When it comes to video games, especially Metroidvania-style platformers, I’ve a couple of requirements: off-plot exploration, an excellent soundtrack and, most difficult of all to satisfy, an aesthetic based on medieval Spain’s particularly esoteric form of Catholicism.
Oh, look. Here comes Blasphemous.
Set in the far-off land of Custodia, the narrative of Blasphemous takes place some time after a strange curse – known only as The Miracle – has degraded the country’s people and landscape into twisted versions of themselves, tormented by grief and self-loathing. The player character – eternally silent, wearing an iron version the flagellant’s capirote and known only as the Penitent One – awakes on a pile of corpses and, taking up the sword known as Mea Culpa, sets out to lift this curse. A bestiary of enemies – from shambling prisoners to radiant angels, fire-scorched nuns to bejewelled saints – stands between you and this goal.
The first thing that strikes the player is that Blasphemous is, in a very dark and tainted way, utterly beautiful. The game environment – whether half-flooded sewers or echoing cathedrals – is rendered in a retro, pixel-art style that is deceptive in its detail and wonderfully full of depth given its 2D nature. The denizens of these various domains are equally well presented; muscles bulge as semi-naked figures sweep their stone crosses at you and swordswomen shift their weight before striking. This is all cloaked in the game’s wonderful soundtrack of ominous cello and Spanish guitar, blending with martial fanfares as the action builds.
Blasphemous has been touted by the games press as a “Soulsvania”, a blend that takes from the Dark Souls series as much as it does platforming classics like Metroid and Castlevania. This is sort of half true. You will dodge a lot, you will die a lot, you recover health through an Estus-esque collection of flasks, and you drop bundles of energy (known, appropriately enough for the Catholic setting, as Guilt) when you die. The game is also heavily focused on the player realising that they can, for the most part, simply avoid lesser enemies to get to the many bosses that are their true targets. Yet few of these elements are unique to Dark Souls. In fact, what Blasphemous owes most to Dark Souls is not combat at all but how its plot is recounted through dialogue with disinterested NPCs and the epistolic fragments attached to items. Equally, Blasphemous isn’t a true Metroidvania in that none of the many power-ups and abilities you find on your travels – depicted here as rosary beads and relics – are needed to complete the game. No double-jumps or mist-forms suddenly revealing areas of the map here, just a handful of baubles and bones.
What Blasphemous is, however, is a very solid and engaging old-school, side-on platformer, wrapped in a startlingly accomplished aesthetic. It’s far from perfect – core tasks like jumping can become frustrating when the Penitent One’s tendency to cling to every ledge is mixed with insta-kill spikes that lurk just off screen, for example, and voice acting is of variable quality – but it has everything I want from a game like this. The sense of achievement against adversity, another element taken from Dark Souls’ design brief, and the game’s sheer addictiveness mean I would choose this over the otherwise similar Dead Cells every time.
Which is all well and good, say attentive readers, but what’s this game doing in a horror criticism website? The answer to that is simple; Blasphemous does what horror does in that it takes the expected and shows what happens when it is twisted, perverted into something else. Blasphemous takes the finest elements of religion – faith, duty, humility – and shows how they can be corrupted into obsession, dogma and arrogance. It does this within the game, but it also does it to the player. The standard gamer mantra of “one more go” becomes muttered through gritted teeth as mistake after mistake is blamed on poor hit-boxes or unfair enemies when, in fact, every decision is up to you, every move made by you.
And who is resurrecting all those enemies, raising them forcibly from their rest, only to be killed again and again and again if it is not you, the player, in your quest for glory?