This bloody platformer is full of sin and soul.
After putting some inanimate objects in front of me to smash, Blasphemous was confident enough in my abilities to immediately pit me against a hulking giant of a boss – the Warden of the Silent Sorrow. I carefully chipped away at him, trying to stay behind with swift dashes and dodges, until the Warden collapsed in defeat. As I watched the dramatic scene unfold, my silent protagonist – the Penitent One – took off his thorny spiked helmet and filled it with the red mess streaming out of the corpse, before jamming it back on his head in a shower of blood. Yeah, it’s that kind of game.
As the name suggests, Blasphemous won’t shy away from its dark ideas when it arrives as an Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC game in 2019. It’s vicious and full of disturbing enemies and more demented religious iconography than you can shake a rosary at. The now-corrupted world is brought to life with some truly gorgeous pixel art, from the fluidity of its character animation to the close-up cutscenes that would look at home in a classic LucasArts adventure game. Even in pixelated form, enemies are varied and disturbing – some bound to large angelic statues that they’ll try and bash against you, while flagellants flog themselves with whips before charging you. There’s also some gigantic… thing, wielding a large dead stag as a weapon while a giggling woman in a dress sits on the giants head. Or maybe that is the head? I don’t know, but the point is, Blasphemous is creepy, OK?
But as much as the monstrous abominations wandering about, what equally caught my eye was the somber and haunting backdrops I found exploring Blasphemous’ unholy world. Whether escaping ruins overflowing with corpses that bear a striking resemblance to The Penitent One, or navigating crumbling roads with half-buried, impossibly large cathedrals in the distance illuminated by a dying sunset, it made me want to know more about what happened here.
Traversing the land and cleaving through enemies, it’s interesting to see where similarities and differences to other side-scrolling platformers begin and end. There’s plenty of jumping, sliding, and non-linear exploration to make any Castlevania fan intrigued, and it’s slower and less focused on loot than Dead Cells or other roguelikes (though Blasphemous has no random roguelike elements). Much like Hollow Knight, combat is more about careful attacks and looking for openings, with the added benefit of carefully timed parries that often let you retaliate with even bigger attacks. While areas are fairly sparse with basic enemies at the start, it wasn’t long before I was forced to figure out how to avoid danger and traps from all directions or block incoming attacks to counter with a huge slice that devastated multiple incoming threats. And I gained a new appreciation for spacing and positioning, as certain enemies prevented me from dodging past them, and getting caught in a corner spelled doom if I wasn’t careful.
Killing foes raises a sort of magic meter called fervor which can be used to cast prayer spells, or utilize certain skills. These abilities can be unlocked by gaining Tears of Atonement, a resource also gained by dispatching enemies. By the end of my first run, I had learned to perform a charged strike with an impressive reach and spend fervor to execute a downward slamming strike – though I do wish I was able to slash downwards as consistently as I could swing my blade upwards.
More than a few ideas might have you thinking of From Software’s games – using save points respawns enemies and incurring penalties for dying until you reclaim what’s lost, etc. – though I don’t throw out these comparisons lightly. I was extremely pleased to see Blasphemous include one thing that many Souls-like games completely ignore: Lore.
In an effort to capitalize on overly difficult enemies and bosses, I feel like many developers often forget that half of what makes adventures like Dark Souls so interesting is the mysterious and fragmented world building that players can either dive into or ignore entirely. Blasphemous has no problems setting the stage early on. You will guide the Penitent One to the Cradle of Affliction, which is blocked by a massive door that requires three relics guarded by different bosses across the land. And as you explore you’ll find an assortment of quest items: imbued rosary beads with bonuses, offensive and defensive prayer spells, and other collectibles. All of these items are filled with tidbits of lore about this world. It’s the devil in these details and environmental storytelling that has me excited to answer the many questions Blasphemous poses.
And if the story is something you aren’t excited to piece together on your own, there’s nothing to stop you from carving a bloody path to the bosses of Blasphemous. My demo area ended with one such boss, and I was even given the option to summon help from a nearby NPC – I politely declined for my first run (I eventually asked for her aid in the fight on a second run – which you can see in the video above – and she appeared in the background to heal me once, but for the most part seemed content to watch from the sidelines) . The imposing behemoth looked like it might have walked straight out of FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, and I really enjoyed how both bosses erupted from the background art to amplify the drama of their introductions.
The giant beast came at me with an impressive assortment of attacks that required me to jump, dash, dodge under his moves, and clear out thorny hazards that began to take root in the arena. It was an appropriately challenging match. This creature’s rampaging offense was evenly spaced but still required me to react quickly to take advantage of his openings without getting too greedy.
In just over an hour, I felt like I had learned so much and yet so little of the cursed world of Blasphemous, and I’m dying to know where the path of the Penitent One leads. I’ve rescued trapped cherubs, spoken to desperate townsfolk, stumbled upon a hidden merchant, confessed my sins, and witnessed a mysterious figure watching me from afar. If the moody and foreboding atmosphere is any indication, I get the feeling I’ve only scratched the surface of the horrors that await me further down this unholy road.
Brendan Graeber is an Editor at IGN, and is pretty sure he saw a ghost in a cathedral one time, which is totally just as spooky as Blasphemous. Follow him on Twitter @Ragga_Fragga.