Blasphemous Review | Blasphemous Is A Sinfully Enjoyable Metroidvania

Hello this is Matthew and welcome to Rock
Paper Shotgun – and that’s a much friendlier welcome than you’ll get from Blasphemous. Here the Penitent One wakes up in a pile of
dead lookalikes, and the first friend you make wants to crash your skull with a candlestick. Watch out mate, you’re getting Penitent
Ones all over the place. Don’t worry though, you’re just as much
a freak as anything you murder – no sooner has the Warden of the Silent Sorrow given
you a good whacking, you are filling your pointy hat with his blood and plunging your
head into it. I’m pretty sure Gweneth Paltrow’s health
blog said this was good for exfoliating. We’ll all be doing it soon. The point is: from its very first second,
Blasphemous is full-on stuff, a 100% commitment to being ‘a bit much’. Every enemy you meet explodes with 16-bit
gore. There are execution animations that must have
deeply scarred whoever prodded those pixels for weeks on end. There’s this lady full of swords who gives
you health upgrades and a big metal head that says things like “you have been granted
the presence of my golden visage, custodian of one of the Three Sorrows of the soul in
penance.” Even the item flavour text has to be chewed
over – it’s flavour text that has flavour, that of gamey meat, rich and dark. With the right clips – indeed the clips used
in that eye catching early trailer – Blasphemous could seem heavy handed. Castlevania redrawn by someone who just discovered
Francisco Goya’s edgelord years. But while the sight of a man being torn in
half by a baby – yuck – may draw in the punters looking for shock and gore, there’s a lot
more to Blasphemous than that. Which is why I put together this little video
review. For my sins I do have to ask you to like and
subscribe to Rock Paper Shotgun, but trust me: I will be flagellating myself for wasting
the time of any existing subscribers. Onwards. Blasphemous is a 2D platforming action adventure,
or a Metroidvania – that’s the genre that holds anything and everything that is a bit
like Metroid or Castlevania. Do you remember when some people tried to
get the rival term Castleroids off the ground? I do because a friend gave it to be as a nickname
– my surname is Castle – and I think people thought I had hemorrhoids. I did not. I digress… Weirdly, while Blasphemous shares visual DNA
with Castlevania – you start on village outskirts and work towards a towering cathedral of pain
– it feels more like Metroid to me. There’s much less emphasis on RPG character
development – you don’t level up outside of a few stages of sword proficiency, and
health and magic upgrades have to be found in hidden rooms. There are buffs in the form of rosary beads,
but they’re mostly there to take the edge off specific boss fights, before you swap
them for the trinket that pays you for kicking the shit out of candlesticks. I’m going to be rich! Rich! Rich! Fundamentally, the Penitent One is a hero
driven by fixed collectibles rather than random loot and XP, which is really all the excuse
I need to tap every wall and ground pound every crack looking for hidden rooms. If, like me, you’re a massive sucker for
gradually ticking a save file completion rate towards 100, there’s a good 15 or so hours
of this to keep you busy. Where it differs from the Metroidvania genre
is in the lack of gear-gaiting. That’s the design idea where you hit an
obstacle – say, a room full of impassable, bloodthirsty cats – then you go and find a
new ability elsewhere, like this colourful ball – and then you use that new ‘gear’
to get past the ‘gate’. This would have worked better if the cats
had run after the ball – never work with kids or animals, folks. But Blasphemous doesn’t do gear gating:
everything you need to reach the end is with you from the start. A sword, a jump and a sliding dodge. What new powers you can earn, called Relics,
exist more to uncover secrets hidden throughout the world. Earning the ability to see bloodied steps
or grow new root platforms is more about backtracking: returning to previous areas to mine them for
collectible body parts or tiny cherubs encased in glass. Though, looking at what the cherubs might
grow into, I’m not sure this is a smart idea. Stripping it back to simple moves achieves
a couple of nice things: firstly, you can approach the map as you want. Okay, the second half of the game is gated
off until you beat three bosses in the first half, but those monstrous freaks can be tackled
as you see fit. There’s never any confusion about where
to go next, because everywhere is fair game, simply limited by technical ability or, more
likely, patience. I wish I’d know this from the outset as
I bounced off these windswept cliffs for some time, thinking this is a bit steep – both
literally and figuratively – before realising I could tackle the gentler bell-ringing puzzles
of Jondo first. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sense of
a map slowly blooming out as my powers accumulate, but the freedom is Blasphemous does make you
realise how often Metroidvania designers call it exploration but actually ask you to excavate
the one, hidden path through their maze. None of that here. The second benefit is the simple nostalgia
rush of trying to squeeze such a basic hero through the hell gauntlet The Game Factory
have built. Blasphemous is as much a platformer as it
is an action game – with entire rooms dedicated to leaping challenges to reach a collectible,
or long stretches that mix up combat with unusual physical obstacles. As I jumped over swing blades or timed slides
under an army of phantom librarians, I was whisked back to even earlier Castlavanias
than the Metroid-y Symphony of the Night. It’s not just the pixels that bring to mind
16-bit adventures, but the world that’s built with them. Taken in isolation, some of these rooms could
be torn from Super Castlevania 4 – almost as if they took the stages of that game and
stitched them the free-flowing castle that would come to define the later series. It may not have the corny Mode 7 magic of
the SNES’s cylindrical rooms, but it does have a chamber with a giant freaking bell
that splats anything dumb enough to leap in its path. As John Donne once wrote: “never send to
