Blasphemous review: cruel but kind of wonderful

My partner enters the room just at the point I’m brutally executing a nun. It’s rather an awkward moment.

“I think the people who made this game are Spanish,” I offer as a somewhat obtuse and halfhearted explanation for the nun murder I have just committed on screen. (In my defence, it was a particularly vicious nun, who was lashing me with what looked like a pot full of body parts on a long chain.) The reason I think the developers are Spanish is that Blasphemous is dripping with Catholic imagery, and Spain is one of the most fervently Catholic countries I can think of, aside from Italy. But Spain has the edge over its Mediterranean neighbour when it comes to passionate religious celebrations: I’m particularly thinking of Semana Santa (Holy Week), a festival at Easter where processions of penitentes, or ‘penitent ones’, parade the streets in pointy hoods while carrying heavy crosses or being bound in chains. Indeed, the protagonist of Blasphemous is known as ‘The Penitent One’ and has an elaborately tall pointy hood of his own.

Sure enough, it turns out Blasphemous was made by The Game Kitchen, a Spanish studio. Really, it couldn’t have been made anywhere else. Not since the brilliant Brazilian Metroidvania Dandara have I played a game where the culture of a country has been so indelibly worked into a game’s very fabric.

Normally, I’m not the kind of person to seek out violent games, but Blasphemous has me hooked, and the violence is part of its visceral message about the corrupting influence of maniacal religious fervour. The game begins with a an act of gruesome, obsessive penitence that unleashes what becomes known as the ‘Grievous Miracle’. This event causes the guilt, repentance and mourning of the world’s denizens to be displayed outwardly, and you quickly meet folks buckled beneath heavy crosses or strapped to cartwheels. It looks like an old religious painting brought to life, a parade of misery and punishment reminiscent of Goya’s most gruesome masterpieces. In short, Blasphemous simply has some of the best pixel art I’ve ever seen.

As you slash your way through wave upon wave of self-flagellating peasants, mad bishops and, yes, vicious nuns, it’s hard not to view Blasphemous as a reaction to and ridicule of Catholic dogma, perhaps a creation born out of a need for cathartic release from a strict Catholic upbringing. Whatever the story behind it is, the twisted medieval world it presents is endlessly fascinating, with incredibly imaginative landscapes, enemies and plot points being wheeled out in rapid succession as you delve further into the corners of Cvstodia.

But you have to work for it. The difficulty curve is almost comically steep, and in the first hour or two I found myself regularly bellowing curse words at the screen as I succumbed to yet another brutal death. As a normally placid person, I shocked myself at some of the obscenities that tumbled from my mouth during those nascent hours. You see, Blasphemous is a Metroidvania, but it borrows liberally from Dark Souls in that death can be a major pain in the bottom, sending you spiralling back to a long-distant checkpoint and tasking you with trekking to the point where you died in order to cleanse your ‘guilt’. Guilt obscures part of your magic meter and impedes your ability to collect the game’s currency until it’s cleansed – although thankfully you don’t lose items or anything else when you die.

Couple this with the fact that enemies hit hard and your character can only heal at rare checkpoint altars, and you can see how the game can become quickly frustrating. That’s without even mentioning the one-hit-kill spikes and bottomless pits. Not too far in, I was all but ready to give up on the game completely.

But I’m glad I persevered, because after that initial difficulty spike, once you’ve found a few health upgrades and helpful items, Blasphemous becomes considerably easier and a lot more enjoyable. It’s also wonderfully imaginative, often defying my expectations. I assumed that I would be served up Metroidvania staples, like a double-jump upgrade – but no. Instead, I found relics that did things like sprout thorns or conjure platforms out of blood to help me access new areas. I found myself constantly and delightfully wrong-footed, and continually astonished at the new content and imagery around every corner. I found myself so entranced with this world that I spent hours and hours going back to scoop up every collectible and explore every room I could find – and some of the game’s secrets are ingeniously hidden.

So, a triumph then. Although not quite perfect: that early difficulty spike could certainly be ironed out, and a more generous fast travel system would also help. There are around seven fast-travel points to unlock across Cvstodia, which are often a long way from where you want to get to – although it is possible to make each checkpoint altar into a fast-travel point by donating a hefty 20,000 ‘tears’ at the game’s church. This unadvertised ‘secret’ perk makes the game a lot more enjoyable, particularly when backtracking for collectibles, and arguably should just be a feature from the start.

Still, these are relatively minor grumbles – overall, Blasphemous is one of the finest Metroidvanias I’ve played in years, and The Game Kitchen should be applauded for their commitment to updating it. They have already released two major DLC upgrades for free since the game’s launch in 2019, with a third and final one scheduled for December, ahead of a sequel announced for 2023. Judging by what the developer has achieved so far, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Blasphemous was developed by The Game Kitchen and published by Team17, and it’s available on PC, Mac, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch. We played the Switch version.

Follow A Most Agreeable Pastime on Twitter and Facebook, if you like.