For all of the devastatingly brutal focus that this beautifully realized action-platformer from The Game Kitchen (The Last Door) places on religious penitence as a form of truly savage insanity their choice to take influence from the obscuritas of Dark Souls in conveyance of theme is unquestionably the major flaw in an otherwise exceptional video game. Surely you’re going to feel like recurring themes of blood, penance, and unwavering devotion are literally hammered into your skull because well, they are and there is -a lot- of blood spilling from it but at not point is Blasphemous ever brave enough to spell any of it out; This will ultimately make the complete story witnessed during gameplay entirely unsatisfying and either ending rings somewhat hollow if not confusing as all hell. It is the most obvious successes of this 2D metroidvania title that carry it across the threshold of ‘good’ unto greatness but I’d say after 22 hours with this game it barely crosses the finish line, and truly does so without any of the grace it’d earned in the first 15 hours.
Full motion animated ‘pixel art’ cut-scenes introduce Blasphemous as if it were some alternate reality Sega Saturn game with the parental controls cranked all the way off. A women commits some form of pious, extra bloody suicide to atone for sin and the sword that appears is now yours, implanted in the statue of her corpse. You are ‘the penitent one’ and well, the game is unclear as to who you actually are, why you’ve arisen, and just exactly what side you’re on, if any. The elucidation allowed within a few short but very dense lines of narration make it a bit more clear, this is a world of such religious devotion that corruption and punishment become purpose in a world of true horrors. To further confuse the situation The Miracle is used to refer to strong and cruel religious will ‘from the Gods’ though no specific deity is alluded to until much later. It couldn’t be more obvious that this game is heavily influenced by the Spanish orthodox Christianity as well as the eastern orthodox church in terms of language used, concepts described, and the general theme of punishment as a show of piety. Allusions to the final areas of the game lead the Penitent One to the High Pontiff, essentially the Pope of this world who sits on a mountain of ash accumulated by atrocities against non-believers (or different thinkers). In fact it turns out you are the sole survivor of the massacre of the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow tasked with a crusade of revenge against their extinction. Whats that? You played the entire game and didn’t get any of that? Well, maybe I’m an idiot but I did not understand any of this because I did not read the individual lore for each item I’d picked up. The choice to keep the progress of the game fairly brisk and not gate certain events with points of important and clear narration is what I’d consider the only damning failure of this fine game. I dreaded having to appreciate a story that was kept intentionally hidden in the corners of the experience, it is so much less impactful than it could be otherwise.
The Game Kitchen‘s Kickstarter campaign in May of 2017 was not only a thrilling idea for a game but it’d been funded with nearly seven times as much money as the developers had requested. This allowed the company to build a community overnight, make exactly the type of game they intended, and maintain general control of the IP and assets beyond the release of the game. While I appreciate the nature of a crowd-funded video game outpacing its own goals it does become confounding to see an estimated delivery date for the full game as November 2018 only to receive it almost a full year beyond that time. As with the prior game I’d reviewed, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, it comes much later than the Kickstarter campaign stated but, unlike that game Blasphemous delivers far more than they’d promised. That doesn’t excuse the nonexistent messaging on this game among popular video game journalists, it seems like a missed opportunity to reack non-backers leading up to the week of release. None of this matters in the grand scheme of things but the hope is that the next time around all parties will push a bit harder to describe what the game is to non-Kickstarter supporters. I basically just bought the game because it looked cool in previews and didn’t actually realize it was a metroidvania until the month of release.
Blasphemous is one of the very best video games I’ve played in 2019 and certainly the most artistically well rendered and bug-lite experiences within recent indie developed action-platformer titles. Abilities, upgrades, skill trees, traversal, and movement options express much like Hollow Knight although options for creating a faster, easier flow of traversal are entirely limited by comparison. There is no double-jump upgrade that I know of after completing 97.75% of the game in ~22 hours and this begins to make good sense as you play through the first ten hours of the game. If you were able to do an elevated jump it would negate almost all of the moderately punishing difficulty of the gameplay. You start out fairly slow and with the gravity of Alucard as you start Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and for sure the horror aspects of the presentation and the gothic architecture of the game do immediately reek of Castlevania‘s 90’s past but there are several key differences that will feel alien to start. The first is surely the Dark Souls influenced mechanics starting with a parry system (thankfully with a forgiving window) and the somewhat inconsequential system of punishment for death in the game. With each death, and there surely will be blood, an effigy is left where you’ve died and repeatedly dying without picking up that effigy means your “fervor” meter (mana points, essentially) that allow prayers (spells) to be cast. I spent most of the game not bothering to restore my ‘Guilt’ and fervor status because prayers are more or less useless outside of a couple of already fairly easy boss encounters. Boss patterns are no less complex than say Castlevania: Rondo of Blood‘s bosses although each one has a second or third phase of AI depending on how fast you kill them. Well, so.. What part of it makes it such a good game? Oh, right, the actual gameplay and complex tasks of exploration maintain a sense of wonder throughout most of the game.
