I’m a big fan of metroidvania-style games and I absolutely adore the Dark Souls series, so naturally Blasphemous is a game that ticked a LOT of boxes for me. Slick combat, stunning environments, and challenging bosses that will push all of your skills to the limit – all in a glorious 2D style that’s reminiscent of Castlevania’s wonder years? You can count me in.
I’m glad to report that it all comes together to make for a tantalising gaming experience too, with Blasphemous’ blend of finely-tuned action and dark themes making for a stand out release in what is an admittedly crowded genre. I feel like it has been quite a wait for the game following its initial Kickstarter reveal back in 2017, but boy, has it been worth it.
Blasphemous puts you in the role of the Penitent One, a cone-like helmet wearing warrior that heads on a journey across a perilous land known as Cvstodia to complete his… uh… goal. So I’ll admit it: I struggled to follow the narrative of Blasphemous. It’s a bloody bizarre game with its dark, religious themes, and its use of imagery can certainly be perceived in a multitude of ways. However, despite not necessarily always knowing what was going on, it was hard not to find myself drawn into the twisted world. Whilst the protagonist’s motives were never perfectly clear to me, I knew the end goal was going to be grim and I was intrigued to see what it would consist of. Of course, this lack of understanding is undoubtedly an issue on my end and those who enjoy themselves a bit of narrative detail will find plenty of optional lore to indulge in during the game, but don’t be surprised if you too find yourself at a loss as to what exactly is going on.
Blasphemous’ adventure takes place in a labyrinth-like world, with plenty of twists and turns to take and environments to scour across. You’ll also be killing enemies along the way and collecting Tears of Atonement (Blasphemous’ take on souls), encountering the enigmatic citizens of the world, partaking in side quests, and uncovering an abundance of secrets. Naturally, given the metroidvania-like setup of the game, there’ll be plenty of inaccessible locales to begin with too, but it’s nothing that some good old fashioned backtracking later on in the game won’t fix. At the start though, you’ve got the likes of running, jumping, and crouch-dashing at your disposal, so it’s easy to get on board with the initial platforming hurdles – the controls themselves are tight too, so any fall to your death will always be thanks to your own doing.
You know how the Dark Souls series has bonfires to rest at? Well, in Blasphemous, you’ll instead utilise shrines known as Prie Dieu. Here, you’re able to recover your health, re-fill your health flasks, and give yourself a handy little checkpoint, but it comes at the expense of having all previously slain enemies in the area recover. This actually adds an extra bit of suspense to exploration in the game. There’ll be plenty of moments throughout Blasphemous where you might not necessarily know where to go and will have to take some risks with exploring areas over and over again, so do you ride it out and cope with any health that you’ve lost or do you recover it all but give yourself some of the same enemies to vanquish again? It’s a cycle we’ve seen established in plenty of other games previously, but I felt the effects of it more here during some of the particularly trying sections where I didn’t quite know what to do (more on that later).
Of course, it’s all well and good getting to explore a slick maze-like world, but let’s not forget that you’ll partake in plenty of killing too. Unlike similar titles in the genre, Blasphemous doesn’t give you an abundance of weapons to play around with – instead, you’ll use just the one sword. I’m used to playing around with multiple weapons in other metroidvania and souls-like releases, so it certainly felt a bit different only having the one here. However, it did make Blasphemous feel like a more streamlined experience where I didn’t feel like I may be using the wrong style of weapon or that I needed to find something a bit more powerful, so there are certainly positives to the approach.
Combat itself is simple enough though, with the player able to dish out some attacking combos. As you progress you’re able to unlock new abilities too, some of which are combat-focused and some of which are based around traversal. There’s also a focus on defending, with the player able to block with their sword or parry an enemy’s attack if they time a block correctly. This will prove essential as you work through the game (one boss encounter depends solely on parries) and nailing a parry will open an enemy up to a quick and powerful counterattack. It shows that there’s a lot to Blasphemous’ combat and that you’ll need to be strategic and quick-thinking in your approach if you’re going to have any hope in conquering the many enemies that loiter across the environment.
You’ll also have access to magic abilities known as Miracles. Now these can prove to be essential, especially when facing multiple foes at a time or when you need a quick blast of power to wipe out a foe when you’re on the cusp of death. Your magic use is tied to a meter known as Fervor, which charges with each enemy that you defeat. However, in an interesting twist, rather than losing your Tears of Atonement if you vanquish a la Dark Souls (yay!), you instead see your Fervor meter drop in size. Now I know that I’ve had plenty of swearing fits after losing all of my souls thanks to two unfortunate deaths in a row in the Dark Souls series in the past, so this approach that Blasphemous adopts felt a whole lot less punishing. HOWEVER, you’ll soon find that you depend more and more on your Miracles and that their use can be the difference between life and death, so a shortened Fervor meter can be quite the hindrance. Thankfully, all you’ve got to do is return to the place of your death or pay up at a shrine to recover it, so there’s always a way to get it fixed.
