Cathedral review: more Metroid than vania, and all the better for it

Cathedral is an interesting exploratory platformer that sits in a place between the original Metroid – in which every inch of progress you made was by sheer attrition and luck – and the more streamlined and less obtuse Metroidvania games of today. It borrows bits from both ends of the spectrum, which makes it feel familiar, but it twists the similarities into something that in the end feels wholly unique. I could fill this review with a list of winks and nods, but it’s best if I just point out that Cathedral is a warm, cozy (and by warm and cozy I mean tough but fair) experience that maybe doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but at least gives it a nice new hubcap to make it feel different.

The game begins with you taking up arms as a silent knight (pun totally intended) who awakens in a danger-laden church that you must escape. The area serves as a wonderful tutorial for the game proper in that it teaches you the ropes without belaboring the point. A lot of Cathedral’s expectations of the player stem from a bit of trial-and-error; the amount of checkpoints throughout the game are such that developer Decemberborn knows you’re going to die here and there, so they give you these stretches of what I would best describe as “learning moments.” The game takes a cut from your earnings when you die to incentivize mastery.

After escaping the titular cathedral, you’re finally given the overarching objective of the game, after which you’re kind of left to your own devices on how to proceed. The game gives you a smattering of quests that don’t fully reveal where to go, so the bulk of the game is spent wandering a bit to get your bearings. For those who didn’t grow up looping around areas in Metroid trying to find the next tool or door to keep going, this could potentially be frustrating, but for most this is a good way to get acclimated to both the world and in earning gold. I learned rather quickly that you should bank as much money as you can in one of the game’s towns because you can buy upgrades that can mean the difference between butting your head against especially tough spots or bosses and having just enough oomph to prevail.

Controlling the good knight feels marvelous, which goes a long way towards making Cathedral more endearing than it is frustrating. As if the checkpoint system wasn’t enough of an indicator, our hero’s move set also feels remarkably similar to the way Shovel Knight controls. Regardless of its inspiration, the control system makes traversing the world a satisfying experience even when you’re retreading well-trodden ground. Your knight also gains new gadgets and abilities that really open up the game, but you’ve probably already assumed as much. What’s cool about it here is that the game doesn’t telegraph any new tools beforehand. Once you get a new move or weapon, the light bulb immediately goes off in your head as to where you’ve seen a use for it, and then you’ll want to revisit old areas to find new hidden goodies and paths.

I was drawn to Cathedral because it’s being published by Elden Pixels, a fine purveyor of Metroidvanias in their own right with their Alwa series, and even though it’s made by another developer, Cathedral definitely feels like it belongs in the same wheelhouse. There’s something to be said for people who can refine a certain style of game to such a degree that it feels gratifying and worthwhile even if it doesn’t take the genre to new heights.

Cathedral does just enough to make it stand out from the pack by taking a different tact from the norm. It’s cool to see a game lean more into the Metroid in Metroidvania.

Cathedral was developed by Decemberborn, and it’s available on Switch, PC and Mac. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Cathedral was provided by Plan of Attack. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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