Platforming is generally ‘perfect’ for a game the demands precision yet offers up only a few instant death scenarios for traversal. The wall-climbing mechanic tasks you with timing slashes to embed into specific walls and each platforming challenge (and 2-3 bosses) generally relies on the automatic ledge grab the Penitent One does with some reasonable consistency. Some ledges allow grabs only from one side without indication as to which so there were several instances where I’d fall due to having approached a platform from the wrong side. A sliding move allows for invincibility frames when fighting and this becomes a dual purpose slide move for traversal as you progress. The controls were clearly tuned more for the flow of combat with various types of enemies and were generally very responsive. The only major gripe I’d felt was often a major ‘fuck you’ moment came from the knockback mechanic that the game makes no clear rules about; I would often be thrown across the screen when caught by seemingly light attacks and other times the same attack won’t even register as a flinch. These hits don’t appear to account for relative enemy strength nor does the knockback feature any consistency with most enemy attacks. The player response might be dictated by an invisible stamina bar that is relative to hit points or the inertia of the hit might be randomized. These are small things that might not register for everyone but I found it particularly frustrating in the more challenging areas where instant death spikes are rampant and save points are far between. Otherwise the sword upgrades for your four main skills (sword projectile, overhead slam, dashing slash, and a charged stationary strike) were all worthwhile with the exception of the charged attack that doesn’t allow movement, there are no enemies in Blasphemous beyond one boss fight that is use useful against versus typical DPS or the dashing attack. All of these features are standard metroidvania necessities and tropes but there are a few areas where this game impresses mechanically.
Equipping any combination of three relics allow for different traversal skills such as a nail that subverts the slowness and reduced jump height in mud/water, an item that produces platforms made from blood that appear when nearby, a shroud that grants immunity to poison fog, and a purified cloth that allows you to speak with ghosts of the fallen. These are just some of the inventive items that you’ll have to switch out regularly to overcome the obstacles this maze of a game introduces. Of course Blasphemous isn’t a huge game, roughly the same size as Bloodstained and while they provide a tone of spell and combat options very little of it beats the sword itself especially when you’ve explored and done quests that lead you to one of seven sword damage upgrades which I’d say increase by roughly 50% per upgrade. Upgrades for health, mana pool, and healing flasks are all rewards for exploration and progress I’d say this aspect of the game begins to resemble Death’s Gambit in some sense as the progression is similarly gated, there is a slight Souls-like feeling to some of the mechanics, and the upgrade items are always a fairly big event when found. The real game changers and most ‘felt’ aspect of customization comes with the rosary bead system where up to eight beads can be affixed onto a rosary. The first few will appear somewhat meaningless but by the time the game ends you’ll definitely feel their effects (and resistances) when fighting the harder bosses in the game. Having two beads that give protection against fire, magic, or lightning can provide a great advantage against most of the more imposing enemies and/or bosses in the game. The caveat is that many of these beads, spells, upgrades, etc. come from completing ‘quests’ which typically involve retrieving an item or set of items from a certain area on the map. The pacing of traversal upgrades really depends on the path taken by the player as most all areas can be accessed early save the ones requiring upgrades, this lead to some trial and error as I followed the many paths available to the player as soon as you’ve exited the Brotherhood of Silent Sorrow.
Lets say you’re at the end of the game and you want the final Level 7 upgrade for your sword (Mea Culpa) well, to get to the area to get the chalice that needs to be filled with the blood of three beasts without using fast travel (teleportation, like Symphony of the Night) but they are triangulated just so that you have to navigate one of the most treacherous areas of the game. Well, did you finish the bent-over pilgrims quest? To do that you need to complete three major areas of the game and defeat three bosses to open a door to a… You get the point right? If you don’t pay close attention to what you’re doing and where you’re going you may miss his quest for quite some time and without knowing how to finish it that final sword upgrade and its sweet as skills will have to wait quite some time. So, once I had all of the upgrades and nearly every item I could manage after completing every quest I could figure out (or, get a quick answer online) I couldn’t wait to be done with the game because I’d backtracked through each area of it at least ten times. So, what is the problem then if I loved The Messenger and its heavy use of backtracking for content? Well, that game had great music and Blasphemous is largely bland and atmospheric in its sound design excepting a couple of truly sweet flamenco style songs. [Click HERE to listen to the OST from Carlos Viola on Spotify]
So why, again, is Blasphemous one of the better games of 2019? I’ve complained about the obscured lore, the pointless ‘fervor’ loss upon death, the constant need for backtracking, the oddly unpredictable knockback physics of the game and I didn’t even touch upon the 5-6 times the game crashed or the lack of optional boss fights but, frankly none of these things stopped me from spending 350+ hours with Dark Souls III or playing through every single Castlevania and Metroid game since 1993. I had fun for the sake of how well made the game is, the multitude of things to do, the challenging early hours, and the sense of progression that lasted for at least the first two thirds of the playthrough. Rewarding exploration is often enough to keep me hooked on a video game but the distinct and beautifully rendered/animated pixel art graphics go above and beyond your average indie metroidvania of late. Is it worthy of several playthroughs, and does it offer any sort of replay value once you’ve gotten to the 100% rate? Well, I’m at 97.75% as if writing this review and I can say I’ll likely not pick this game back up for at least a couple of years because it offers so little customization that actually affects how the game is played. I’d more likely return to see if the bugs were ironed out of Death’s Gambit and try a different build, or continue to putter around with Dead Cells than dive back into the dire and very ‘metal’ world of Blasphemous. I had fun, though. There are a hundred more details to go over such as the shopkeeper, the brutal executions of weakened enemies, the woman with six swords in her breast bone, and the weird prevalence of items that prevent status effects that never expressed in the game but all of these are extraneous considering the established Venn Diagram between Dark Souls and metroidvania fans will overlook a mountain of small faults with appreciation for this incredibly detailed irreligious dark fantasy setting. Count me among them, I loved this game beyond the bungling storytelling.
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