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Dark and Bloody Meets Cute and Cuddly in Cult of the Lamb

Cult of the Lamb tries to find the balance of being an edgy and demanding roguelike while also being a relaxing base-building simulator



Cult of the Lamb Review

Developer: Massive Monster | Publisher: Devolver Digital | Genre: Roguelike |
Platforms: Steam, GOG, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch | Reviewed on: Steam

In any good roguelike RPG, from Hades to Dead Cells to The Binding of Isaac, death is rarely the end. Often, it is an opportunity: to re-outfit a character or revisit a build, or to take a breather, consult a codex, and plot the next run. In Cult of the Lamb, the latest from megawatt publisher Devolver Digital, players do all the things associated with the genre- with the added twist that the power of death is always lurking, not as a threat but as a tool. Cult of the Lamb tries to straddle the line between relaxing life sim and harrowing roguelike, and while it may stretch itself thin trying to serve both masters, it’s largely successful.

cult of the lamb
Image: Massive Monster

How to Make Friends and Influence Critters

Despite the player character’s extremely cute design, the premise of Cult of the Lamb is as dark as they come: after a long, slow walk to a sacrificial altar, the titular lamb is killed as a preventative measure to thwart the return of an ancient, bloodthirsty demon by a group of four gods known as the Bishops. But instead of moving on to the great hereafter, the lamb is plucked from the afterlife by the very being the Bishops are trying to keep at bay, the vengeful One Who Waits. The One Who Waits sees potential in the lamb and gifts them with eternal life and the power to defeat the four Bishops. But The One Who Waits is a vain and greedy god, demanding tribute and praise from their followers, and so tasks the lamb with not just killing the Bishops, but building a loyal following of forest denizens as they attempt to do so.

In gameplay terms, this means alternating between two modes: managing a growing cult, and going on extended crusades. Cult management plays out similarly to any number of simulation games where the player is tasked with constructing shelters, growing and harvesting crops, and refining logs and stones into wooden planks and sturdy bricks. However, there is the added twist that the player must indoctrinate new cult members and gain their loyalty through showing affection or with pure, calculated manipulation. Players have a field all to themselves to clear off debris and decorate as they see fit, but know that cult members need to have their basic needs taken care of or they will start showing signs of dissatisfaction and perhaps even leave the cult, taking valuable resources with them. There are three main things to upkeep: devotion, hunger, and sickness. If any of these remain below a certain threshold for an extended period of time, the cult will falter as members dissent, leave, or even die. If Stardew Valley were tossed into a blender with Happy Tree Friends and the Necronomicon, one has an excellent idea of what to expect.

cult of the lamb
Image: Massive Monster

When not scurrying around reassuring followers, cleaning up their messes, or quietly murdering them so they’ll stop influencing other cult members, the lamb must sally forth on Crusades. For anyone familiar with modern roguelike structure, these Crusades will feel familiar. The lamb goes out into a biome, chooses a melee weapon and a ranged curse, and battles from room to room in search of combat upgrades and resources to take back to their home base. The lamb has limited attacks, forcing the player to rely on skill to fight their way to a biome’s boss and take them out. Each of the four biomes has a distinct art style with unique enemies, and each area has its own resources to gather as well. Crusades are also the most surefire way to recruit new members into the cult, by rescuing them from danger or converting defeated minibosses back into more manageable forms.

The core loop of Cult of the Lamb is immediately understandable. A cult leader is only as strong as their cult is loyal, and its up to the player to decide what kind of leader they want to be. Will they be kind and benevolent, doing favors and completing quests for their growing flock? Or will they be strict and exacting, ruthless taskmasters who will work their members to an early grave? Will they create a gorgeous home for their followers, carefully considering every new structural placement? Or will they leave them to fend for themselves, only caring about victory in combat against increasingly Lovecraftian horrors? The One Who Waits only cares about power, and players can choose how they want to flex theirs.

cult of the lamb
Five becomes four becomes three becomes two… | Image: Massive Monster

Splitting the Difference

Cult of the Lamb’s first hour or two are densely packed with information and terms to learn. Players must come to grips with the religion-tinged vocabulary as they decide which doctrines are coda and which rituals will be most beneficial in the short-term. The incredible cuteness of the lamb, the cult members, and every structure nearly vaults Cult of the Lamb into “cozy game” territory, even if the content is anything but. As the cult continues to grow, players must optimize their upkeep, and the best way to do so is to keep the economy humming. There is much to consider beyond roguelike combat.

Cult of the Lamb has a clock that is always ticking, which adds an interesting layer to the proceedings. Cult members are only active during the day (unless the lamb bestows a special gift upon an individual that forces them to remain awake), so players must pick and choose their projects until they have a willing stable of brainwashed cultists. It is dangerous to go out on a Crusade while the cult is in disarray; upon returning, whether through victory or because they died during a run, players may find their carefully manicured surroundings covered in excrement or vomit, or stumble upon a cult member that has died of old age and instilled a fear of death in any witnesses. This lends Cult of the Lamb either its own unique structure or a significant pacing problem, depending on how you look at it.

Generally, on the developer-recommended Normal difficulty, a run in Cult of the Lamb takes about fifteen minutes from the first room to the boss. However, players cannot take on one of the four Bishops after an initial run. To battle a Bishop, the lamb must make it through a biome and defeat a boss at least three times; only then will the Bishop deign to appear in their temple and battle the lamb. Most of the time, between runs, the player will need to return to their cult and make sure things are continuing smoothly before buckling down and attempting another Crusade. Maintaining stability of the cult is a necessity, even if a player wants to turn right around and have another go at a boss battle. It can be frustrating, but asking players to adjust to this pace feels like an intentional developer choice. The One Who Waits may be impatient to escape their otherworldly prison, but the lamb must tend to their flock if they want to have any hope of success.

cult of the lamb
Image: Massive Monster

Cult management is more than just a base-building sim. Cult of the Lamb pulls from the Animal Crossing series and also recent XCOM games, combining the joy of creating perfectly symmetrical garden plots with hardnosed decision making. Most important is the lamb’s church, where they can give daily sermons to inspire follower loyalty and increase their devotion. This structure is also where players can perform rituals, which include everything from reviving deceased cult members to marrying them to forcing them to fast so they need not worry about going hungry for a few days. With the appropriate materials, players can also upgrade their combat effectiveness, making a successful return from a Crusade much more likely.

Ideally, players will recruit enough followers and build the right structures so that members can more or less take care of themselves, but there is almost always something for the player to do in their home base to pass the time. Cult of the Lamb wants players to feel like they can create something beautiful to return to. There are dozens of decorations to unlock and purchase from NPCs, though most of these are purely optional and don’t affect the core experience of knocking down Bishops one at a time. Grinding for resources and spending time placing decorative structures is a great comedown after victory or defeat, a calming way to deflect the bloodlust The One Who Waits’ demands.

As cute as it is to create a perfect sanctuary for the lamb’s followers, The One Who Waits longs for freedom at any cost. They even encourage players to think of their followers as resources; at one point, the god tells the lamb in a cutscene that “they are for you to use to your advantage.” Soon enough, players earn a new ability: if they fall during a run, they can choose to sacrifice one of their followers and return to the battlefield. If the cultist is young and loyal, the lamb can return to the fray fully healed. But if the offering is old, frail, or not very enthusiastic about The One Who Waits, the lamb may be revived with just half of a hit point. Players will quickly learn to keep a stable of followers who they can slay at a moment’s notice.

base building
Image: Massive Monster

Cult of the Lamb does an admirable job of making players feel guilty for treating their adorable forest-creature followers as disposable objects, even if this sentiment is eventually undercut by certain mechanics. Death stops being a deterrent once the lamb is able to perform a ritual to revive dead cultists, and the economy of the base-building breaks down around two-thirds of the way through the game. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as players who want more of a challenge can always turn up the difficulty or impose self-restrictions on certain rituals.

The actual runs of Cult of the Lamb are straightforward and satisfying. There is an especially right-feeling dodge roll that covers a lot of ground, perfect for boss battles with screen-filling attacks. There are unlockable Tarot cards to find that boost the lamb’s abilities or provide additional hearts. What is missing in Cult of the Lamb is a certain element of chaos prominent in other roguelikes, where a player can enter a run with low expectations and have an absolutely broken build after clearing a few rooms. If Cult of the Lamb feels rewarding, it is because success is almost always a result of the player simply playing well, instead of getting lucky. Because of this, runs can often feel similar to one another, despite fantastic enemy variety across biomes. Weapons are unfortunately not as varied as they could be, despite unlockable variants that deal poison damage or grant additional curse-fueling Fervor.

Modifiers become available later in the game, and after defeating a biome’s Bishop the first time players can return to a more difficult version of that dungeon if they’re after a challenge. Replaying this game is easy, particularly if one has an interest in discovering every available decoration or really wants to put the time into making a gorgeous-looking cult space. Cult of the Lamb has that magic quality that makes a player want to play for just one more hour, even if the game’s latter half feels like it’s spinning its wheels.

The built-in cooldown of having to manage a growing cult makes for a unique experience among roguelikes. Players should not be turned off by the denseness of the opening hours of Cult of the Lamb; trust that by the time they have a decent amount of followers to their name, the lamb will be free to Crusade to their heart’s content without the cult falling into complete disarray (and if it does, there’s always the option to sacrifice all current members to an elder god and start anew). Cult of the Lamb manages to be both cute and horrifying, even if it occasionally struggles to firmly plant a hoof in both the “hardcore roguelike” and “cozy cult-building simulator” camps. This is a unique blending of genres, and worth celebrating.

Cameron Daxon is a video game evangelist and enthusiastic reader. He lives in Los Angeles, California and once nearly collided with Shigeru Miyamoto during E3. His favorite game is Bloodborne, but only when he’s not revisiting Super Mario World. He’s also in the writer’s room for YouTube personality The Completionist and other places on the internet.