The Game Kitchen's Blasphemous opens with its central protagonist, the metal-masked Penitent One, last survivor of the Silent Sorrow Massacre, staggering to his feet atop a mass grave of bodies, each one an exact replica of himself. Here is a hero caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, charged with lifting a great curse that’s descended upon the land of Cvstodia. Sword in hand, he makes his way down a flight of steps, surrounded on all sides by crucified bodies and mounds of broken, rotten corpses wrapped in twisted thickets of thorn. From here he must venture forth on a solemn pilgrimage to seek the Cradle of Affliction and discover the seed of his anguish hidden behind a sacred door in the Mother of Mother of Churches.
Blasphemous has been wowing its many Kickstarter backers for the past couple of years with screenshots of the sumptuous pixel art-style which brings to life its incredibly detailed world, a world filled with twisted religious iconography, grotesque enemies, brutally warped boss battles and imposing landscapes dripping in blood, filth and decay. From its opening level set around the dusty Spanish-styled village of Albero and onwards across the Wastelands of the Buried Churches to the Desecrated Cistern – a festering, toxic labyrinth that descends into the foreboding depths of Jondo – this really is spectacularly well-realised stuff.
Of course, without gameplay to match, all this beauty would be for nothing, and so it’s fortunate that The Game Kitchen has pulled something pretty special out of the bag here; a heady mix of Soulslike and Metroidvania, with the rules of life and death governed in much the same way as FromSoftware’s titles, whilst the backtracking traversal and pixel-perfect platforming falls much more into the classic Metroid mould.
In terms of that Souls influence, there are bonfires, here known as Prie Dieu, at which to rest and recuperate your energy, resetting enemies across your current level as you do so. Estus flasks are replaced by Biliary flasks, upgradeable by finding and refilling empty ones scattered across the game world. You have a magic bar, here known as Fervor, which charges as you attack enemies, the twist being that each time you die a little of the bar becomes lost until you return to your place of death to retrieve it or pay to have it restored at a place of penitence. Speaking of currency, Tears of Atonement replace souls and are, happily, not lost upon death. As well as cleansing your guilt, they can be used to buy some of the various trinkets and abilities you can equip as you advance through the game, as well as the offensive skills you unlock as you level up your weapon.
Making your way across Cvstodia to carry out the Three Humiliations required to gain entry to the Mother of Mother of Churches, the Penitent One has only one weapon at his disposal: the Mea Culpa sword. Despite this initially disappointing lack of choice in terms of weapons, it turns out that concentrating on one means of combat has enabled The Game Kitchen to ensure it’s a tight and satisfying affair, embellished with lots of bespoke little animations that really drive home the delicious brutality of engagements. Every foe you encounter can be stunned and then ended with an outrageously violent finishing move, each one beautifully animated and entirely unique for every single enemy type in the game.
Alongside your sword, your move-set is comprised of a magic attack (several of which can be found and equipped as you progress), a dodging slide which makes you temporarily invulnerable and can be added to with its own powerful lunging attack, and a parry with which to deflect incoming strikes, opening your adversary up to some horrific retribution. It’s very much Dark Souls sans a stamina bar, losing the need to take time to recuperate in favour of a protagonist who can carry out endless combos which, nevertheless, require the same patience and forward-planning as FromSoftware’s encounters if you’re to be successful.
The ebb and flow of combat is further enhanced by how uniformly well-designed the different enemies you encounter across Cvstodia are, each coming with their own smart set of attacks that you’ll need to learn to defend against in order to proceed. Priests in the Archcathedral Rooftops, for example, wield long, stabby candleholders and need to be dodged just before they lunge, giving you a clear sight of their exposed flanks. The exploding disease-ridden ghouls in the bowels of the Desecrated Cistern, meanwhile, will continuously reanimate unless you find a nearby bell-ringer and cut them down. Each new area is stuffed full of new challenges and there’s much more to combat across Cvstodia than just hacking and slashing your way through all-comers; you’ll need to change up your attack style and make use of the many trinkets and abilities at your disposal if you hope to get anywhere.