know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for this guy’s face.” And that, to me, is pure videogames. And the bell isn’t a standalone bit of slapstick
– at one point I had sword fights with a gallery of magical paintings. This is a silly game. For all its Catholic iconography and references
to Spanish folk traditions – that pointy hat is a nod to these chaps apparently – Blasphemous
ends up being way more playful than it first appears. There’s a library full of floating heads
with Elizabethan ruffs, and bishops in magical floating chairs who poke at you in the same
way I go to work on sausages with a cocktail stick. And listen to the sound it makes when a big
bell boy whacks into you – DONG – that is the good stuff. And that playfulness bleeds into every region
of the map, giving it a twist or taste of its own. Having to use the wind to blow yourself across
impossible gaps in the mountains is very different to manipulating levers to arrange light ladder
puzzles in the library, or navigating a maze of jail cells filled with rampaging prisoners. Sometimes it might just be the appearance
of swinging bells or irritating alchemists – eat it you shit – but it creates a world
of different rhythms and a proper sense of progress. As much as I loved the very similar Bloodstained
earlier in the year, it did over rely on endless corridors full of monsters – there’s a bit
more going on in Blasphemous. And another thing: the bosses are surprisingly
great. I mean, they make me want to puke… but what
else was going to happen when when you pour custard on an open brain wound. SICK NOISES. I think bosses brilliantly illustrate the
tension between Blasphemous’ grim sales pitch and it’s more enjoyable nature. On paper, these things are pure nightmare
fuel – gnarled atrocities that crawled out of a Guillermo del Toro sketchbook, but found
massive health bars on the way. There’s the infamous baby and his evil snake
pal, for starters, but I was also profoundly disturbed by the skeletal archbishop carried
on a sea of hands you have to chop away to stick a sword in his clattering teeth. I will never look at crowd surfing the same
way. If their grand names evoke the horrors of
Dark Souls, these are far from the sticking points that those bosses were. They are very old fashioned in their adherence
to attack patterns and the clear flagging of moves, to the point that many feel like
nimble dexterity puzzles with occasional stabbings to, y’know, move on to the next bit. I know this sounds like boss design 101, and
probably not news to anyone, but it is very easy to get this stuff wrong. Normally I meet a boss and feel my spirit
drop, but I didn’t have any of that here – it took me a few fights to learn the tells
and then it was just down to my thumbs to keep up. I’d still end these with my virtual heart
weak and my real heart thumping, but they felt doable and fair, without being neutered. And if they do lack spice, well there’s
always the achievement for beating them without health flasks. That should keep you busy. I mentioned Dark Souls there – it’s a comparison
I’ve seen a bit around Blasphemous, but I’m not sure it sticks. The similarities are mostly the similarities
that Soulsbourne games share with Metroidvanias – finishing a boss and finding a shortcut
back to an earlier area was not invented by Demon Souls after all. There is no stamina bar, and while you do
have a Souls-y block and parry, it is limited to certain melee attackers and the timing
is so generous that it’s basically an instant kill button for certain enemies. Although I love the execution animations if
you stun enemies with a perfect counter. You wouldn’t see *that* on the freaking
SNES. I guess there’s a bit of Dark Souls in the
game’s more ambiguous moments. There are lots of items that don’t explain
their purpose that you’ll have to decipher, and the plot has to be stitched together from
chunks of lore attached to everything you find. But even then the game is far more overt in
what it’s saying, although I’d be interested to hear a theologian explain some of the more
outlandish imagery. The mechanic that feels the most Souls-y is
the punishment upon death – instead of losing your currency, dying adds guilt to your character,
which limits the length of the Fervour bar. It’s a nice enough idea but I wish it wasn’t
tied to what is basically your magic bar. Fact is, your magic spells are probably the
least interesting part of the game – they take ages to activate and mostly pretty weak,
meaning you’ll often forget about them. Which means you can forget about the whole
guilt thing, too. In a similar way, there’s a mechanic that
lets you hurt yourself to earn fervour – nicely tying into the self-flagellating penance practiced
by many in the world. But again, there’s no reason to engage with
it when fervour is so underpowered. Focus instead on currency and buying powers
at the Mea Culpa shrines and you’ll be more than prepared for anything the game throws
at you. Something so easily ignored can’t spoil
the game, but it is annoying to see time wasted on a flimsy idea. Especially when the concept of guilt has such
significance to the story itself – shame it can’t play a more mechanically significant
role in your quest. But when your biggest complaint is with something
it didn’t do, you’re usually onto a winner. Like so many retro throwbacks, this feels
like 16-bit gaming as it was, but it really wasn’t – by taking the very simple action
of that era, but marrying it to the more ambitious structure of the modern Metroidvania, I think
Blasphemous genuinely finds a style all of its own and stands out in a genre which is
not short of gems. Less Dark Souls-y than Hallow Night, more
classic Castlevania than Bloodstained – it’s a real surprise. And a lot more fun than that oppressive setup
might have you think. At this point Blasphemous has been out for
a few days, so I’d be keen to hear your thoughts if you’ve played it – and how many
times that baby tore you in half. And if you enjoyed this little video, maybe
watch out other reviews – I recently took at look at Gears 5 and Control and have thoughts
to share on those. Oh, and I’d really appreciate the like and
subscribe. Oh, that’s twice I’ve asked now – better
get started on the flagellating. Bye for now.


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