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reviewed by Graham Thomas Wilcox

     Like Hieronymus Bosch stabbing Zdzisław Beksiński in the eye with a crucifix, Blasphemous is a gruesome, surreal fantasia in the best possible way. Its artwork, animations and overall aesthetic are among the best in the business: baroque, gothic and dripping with bilious humor. A true pleasure to observe. The gameplay, on the other hand, is much like this paragraph’s opening simile: solid, but still in need of some polish.

With whip-backed flagellants, crucified knights, and skull-bedecked chapels, Blasphemous leans hard into a world built upon a Catholicism still rooted in the blood and bone of the Middle Ages. Developed by Spanish studio The Game Kitchen, I cannot help but think the developers drew upon Spain’s own fraught history with the Catholic Church, the Inquisition, and the Crusades in crafting their game. A history well-used and well-interrogated, if so. As an enthusiast for the history of all the above, I was pleased.

The story begins with the player-character—a capirote-wearing, tongue-tied knight named the Penitent One—awakening on a pile of his dead, naked brethren. After slaughtering a flail-wielding giant within a candle-lit monastery and drenching himself in said giant’s blood, the Penitent One meets the game’s resident exposition-vendor, a rope-bound monk named Deogracias. From there, the Penitent One embarks on a quest to gather the Three Humiliations so that he might comprehend the Miracle affecting the world.

The esoteric nature of the story, which explains little despite Deogracias’ periodic digressions, recalls the patented FromSoft storytelling style as evinced in Dark Souls and its associated titles. The flavor-text of quest items, gear accessories and spells (among others) deliver snippets of story, often via in-universe quotes, poems, stories and other such literary fragments. Though not quite delivered with the same panache as FromSoft manages in its best titles, Blasphemous achieves a gratifying, bloodsoaked ambience.

Just as its story-telling methods recall the greats of yesteryear—if not quite surpassing them—so does its gameplay recall its storied antecedents, if not quite equalling them. A 2D Metroidvania with an obvious debt to Castlevania in both gameplay and aesthetic, Blasphemous does not innovate so much as it does package a familiar formula in an engaging, unique artstyle. A few elements are pulled again from the FromSoft oeuvre—the savepoints, slabs of candle and gothic sculpture named Prie-Dieus—recall the bonfires of Dark Souls, right down to lighting afire when first encountered, and resetting the enemies in the game-world when used.

The combat feels like a somewhat stripped-down version of contemporary Souls-like side-scroller, Salt and Sanctuary: the Penitent One dodges enemies with i-frames on a dodge, parries them with a timed block of his sword, outspaces them with jumps and fancy footwork, or simply tanks their hits before healing himself by smashing a flask of biliary humors on his armor. As in the Souls-like genre, combat tends towards the reactive: dodging or parrying an opponent’s attack before punishing them with some sword-strokes before backing off and beginning the dance anew. 

The smooth animations, combined with the aforementioned aesthetic, give the combat a visceral feel. A feeling emphasized when the Penitent One triggers the occasional finisher move, whereby he executes his foe through a fantastically gory disemboweling, decapitating, spine-stomping animation. The combat rewards pattern recognition and patience, punctuated by moments of frantic button-mashing, and I found it a highlight of the gameplay experience. Challenging without being unfair, and weighty without devolving into the ponderous, Blasphemous’s combat does not necessarily add anything new to the genre, but it does offer a highly polished, very fun rendition of the tried-and-true mechanics familiar to Metroidvania and Souls-like fans. And there is, I think, a lot to be said on well-polished, fun editions of tried-and-tested formulae. 

The Penitent One also gets the ability to upgrade his combat techniques, learning new and interesting methods of punishing his foes at baroque altars encountered throughout the game, giving his thorn-hilted sword (named Mea Culpa, Latin for “my fault,” which is a deliciously medieval-Catholic detail) new abilities like a dodge-thrust, a plunging attack, and a bloody projectile. Some of the abilities felt a bit too niche, with the dodge-thrust and the standard attack sufficing for most situations. But, I used all of them at one point or another, and they provided a nice sense of character progression throughout my playthrough.

The Penitent One also gains the use of magic in the form of mystical songs or chants he discovers (usually by killing some great, gribbly boss, or solving a puzzle of middling difficulty). Powered by a resource called Fervor—which the Penitent One gains mostly via attacking foes, or by shedding his own blood—they include lightning bolts, an attack-speed increase, a life-steal buff, and invulnerability (among others). The magic, much like some of the combat upgrades, I found a bit too situational. In many situations, using the sword was simply easier or more convenient, particularly against most bosses. I did use the magic, when I remembered it, but it often felt a bit tacked on, and I couldn’t help but think it was a bit of a missed opportunity.

There was a good bit of enemy variety throughout the game, which helped showcase that smooth combat I gushed about above. The bosses in particular were an invigorating, well-designed distillation of the game’s overall philosophy and aesthetic: each one dripping with gothic detail, and with a difficult—yet fair—moveset. Highlights for me included a magic-wielding nun with a self-immolated face; another capirote-clad, sword-bearing knight with mystical powers; and nearly-naked, flame-bearing monk. The bosses, as is tradition, increased in difficulty and complexity as the game progressed. Some of the earliest ones are a bit gimmicky or slow—equivalents to the Asylum Demon or Iudex Gundyr of Dark Souls fame—but the vast majority were engaging experiences.

Where Blasphemous misses a step is on the other side of the Metroidvania equation: the platforming and puzzle-solving. Though the game-world itself is replete with side passages, hidden shortcuts and interconnected areas, the actual exploration is a bit perfunctory. There is the occasional environmental hazard to be conquered—often via the aid of an item acquired elsewhere in the world, which does encourage exploration—but for the most part, running, dodging, and a generously-timed jump suffices. 

The puzzles too suffer from this basic approach. None are all that difficult to solve, and few require anything outside the normal gameplay loop. For those who dislike the frame-perfect platforming or head-scratching puzzles of other games in the genre, this could be a positive aspect. But in my opinion, this felt akin to the magic: a missed opportunity.

Blasphemous has been gifted with some fairly extensive DLC, all of it free, which is always a praise-worthy endeavor by the developers. The DLC includes whole new areas, a challenging New Game+ mode that allows the Penitent One to further martyr himself by selecting one of three handicaps that affect the entire playthrough, and a boss-rush mode. All were excellent additions to the game, with the New Game+ mode adding some much-needed replayability to the base game. None really go about solving the game’s few foibles, however. 

In conclusion, one gets the feeling that Blasphemous is a game speaking to tradition: a Metroidvania and Souls-like crossover that engages, via art aesthetic and storytelling method, the concepts of penitence, mercy, and self-punishment within a medieval Catholic framework. Its flaws restrict it from achieving genre-defining brilliance, but that is not so much a failing of the game as an acknowledgement. It has something to offer new and old fans of both genres, and while more experienced gamers may find it a bit too stripped-down in terms of gameplay, the level of polish and the intriguing aesthetic/lore carries the overall product.

About the Author

   Graham Thomas Wilcox is an author and freelance editor. He lives near the Atlantic coast with his wife and their two dogs.

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