Sin And Punishment

HIGH Capirotes.

LOW Too much insta-death platforming.

WTF Literally any cutscene out of context.

When religious iconography shows up in videogames, it’s usually used as a substitute for giving villains a proper motivation. Look at titles like Far Cry 5 and Outlast II — oh, no wonder these guys are backwater savages. They’re religious.

Blasphemous’s approach is considerably more nuanced, much to my delight. It’s not that I’m a particularly religious person who demands that his faith receive positive representation in this medium, because I’m not, and nothing about Blasphemous is positive. However, symbols mean things, and it’s thrilling to see this imagery employed as a way to explore heady themes, resulting in a title that’s infinitely more unsettling than Outlast II ever was.

Take, for example, Blasphemous’s fashion sense. The protagonist dons what I can only describe as a gloriously pointy hat, damn near doubling his height. At a glance it looks silly, but there’s historical context behind it. It’s a capirote, and a religious staple of Spanish developer The Game Kitchen’s home country. It was originally worn by flagellants who whipped themselves bloody in penance for humanity’s sinfulness.

This small but crucial connection is the jumping-off point for Blasphemous’ overarching narrative thrust – the Christian belief that mankind is inherently unclean.

The inhabitants of Custodia, Blasphemous‘s land, keep referencing an event called “the Miracle.” It’s an obvious parallel to the concept of Original Sin in that it tainted its successors with imperfection. As a result, the Custodia we play through is a circus of violence – celestial monsters lay waste to the land, the church rules the people with an iron fist, and public executions line the streets.

As an action game, Blasphemous is designed to feel exhilarating in the hands, but the deliberately unpleasant tone makes it feel more akin to horror. I won’t deny that it’s a joy to, say, squash an enemy combatant like a bug under the weight of his own shield, but the violence here is more often sad and sickening. We’re repulsed by it, we don’t want to be here, and we want to rescue the people of Custodia from the hell that any rational person could see they don’t deserve to be trapped in.

The fact that I recommend Blasphemous after saying this means that there’s ultimately a point to all of the misery, though I hesitate to go into much detail.

This work takes a lot of unsubtle cues from Dark Souls, including the usual stand-ins for bonfires and Estus flasks, but the most important influence is the cryptic nature of its storytelling. The campaign begins with a horrific act of self-harm (the first of many) after which we’re introduced to our protagonist, the Penitent One, who baptizes himself in the blood of his first fallen foe. We get no insight into his background or his mission — those are tidbits to be intuited by observant players along the way.

This minimalist, obfuscated approach is risky for devs who can’t rely on FromSoft’s community hivemind to feverishly write wikis moments after release. Blasphemous evokes Christianity without directly referencing it, via familiar images and a lot of Latin to prop up an entirely new mythology. While the dearth of concrete answers is a tad frustrating, it makes Blasphemous the sort of experience that lives on after the credits roll, as my mind continues to stew over its mysteries.

Since it’s a while before the pieces start to fall into place, Blasphemous’s first half is largely focused on training us in the mechanics. The game was clearly inspired by Dark Souls, but its lack of a stamina system means the combat adopts a faster pace, albeit not without risks and rewards. Blocking, for example, needs to be timed to the exact moment that an attack connects, and thus enemy cues must be committed to memory. Magic spells can be game-changers, but the Penitent One’s mana depletes quickly, and the only expedient way of filling it back up is in exchange for health as a result of self-harm.

An important note here is that Blasphemous isn’t really an action-RPG, as the protagonist doesn’t really have “stats.” The strength and range of his abilities are dependent on collectibles, and it can be a frustratingly long time, especially given Blasphemous’s mostly nonlinear structure, before players truly reap the rewards of those. The point is that there’s no brute force method of completing this campaign, and no chance of grinding to victory. Players are forced to understand the core combat and to apply that knowledge against constantly changing enemy types.

While Blasphemous does occasionally bungle its difficulty curve with a handful of bosses that lean too heavily on bullet hell for my liking (particularly the final one, a Cuphead-style whirlwind of random attack patterns) most of the major encounters are an absolute thrill. They’re tough without being overwhelming, often offering a single foe with a moveset that ever-so-slightly accelerates as the fight wears on. The mark of a good boss in a title like this is when I can feel myself steadily inching closer to victory with each successive attempt, and late-game duels like Quirce and Cristana rank among the most memorable encounters of the year for me.

The one area where Blasphemous’ design consistently suffers is the fixation on insta-death platforming. Although the controls are fine, something about the art style and perspective meant that platforms often ended before I’d anticipated, and the slightest error frequently results in death, sending players back to the last checkpoint.

The frequency of these deaths in certain areas slows exploration to a crawl, which is especially irritating since the overall adventure is most comparable to a Metroidvania — players are expected to revisit old areas for secrets they couldn’t previously unearth, but the pits and one-hit-kill spike traps don’t get any less deadly as time goes on. Combined with a shortage of fast travel points that are spaced too far apart, retracing my steps in Blasphemous added unnecessary hours to the playtime.

In a fictional world obsessed with punishment, perhaps it’s fitting that victory in Blasphemous doesn’t come without its share of pains and tribulations. I can’t say that I adored every second of Blasphemous, nor can I guarantee that its conclusion will satisfy everyone, but I can certainly credit The Game Kitchen for building a universe unlike any I’ve seen in games. I’m nauseated by it, yet I can’t look away, and I certainly won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by The Game Kitchen and published by Team17.It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 26 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Nudity and Violence. I was pretty surprised by how extreme Blasphemous’s violence is. Characters are impaled, dismembered, and sliced open in often shocking detail, blood and entrails splattering every which way. Torture and self-immolation are frequent images as well, with background characters often shown writhing in pain as they’re crucified or burned at the stake. Enemies, corpses, and torture victims are also frequently naked. This is not a game for kids.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled, and audio cues never play a vital role. It’s fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Players use the A button to fire magic projectiles, B to jump, Y to attack, X to interact, R to block, ZR to dodge, L to replenish health, and ZL to cast spells.

Mike Suskie
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