You can equip Rosary Beads to bolster your attack or defence, or perhaps give yourself a boost against certain types of magic or elemental attacks. Initially, you’ll only be able to equip three beads but there are a total of nine notches to unlock as you progress. There are also religious relics to wear around your belt which very cleverly open up traversal options by letting you see hidden ledges, for example, or perhaps hear the final thoughts of the dead who lie scattered around levels.
The Mea Culpa can be also powered up in various ways, with longer combos, more devastating lunges and various other explosive attacks all unlockable at hidden shrines. You can also add special hearts to your sword to embellish its power – however, quite cunningly, each of these comes with a negative effect. The Heart of the Holy Purge, for example, will increase the rate at which you attain Tears of Atonement at the cost of the use of your health flasks. There’s also a delightfully macabre set of collectable body parts to find throughout the world, with great names such the Cervical Vertebra of Zicher the Brewmaster or the Coxal of June the Prostitute, which can then be displayed in a (rather unsettling) underground chamber area.
Platforming is also uniformly precise, satisfying stuff which manages to avoid becoming an annoyance as there’s plenty of variety and death is almost always a result of your own mistake rather than the game being unfair. Stabbing your sword into rock faces and walls in order to make your way up mountainsides, timing your jumps through huge, slicing blades and traversing fiery pits and cauldrons filled with lava makes for some really tense sections, especially when you’re also trying to fend off some horrendous magic-shooting banshee or floating angel head at the same time.
Topping all of this off are a handful of truly memorable boss battles against ludicrously-named, screen-filling creations. Our Lady of the Charred Visage is a hideously deformed floating head with bullet-hell styled magic attacks, whilst Exposito, Scion of Abduration involves you dealing with the attacks of a severed head attached to a wooden worm whilst avoiding the clutches of a giant blindfolded infant, its face drenched in blood from its gouged-out eyes. None of these ghastly encounters outstay their welcome or come anywhere close to being as soul-crushingly difficult as those seen in a FromSoftware game, but they’re massively enjoyable affairs nonetheless, testing your skills and forcing you to utilise every trick at your disposal.
Once you’ve completed the Three Humiliations and opened the great door to the final area of the game – very much Blasphemous’ Anor Londo moment – you may think you're almost done, but are instead blasted with a barrage of mini-bosses, main bosses and tricky mixes of enemy types – alongside some pretty exacting platform sections – on your way to the final encounter of the game, which took us somewhere in the region of 25 hours to reach.
The story here is a much more easy-to-follow affair than you may be expecting on the outset of things; Blasphemous wears its lore on its sleeves much more than a Souls game, although this too is a world filled with strange secrets, sad stories and bizarre characters to meet as you make your way to its dénouement.
Small complaints come in the form of a map which can’t be zoomed in or out, which means it’s sometimes a little bit of a pain to study in handheld mode, something which is exacerbated by the fact you’ll find yourself scouring it quite often later in the game to ascertain where you should be headed next. Indeed, the game does suffer a little from being overly obtuse as to how you should proceed at times. There are several points where you’ll need some to present some bizarre artefact or other to a certain NPC in order to further things along, and we found ourselves at a loss on several occasions as to how we should move forward. There’s also some very iffy voice-acting from a few of the characters you meet on your pilgrimage, although nothing nearly as bad as some of the merchants from Dark Souls, it has to be said.
In terms of this Switch version, everything runs at a silky smooth 1080p/60fp whilst docked, with that resolution dropping to 720p in handheld mode. Over the course of our time with Blasphemous, we encountered no hiccups or slowdown and it really does look absolutely stunning, especially in handheld mode, where its pixelated lines look that little bit smoother.
Blasphemous is a beautifully crafted Soulslike/Metroidvania action game set in a delightfully unhinged, deliriously gory world filled with well-designed enemies, satisfyingly meaty combat and some truly memorable and grotesque boss battles. Platforming sections are uniformly well-crafted and the whole thing comes together to create one of the most visually arresting and solidly enjoyable action titles currently available on Switch. Spanish developers The Game Kitchen have created a nightmare world in Cvstodia, one that will truly test your combat and platforming skills and leave you begging for more come that final bloody battle.