Devolver Digital's latest game in their stables of gory, bizarre, and irreverent releases is Massive Monster's Cult of the Lamb, a game so perfectly-pitched to the Devolver crowd that it's hard to believe it wasn't an in-house project. It's a cult simulator, but with cute li'l woodland animals instead of bloodthirsty human-types or Cthulhuses (although you can get a Cthulhu skin as part of a pre-order bonus, actually), making all the ritual sacrifice and cannibalism look so cuuuuuuuute.
That combination of cutesy and culty is the culmination of many, many months prototyping and flinging ideas at the wall in Massive Monster HQ, but now that the game is out, it's receiving reviews that make all that work worthwhile (our review is coming soon, don't worry — PC codes were sent out earlier than Switch ones!).
Those early reviews have really cottoned on to what's at the heart of Cult of the Lamb's appeal. Polygon calls it "Animal Crossing meets Dante's Inferno", Ars Technica says that it's "Animal Crossing meets the dark arts", and Digital Trends also compares it to Animal Crossing, but mixed with Ari Aster's Midsommar. Are you sensing a theme?
That wasn't actually the intention. Cult of the Lamb initially grew out of a desire to mix together colony simulators and roguelikes, and the Animal Crossing stuff came much later — and mostly by accident. "As Cult of the Lamb grew we started seeing more and more similarities with Animal Crossing," says James Pearmain, the Art Director at Massive Monster. In fact, the initial ideas weren't Animal Crossing-like at all.
"We went through lots of different ideas before landing on Cult of the Lamb! One of the very earliest ideas was about Girl Scouts that grow magical weapon plants to fight with.
Then the game was an afterlife simulator where you had your town of minions and had to torture the people sent to hell. In another version of the game, you played as a God that lived on top of a floating whale, and had to dive down to the dangerous world below to find new followers for their tribe...
We dragged ourselves through a lot of different ideas, and threw away a lot of work - we really wanted an idea that people would love. Once we decided on the tagline ‘Start your own cult of woodland worshippers’, the game really started to pull together as the aesthetic and theme became closely tied to the gameplay."
- Art Director James Pearmain on the scrapped ideas behind Cult of the Lamb
The team decided early on that they wanted to make a game that was character-led, and Cult of the Lamb grew out of that. The idea was about going out into dungeons, finding new characters, and bringing them back to base, and that meant making characters with personality — ones that were worth saving and keeping.
As Cult of the Lamb grew we started seeing more and more similarities with Animal Crossing
"We wanted them to be animals," says Pearmain. "It meant each one could look completely unique and visually interesting. At that point we started seeing similarities with [Animal Crossing] — you have your little village with animals walking around, building up and planning your town… Of course, once we added the ‘Cult’ theme and started introducing darker elements such as rituals and sacrifice, it started to feel a bit more evil than AC!"
The animals in the game range from foxes and frogs (the current trendy indie game animals) to elephants and giraffes, with more to come as part of free future updates. Much like Animal Crossing, there's a wide range of critters to befriend and/or sacrifice, starting with the obvious favourites. "We looked at a few lists of the most popular animals," says Pearmain. "Everyone has their favourites, and I wanted to make as many people as happy as possible... We also thought of some fun, more obscure ones that people might not expect!"
But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves, here. Cult of the Lamb begins like any other normal day: You're just a little sheepy, having a lovely time, when suddenly — oh no! — you get snatched up as a sacrifice to appease the Old Gods. But you are rescued from death by a mysterious, imprisoned entity called The One Who Waits, who will grant you a second chance at life if you can free him. Sounds like a great deal!
That feeling of time investment and slow progress gives a wonderful sense of ownership and joy over your island... or cult
That dark beginning can't hide the sweetness behind Cult of the Lamb, though. Sure, a lot of the game is spent sacrificing both your most-devoted followers and your non-believers alike to The One Who Waits, but you'll also be farming, fishing, flirting and fighting to provide your cultists with a home. And although the Animal Crossing similarities weren't on purpose, they fit well with the themes of the game.
"We really like the sense of creativity in [Animal Crossing]," Pearmain tells us. "The idea that your island is yours to build up and decorate however you see fit... that feeling of cleaning up and growing your island over time, and eventually have it bustling and full of cute animal villagers... that feeling of time investment and slow progress gives a wonderful sense of ownership and joy over your island, or cult." Who says a cult can't be wholesome? Lots of people, probably.
And what would an Animal Crossing-like game be without a fishing minigame? "Every game should have a fishing mechanic," says Pearmain, semi-jokingly. "Why does Metroid not have fishing? Bad game. Mario 64 - no fishing! It’s a bad game."
Why does Metroid not have fishing? Bad game. Mario 64 - no fishing! It’s a bad game
Obviously, he's not serious, but fishing minigames have become somewhat synonymous with games that offer high-octane action and fishy downtime. "We really wanted Cult of the Lamb to have a good mix of fast-paced action... and then slower, more reflective moments of downtime, to wash those horrors of the dungeon crawling away," says Pearmain. "Like the aesthetic juxtaposition of cute and scary, light and dark, we wanted to have that contrast in the gameplay as well. Fishing fits really well with those slower, more reflective moments."
Cute animals, fishing, crafting, villager maintenance... so far, Cult of the Lamb probably seems very Animal Crossingy, with an added layer of, you know, cult stuff. But Pearmain assures us that there's plenty more behind the cutesy stuff, too. Cult of the Lamb draws inspiration from games like Hades, Binding of Isaac, Don't Starve, and Dead Cells — all games with death and decay as core parts of their story — and the DNA of these games is woven through Cult of the Lamb's tapestry just as much as its cuter counterparts. For example, you can marry multiple cultists, throw villagers in the stocks for bad behaviour, and feed said villagers to your devoted followers without their knowledge. Tom Nook doesn't look so bad now, eh?
Spouses are much more valuable to the gods [as sacrifices]
In fact, Pearmain says that Tom Nook would be first to be sacrificed in his alternate-dimension Animal Crossing island... but that he'd marry him first. "Spouses are much more valuable to the gods," he says, worryingly — but he's just referring to the way Cult of the Lamb places higher importance on ultra-devoted sacrificial cultists. Hopefully.
So, Animal Crossing and Cult of the Lamb may have a lot in common on the surface... but Cult of the Lamb's cutesy wrapping belies its much darker tone underneath, creating a tantalising juxtaposition of cute-and-creepy that has worked so well for other stories in the past, like Adventure Time and Happy Tree Friends (does anyone remember Happy Tree Friends?).
So, what could Animal Crossing learn from Cult of the Lamb? "Sometimes it's good to be evil," says Pearmain. "If you're cute enough, you can get away with ą̶̹̔̇n̵͇̱̈ẙ̴̯͛ţ̶̹͌h̸͖͌i̵͇̠̐̀n̷̯̉̚g̷̫͎̔!"