It’s not the only thing that Blasphemous does to shake up the Souls-like approach, mind. There’s no stamina meter to be wary of, so you can move around and attack freely without worrying about whether or not your character is going to be exhausted. There’s no emphasis on levelling up your character either – instead, you’ll be using different pieces of equipment to upgrade your capabilities.
Rosary Beads offer the most conventional of stat boosts, with the player able to equip three to begin with although this number rises as you progress through the game. You’ll find different options to equip throughout the environment and each offers a different boost to stats, so you’ll be able to equip those that best suit your playstyle or in an area where you find you have a particular weakness. You’ll also unlock new abilities and are able to improve your weapon with modifications – these are interesting though, given that they give your weapon an upgrade at the expense of something else. Ultimately, deciding whether or not you equip them is down to the player, but their use does add an intriguing element to the game where you have to decide if giving yourself a weakness for a small boost elsewhere is worthwhile.
You can also use your Tears of Atonement to upgrade and unlock abilities through a skill tree, though I found this whole system a little finicky; Blasphemous isn’t exactly generous as far as explaining its gameplay mechanics is concerned, so I found it a little bit awkward to understand initially. Of course, it doesn’t take to long to figure everything out, but it would have been nice to have had an extra helping hand to begin with.
Between the intriguing world to explore, the slick combat, and the tight platforming, everything in Blasphemous comes together nicely to make for a thrilling experience. Everything just feels so fine-tuned in the game, with a real demand for strategy and patience if you’re going to survive – those who rush into battle with enemies without looking what’s around them will meet a quick end. It sounds daunting, but it’s actually brilliant. There’s so much finesse to the game that it feels masterful in design; there’s always enough room to make a jump, always enough space around you to dodge or parry an enemy’s attacks, and you always have the skills at your disposal to wipe out any foe… you’ve just got to have the skill to do it. There is an abundance of different enemy types to face off against too, so there’s always something new to be wary of. This was one of the things that satisfied me the most throughout the Dark Souls series, and it is something that has been absolutely nailed here.
Of course, you should also expect to die a lot – this isn’t an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. At least you know that the majority of those deaths will be thanks to your own undoing and not because of anything unfair the game sends your way… for the most part. Whilst I’d say that 95% of Blasphemous is finely designed, there were a handful of moments in the game where I got caught in an unfair loop of attacks from enemies that were simply impossible to avoid. It shows it has its imperfections, but they are few and far between.
One thing I’d be remiss not to mention is the quality of the boss encounters in the game, with Blasphemous’ epic showdowns not only providing players a stern test of their skills but also looking delightfully hideous in design. Taking them down mainly boils down to learning their attack patterns, dodging at the right time, and then picking your moment to strike, but there’s enough variety between each one that they all manage to have their own distinct vibe. From the very first showdown with the Warden of the Silent Sorrow all the way to the final boss, Blasphemous will certainly wow you with its rich selection of battles with some epically nasty monstrosities.
So I pretty much loved my time with Blasphemous, but there were a handful of issues that stop it from striving to perfection. Whilst there are the aforementioned moments when you get trapped in enemy attacks in some instances in the game, there are also more obvious ones such as a lack of direction and the poor map. So the problems with the map mainly came with the portable nature of the Nintendo Switch, with no option in place to zoom in to take a closer look at the areas you visited. There’s a lack of markers too, so I found it difficult to keep track of the locales I’ve been to and what they consisted of – something that’s particularly tough for a metroidvania-style game that has an emphasis on backtracking. This led to moments where I’d have no clue where I had to go; whilst there are locales you visit in the game which are designed to be returned to later, the game doesn’t always clue you in on them at the right moments. Of course, things like this were probably intentional in design, but it just made for a few annoying moments giving the scale of Blasphemous’ world.
Blasphemous is brilliant. Between its slick combat mechanics, its finely crafted world, and the showdowns with its ferocious monstrosities of bosses, there really is a lot to love here. There’s a level of finesse to just about everything you do in the game, and it’s that need for precision and strategy that helps Blasphemous stand above similar titles in the genre.
It does have its imperfections and I have no doubts that it won’t be for everyone, but those who enjoy themselves a challenging metroidvania-style 2D adventure that wears its inspirations like a badge of honour will NOT want to miss out on Blasphemous.
Developer: The Game Kitchen
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC