Having turned heads during its Kickstarter period with its dark and stylish take on medieval aesthetics, Blasphemous now joins the ranks of 2D Souls-like games. This visually effective combat platformer offers up an intriguing view of some of the more disturbing aspects of medieval Catholicism – or more accurately, the public perception of such a time. This isn’t a historically accurate or dutifully researched game, and it doesn’t need to be. Instead what we have is a fantasy loosely based on ideas of guilt and penance mixed up with lashings of bloody violence.
There is a deliberate air of mystery to events in Blasphemous. You play as a tortured soul in a ludicrous but sinister conical helmet. Forcing this onto your head at the beginning of the game provides the first glimpse of the oodles of claret that flow here. The result is a character who looks like a cross between Pyramid Head from Silent Hill and the Coneheads from the Dan Ackroyd’s ropey 1990s movie. However, the conical bonce works perfectly with the pixel art aesthetic and feels right at home with the medieval horrors on show in the rest of the game’s world. The otherworldly feel of events is compounded by the presence of huge piles of corpses also bearing the ominous cone of doom. This visual works well both in setting out the dark atmosphere of the game and in foreshadowing the many deaths that will follow.
Given the main settings of catacombs and cathedrals, Blasphemous isn’t a particularly colourful game. Most of the backgrounds are combinations of blacks and browns with the occasional liberal application of red gore. Even the outside locations are dreary and foggy, but the oppressive atmosphere created by this palette is entirely suited to the mood of the game. The player character and enemies are nicely designed and have a clear and crisp style accompanied by nice animation. The comes into its own when attempting to read enemy attacks, a crucial part of any 2D combat game. The action is carried out to a surprisingly classical soundtrack, a far cry from the screeching metal that the visuals might otherwise invoke.
Your conical hero controls pretty well most of the time, with extra attacks being slowly unlocked as you progress. Whilst many of these are powerful, they all have drawbacks in terms of timing, so it’s fortunate that your basic attack remains effective throughout. The pattern of combat will be familiar to genre fans, with cautious attacks and well-timed parries being the order of the day. Enemies will occasionally be stunned which opens up vicious execution moves. These are suitably violent and happen rarely enough not to lose their appeal.
Navigating the game world is fairly satisfying, but the focus here is more on the combat than the platforming side of things. Jumping is responsive apart from one annoying area where fluctuating winds must be judged to give you an extra boost to reach platforms. The jumping in this section felt a little too clunky with the end result being several deaths that felt unfair. This was exacerbated by enemies being able to knock you to your doom all too easily.
Fortunately dying in Blasphemous is just part of the game. You get to keep your collected items and are merely transported to the last altar savepoint. Each death is punished by a penalty to your fervour (basically magic) meter, but this can be recouped by returning to your corpse in a manner that will be familiar from many other games. This approach does allow you to brute forcing some difficult areas and is welcome. You’ll often find yourself subject to a few death penalties, but there are shrines available where you can pay the in-game currency to resolve your grief and refill your metre.
Collectables are frequent and range from the numerous quest items to equipment and tears, which are the game’s currency. All of the objects have lore which combine to create a surprisingly deep backstory to the world. It isn’t always clear where the quest items need to go, so it might be worth keeping notes of what quest givers have asked for what. I also couldn’t work out how to increase my accessories, despite having located several of the rosary knots that are required to expand your beads – pro tip: there’s a person in a cage by the Brotherhood of Silent Sorrows. It is of course characteristic for this kind of game to have a degree of obscurity, but it is a shame that this approach is also applied to the equipment and upgrades.
Every area of the game is filled with enemies, all of whom have their own patterns and weaknesses. The range of foes is pretty good with many bearing a distinctly ecclesiastical aesthetic. Attacks are usually clearly signalled and feel fair, but this is sometimes less true of the bosses. There is a definite feel of trial and error in working out a boss’ patterns and the best way of avoiding or countering them. Each boss is a challenging puzzle that requires accurate timing and placement with some, like the blasted boss on the bridge, forcing me to backtrack to increase my attack power with some sword upgrades.