of inspiration from the genre in the sense that there’s a fair bit of backtracking involved to make progress and unlock secrets. On the other hand, dying isn’t harshly punished — the player is just sent back to the last checkpoint with 10% of their total gold removed. To avoid losing more, gold can be invested in the city-hub that’s unlocked after the first level.
While navigating this central location can sometimes a bit of a bore because of the lack of new things to see or do, Cathedral‘s world opens up immensely from there and offers plenty of levels to explore. Naturally, many of these areas will be beyond a starting player, so it’s wiser to follow the path that the developers have laid and build up the character.
Speaking of the character — a silent protagonist knight — his inability to speak is used in the writing for several witty exchanges with other characters in the city. The overall tone of Cathedral is rarely serious, which is a welcome change of pace. From a design standpoint, the developers seem to understand that making a hard game is relatively easy, but making the player come back for more is the real objective, and the script is appealing enough to be a draw.
The only thing keeping me from a fully positive review of Cathedral are the bosses and the level design. Even knowing that this title takes cues from the difficult old days, I did feel as though the bosses were sometimes unfair — the Necromancer is an especially long and drawn out battle that will test patience and resolve.
As for the level design, despite numerous updates by the developers following player feedback, I soften found myself unsure of where to go and had to check walkthroughs for hints. The developers do show the player what’s been unlocked after (for example) completing a boss, but there’s still room for improvement when it comes to signposting and guiding players forward.
Graphically, Cathedral doesn’t stray far from what an actual 8-bit console is capable of, with a few extra levels of parallax and polish thrown in, but nothing too fancy. It’s fine enough, but I would wish for something just a tad more advanced. The same goes for the soundtrack — it’s appropriate enough with some moments of pure 8-bit audio craziness that I appreciated, but I won’t be humming any of the tracks during breakfast the next morning.
Cathedral is tailor-made for players lusting after a serious 8-bit old school-experience with a minimum of modern bells and whistles. It’ll surely test one’s reflexes and nerves, but with just a few tweaks to the design and some marginal improvements, this could have been a real classic.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Decemberborn Interactive. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was was not completed. There is no multiplayer mode.
Parents: The game is rated E by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference and Mild Fantasy Violence. While Cathedral features demons and skeletons, the art style is cartoony. I’d say it’s safe for any player except for the relatively high difficulty.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is no spoken dialogue, but some of the puzzles do use audio cues (with no visual accompaniment) which could make solving them more difficult. This game is not fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: It is recommended to use a controller for this oldschool gameplay. There is no control diagram. B is used for jumping, A for attacking, X for the additional weapon and moving is done via keypad or left analog stick. These controls are not remappable.