by Thomas Mikkelsen
reviewed on PC
What if Catholic guilt was a video game?
That’s the question I kept asking myself as I played Blasphemous, a game that places challenging, responsive combat above all else. That is not to say that the game doesn’t come in a beautiful aesthetic package, cause it does. That being said, there’s not much of a story to it (or if there is, it was lost on me).
The immediate draw to Blasphemous is its gorgeous pixel art. Set in a medieval hellscape where sinners roam around performing their torturous tasks, the art style is dark, visceral and realistic. Bodies strewn around like fallen leaves with bits missing; arrows, sword and axes sticking out of them and in various states of decay set the scene; and enemies whose torturous punishment define their attacks lie waiting for you, the Penitent One, to pass by. The characters, animations, scenery, both inside and out, look superb in every way.
The game’s soundtrack gives a nostalgic nudge to Diablo and you’ll be transported to the town of Tristram as soon as you enter the game’s first town. The combat sound design leaves a little to be desired when it comes to incoming attack cues, but overall, sound effects and ambience transport you into the game’s brutal world. Visual cues are present, but if you happen to need the added audio support, you’ll probably be more than a little frustrated.
Clumsy story exposition
The voice acting mostly comes in the form of characters talking at you since you, the Penitent One, are a silent protagonist. Exposition, therefore, all comes from characters you meet who explain to you who they are, why they are there, and what they need from you. This feels forced most of the time and on a few occasions, the clichéd use of Shakespearean phrasing (bringest thou to me mine forlorn acorn -exaggerated example-) sent shivers up my spine. The VO itself is passable, but, of course, when an actor has no voice or lines to respond to, it is difficult to make one-directional dialogue sound convincing.
Aside from the VO and exposition issues, there’s very little story here to grab your attention. The game starts off with a woman on her knees banging a statue against her chest apparently confessing her sins. The base of the statue then turns into a sword, impaling her. This is the sword you wield in the game. Her act was both a blessing and a curse as it brought both guilt and justice to the world.
Most of the characters you meet will tell you of their suffering and many of the items you’ll find will contain a description of the miserable fates that befell their creators, but very little context is given about who you are, where you’re going, or why. Bits and pieces are seeded here and there but once you get a piece, you’ve forgotten about the previous one. Narrative-wise, the game is a non-starter since you probably won’t care about any of the lore or characters as you make your way through the game because of the way exposition is handled.
Deadly, deadly combat
That being said, the combat challenge is where this game’s heart lies. A metroidvania with multiple endings, branching paths and places to explore; blending in elements of Demon’s Souls where you get a little bit weaker every time you die and fail to reach your spirit essence to reclaim your power; and a punishing distance between respawn shrines, coupled with all the enemies returning every time you re-enter a map; Blasphemous is sure to delight the more masochistic of challenge seekers.
Artefacts you find in the world are used to upgrade your sword, make you tougher and let you carry more health vials, but I found myself not caring much about these as the effect they had was negligible in combat. Upgrading your combat moves, however, makes a world of difference. The items felt a bit tacked-on, almost to give the game an “RPG Element” check-mark for the marketing department to work with. Not that it had an adverse effect on my enjoyment of the game – not at all. It was simply something I didn’t feel added much value to it either.
Punishing, gore-laden feast
Blasphemous walks that tightest of ropes between goddamnit-I-hate-this-game frustration and oh-my-god-I’m-so-proud-of-myself bliss we all love. When you’re running low on health you’ll have to decide whether to push on or return to a shrine to freshen up, because all the enemies you just beat will be back when you turn around. That means you may well end up worse off if you make a mistake. This decision I faced on multiple occasions, only to die before I even made it back to where I decided to turn around. Some areas, you’ll end up just rushing through as you’re unable to find a pattern in enemy movement that does not lead to you being pummelled by projectiles, as you face off against a melee enemy, or rushed by a charging attack from one as you prepare to deflect an attack from another.
A gore-laden feast for the most barbaric among us, Blasphemous truly is a punishing game in the best possible way. I just wish it had a more gripping story to go with it.
Satisfying combat, visceral aesthetics, challenging gameplay.
Not much in the way of a narrative, occasionally finicky platforming.