I’m not a religious man, but have often found the gruesome and twisted fiction it can give rise to utterly fascinating. As such, Blasphemous instantly barged its way onto my radar with its gloriously macabre Kickstarter trailer back in 2017. Brooding and grisly, it evoked almost exactly what was eventually delivered in the final product, and — despite a number of technical flaws — the wait was definitely worth it.
Rather than putting it off until later in the review, the Dark Souls comparisons might as well be nipped in the bud at this early juncture. From its visual theme, narrative techniques, and gameplay bullet points, Blasphemous sets out its stall to be a mysterious and challenging affair of swords and monsters. It takes those familiar Souls facets and combines them into a non-linear Metroidvania platformer, and it’s a formula that has rarely been done with as much flair as it is here.
Those familiar with FromSoftware’s narrative leanings will know what to expect from the story in Blasphemous — that being not a whole lot of surface-level understanding. The opening is mainly utter nonsense, comprised of your typical oldey-timey English and dogmatic scripture, and it doesn’t get an awful lot clearer as players fight through the campaign. However, nearly all the collectible items and powerups have readable lore at the press of a button, and piecing together these scraps of information will gradually reveal a greater comprehension of the story.
Players take control of The Penitent One — a masked man who seems to be permanently crying tears of blood — in a quest to reverse the effects of ‘The Great Miracle.’ This cataclysmic event devastated mankind as punishment for ‘The Age of Corruption,’ where everyone was basically really bad at religion and…blasphemed a lot? As a result, everyone in the world is a malevolent, murderous zealot intent on turning The Penitent One into The Pulverized One.
The abhorrent imagery, imposing scenery, and melancholy world of Orthodoxia really is a morbidly fascinating one. Featuring fully hand-painted, pixel-art cutscenes, its visual style is akin to an old Amiga game like Prince of Persia or Another World. Rarely have 16-bit graphics been used to paint such a grotesque scene, and as such, it’s an astounding game to look at. The excellent sprite work comes to life (or perhaps that should be death) with gory combat and executions, while enemies — particularly the bosses — are a thing of depraved, disgusting beauty.
The combat, however, is perhaps a little too simplistic, relying heavily on the executions (usually triggered after performing a perfect parry and counter) to do the heavy lifting for a single basic sword weapon and a handful of extra powers. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Blasphemous. Keeping players engaged in labyrinthine, often confusing Metroidvania titles is key, and without an enticing loop of unlocks it can be a little difficult to maintain interest in exploring the world. Not every game has to be Dead Cells, but using the same sword that cannot even be enhanced (yet seems to power up by itself, despite you not leveling up in any way) denies players an important level of tangible progression.
However, simplistic combat doesn’t mean the game is simple — oh no, sir — as it can be extremely punishing — especially the bosses. What Blasphemous has to help players instead of new weapons or stat building is a litany of other sundries. Rosary Beads add various passive buffs like shorter cooldowns, damage and elemental resistance, and higher defense or HP. Relics enable environmental assistance to access new areas through platforms or vines, and Mea Culpa Hearts provide buffs at a price — higher strength at the cost of defense, etc. Prayers, which are essentially magic attacks that use up your expandable Fervor meter, can also be unlocked. They’re largely disappointing, as are the small number of abilities that can be unlocked using Tears of Atonement (souls, basically), which amount to only a handful; those movesets are then upgraded rather than expanded upon.
What was unashamedly billed as a Metroidvania crossed with Dark Souls then feels more like the former than the latter in its gameplay, but a key element Blasphemous takes from Miyazaki’s masterpieces is that enemies only respawn when you rest at a Prie Dieu (which also refills your health flasks). It’s one of the most needed adaptations to the Metroidvania formula; nobody likes accidentally going the wrong way and having to kill all the same enemies again just to get back to where they started.
And go the wrong way players will, as Blasphemous breaks Metroidvania rule 101: don’t get the map wrong. The map isn’t terrible per se, but it is just slightly lacking in certain facets, which can make the journey through Orthodoxia needlessly annoying. By far the most egregious issue is that you can’t exit the map by pressing the map button again. Instead the jump button is used to exit, which will also make your character jump upon returning to the gameplay. It sounds pedantic, but with as many pitfalls and death traps as Blasphemous has, I certainly didn’t appreciate constantly jumping without intention, and died more than once because of it.
When players do die in Blasphemous, a marker will be placed on the map showing where they fell in order to help guide them back to reclaim lost Tears of Atonement and regain the portion of their Fervor bar, which gets gradually reduced with each death. This is helpful until realizing that the map can’t be zoomed in; having markers and a legend is all well and good, but when all you can do is view the map from a very zoomed-out angle, they might as well not be there. It makes finding those potential secrets — or even normal room dividers — much more difficult to pinpoint than they should be.
Unfortunately, Blasphemous is not only sprinkled with little design niggles, but it’s also quite buggy, and at times feels a little unfinished. At one stage I had the game soft lock so that I couldn’t use any of the trigger buttons (to heal or dodge), while another incident saw a boss glitch off the screen, initially attacking nothing before righting itself and appearing from thin air to kill me. Frame drops are also pretty constant — especially when playing in handheld mode — creeping down to single digits in busier areas, and when combined with the buggy camera, can lead to more than a few pitfall deaths.
None of these issues truly spoil the experience, however, and so Blasphemous ends up as an intriguing and challenging title that easily holds a place in the upper echelons of its genre. As cynical as putting Dark Souls mechanics in a Metroidvania seems on paper, the execution here is largely successful, and ensures that the game can be regarded as more than just a pretty thing to look at. Its difficulty may put some people off, as might its vague story or numerous bugs, but the rewards of seeing the gorgeous new areas while brutally executing new enemies will keep hardcore purists going until the immense satisfaction of the final victory.