Blasphemous Review: Indie Heretical Platforming Done Diabolically Right
Who needs SNES games on the Switch when there's a wealth of old-school pixel platformers steadily arriving from new developers? This resurgence of classic art styles and mechanics from the Golden Age of gaming is truly a beautiful sight for the 30+ demographic.
From crowd-funded retro RPGs to Metroidvanias that will bring '90s-kids to tears, what's old is truly new again.
It's that latter genre-mash that strongly shines through with Blasphemous, a new action-platformer from The Game Kitchen. Although, "shines" may be the wrong term here since this is a very dark and disturbing game.
Seriously, What Did I Just See?!?
Some decades back, I remember seeing the boss made of screaming dead bodies in Symphony Of The Night and thinking I had just witnessed the pinnacle of video game darkness. Surely, nothing could top that.
Fast forward and The Game Kitchen shows up to prove tweenage me wildly wrong with Blasphemous.
Everything about the game careens into the seriously messed up, all to a deliciously devilish degree. Think of something like Inner Chains or the ill-fated Scorn but in a hyper-religious grimdark fantasy setting.
Ever wanted to fight a murderous crown-of-thorns-wearing Jesus baby? Well, you will in Blasphemous. It's certainly not a game for the squeamish or religious.
In terms of gameplay, Blasphemous is most closely approximated in both style and substance to Dark Devotion, but thankfully, without the Souls stamina mechanic adding an artificial element of difficulty.
Let me be clear: Blasphemous is still hard (often brutally so), but this isn't the kind of pointlessly, unfairly difficult nonsense developers have injected into games since From Software popularized that particular pedantry.
The launch version of the game is much, much more akin to Demon's Crest meets Castlevania than the previous demo release would indicate, as that brief taste of the game really highlighted the title's Dark Souls elements.
Oddly (and refreshingly!) that's not the only way in which the demo didn't quite put its best foot forward, as Blasphemous has significantly more going on with its story than the demo indicated, and the voice acting is leagues ahead of what we heard in that brief snippet.
On the atmospheric front, Blasphemous fires on all cylinders, from deviously anti-religious enemies to truly unique NPC creatures. This small development team didn't skimp on the music either, as the soundtrack will bring to mind Grim Dawn — particularly the majorly depressing stuff in the Ashes Of Malmouth expansion — offering a low key, dark fantasy soundscape.
Platformin' Till the Sun Goes Down
There's a lot of what you'd expect from a 16-bit style platformer here — huge, epic bosses, lots of perfectly-timed jumps to avoid projectiles, and the like — but with some wonderfully gross additions that will keep you staring in slack-jawed amazement.
Simply put, the execution animations are just flat out amazing, and I couldn't get enough of watching the brutality. Chainsawing locust in Gears 5 doesn't have anything on Blasphemous, that's for sure!
While there's sadly not a lot of variety in the game's weaponry, there is plenty of variety in the enemy types and the game's overall level design.
Flying bishops try to skewer you with pitchforks, frozen damned souls leap up from the snow, exploding poison-filled priests try to kill you, and even a giant using a dead stag carcass with bleeding antlers will assail. These, thankfully, require different tactics to overtake.
Although there's no stamina system, there's still an exactly right and wrong time to dodge or parry, which is where the game's main difficulty resides. Couple that with environmental hazards like acid falling from the sky, drowned corpses reaching up from the water below, or rusted spikes shooting out from any given surface and things can get difficult quickly.
Due to the pixel art nature of larger enemies, you have to learn where the hit and dodge boxes are positioned, and that can occasionally lead to some trial and error with some bosses and, admittedly, some frustration.
Sometimes it seems like you should be able to dodge through an enemy's leg, for instance, but your character, The Penitent One, will actually stop partway through and take damage. It's certainly not a negative aspect in a game like this, yet more of tactical limitation to the gameplay.
Aside from enemy variety, there's also a satisfying amount of environmental diversity to be found within the world map. On your journey of guilt and repentance, you'll explore a plagued village, a decrepit old castle, an underground sewer, an alternate dimension turned to salt, snowy cliffs (the slide mechanic here will very much bring you back to the glory days of Mega Man), a steep mountain area, and more.
There's plenty to do that will have you re-exploring old areas as well, like tracking down various saint bones or unlocking an item that causes previously hidden platforms to appear. Playing through the game's early demo, I was concerned there would be too much backtracking involved, but eventually, a fast travel system is worked in as you beat bosses.
Even if you don't utilize those fast travel portals, though, going through the same areas over and over isn't pointless because both the experience and money systems use the same currency. Adding in an RPG style element, currency is accrued by defeating enemies, so if you want new skills and more items from the game's vendor, you'll need to slice and dice your way across the landscape.
As you might expect from an indie game, there's some rough edges in Blasphemous, too.
I found a few bugs in my playthrough, some of which are already slated to be ironed out with a Day 1 patch, but others weren't specifically mentioned in the developer update. For instance, you can make the game completely wig out and crash if you open the inventory menu as you leave a room.
For all its profane and impious weirdness, there are a handful of areas that just aren't executed perfectly. The enemies in the mountain area, for instance, aren't as notably vile or eye-catching as enemies in previous sections. While they do have a classic NES platformer vibe, the eagles and bull-headed shamen aren't as inspired as monsters found elsewhere.
Those issues aside, my biggest complaint is that I thought the game would be longer.
Like the classic Symphony Of The Night, getting to 100% doesn't actually mean you've completed the game, but it is still a shorter overall experience than you might expect. To give you an idea of your potential time investment, there's an achievement for completing the first main half of the game in under three hours.
The Bottom Line
- Brutal and disgusting combat
- Delightfully sacrilegious and compellingly weird universe
- Old-school and challenging without being unfairly difficult
- A few bugs to still be ironed out
- Lack of variety in weapons and combat styles
If my primary problem is that I wanted to play more, that's a pretty good sign you've got a great game on your hands.
Blasphemous may not have the huge budget of a AAA title, but it doesn't need one — this is a title that revels in its old-school nature, with perfect pixel art and challenging platforming gameplay. If you like your games on the sacrilegious side, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.
[Note: A copy of Blasphemous was provided by Team 17 for the purpose of this review.]