Cult Of The Lamb

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Massive Monster
Release Date: Aug. 11, 2022


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PC Review - 'Cult of the Lamb'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 14, 2022 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Cult Of The Lamb is an adorably dark game about running a cult in a crumbling world of ritual and ruin, utilizing a powerful gameplay loop of base building and dungeon crawling.

Animals can bring attention to a video game. Want a Zelda-like adventure? You have it in Tunic with a fox and Death's Door with a crow. A beat-'em-up? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge with mutated amphibians (though that's a bit of a cheat since their popularity came from the old '80s cartoon and comics). A big 3D exploratory adventure? Stray has a regular cat instead of an anthropomorphic one. The animals are the hook, but the gameplay makes them excellent games. Cult of the Lamb finds itself in good company in this regard, as it is a cute game with solid gameplay mechanics in what is essentially a genre mash-up.

You play the role of a lamb, the last of its kind. By offering you as a sacrifice, the four Bishops of the Old Faith would fulfill a prophecy to maintain their religious role over the land and prevent another god from escaping their underworld prison. The moment you die, you are rescued by the god who your sacrifice would keep imprisoned, The One Who Waits. In return for your imminent resurrection, The One Who Waits asks that you create a cult that frees the imprisoned god and avenges your sacrifice.

The game takes inspiration from two distinctly different genres. After you are resurrected, you're introduced to the combat system. One button handles weapon swings, one button handles dodging, and there's a specific button for secondary attacks, most of which are projectile attacks that refill once you kill more enemies. Move into a proper dungeon, and the game takes on the basic traits of a roguelike. Dungeon layouts and enemy placements are randomized, and rooms are never more than a screen in width and height. Tarot cards from a mystic give you a choice between two buffs for that run. The game also takes care of your loadout; each run has a random main and secondary weapon, so there's less planning and more of a focus on combat.

For those usually scared away by the mention of the genre, Cult of the Lamb makes it more comfortable. Dungeons may be randomized, but you get a clear layout of what to expect through each leg of the dungeon. You can get a good idea of which paths to take if you want more combat or need supplies. Combat is effective, since it isn't so complicated; button-mashers still need to do a dodge roll often, but you don't have to worry about making a perfect parry. Unless you're playing at higher difficulty levels, damage isn't so severe that enemies can kill you with one hit. Every item and power you discover is a buff rather than a drawback. You'll still die, but the penalty isn't so severe; you'll only lose a portion of the things from the run, rather than everything.

Perhaps the most evident change from the standard roguelike is the length of the dungeons. From the moment you enter a dungeon to the first exit, you'll encounter a total of eight or nine rooms. There are alternate paths, but those don't extend beyond a room or two, so it's quite difficult to get lost and there's not too much room for backtracking. Revisiting conquered rooms doesn't mean enemies will get resurrected. If you count that as a section, then the player will only go through four or five sections before reaching the boss, miniboss, or escape portal. Compared to other roguelikes, this feels rather short. Runs can last an average of 10 minutes, and while re-running a dungeon gives you the ability to go deeper, initial runs feel quite manageable. There's rarely a time when one wrong move can negate your time in the dungeon.

The other half of the game is spent on managing your cult. Growing the cult is easy; members are gained mostly through dungeon runs, either via boss fights or saving them from sacrifice. When you return to your commune, you can change their appearance and name and put them to work by collecting materials or praying. Materials and food are very useful, as you'll be responsible for a good portion of their well-being. You need to harvest food and cook it for them, so their hunger meter stays topped off. You need to make places for them to sleep and shrines where they can worship. You'll even need to clean up after them until you build outhouses, so no one gets sick. You're also responsible for enacting doctrines that shape your cult's behaviors and doing things like holding rituals and sermons, so their faith in you stays high.

As important as things like wood, stone, and gold are, faith is perhaps the most important currency because it powers up so many different facets of you and your cult. You can attend to each individual by bestowing upon them gifts or praising them, so they increase their own levels and give their own gifts. Those who pray at the main shrine can give faith to a general pool that unlocks different facilities for you to build. Praying at the actual church during a sermon bestows you with your own personal faith pool that can be used to unlock things, like the ability to have more health in dungeons or a better chance at weapons with secondary effects (e.g., poison).

Further progression unlocks more interesting places beyond the dungeons and commune. Your guide and former champion for The One Who Waits turns out to have constant games of Knucklebones, which prove to be a good opportunity to gamble gold and hopefully gain more of it. You'll also meet a fish man who gives you the chance to endlessly gather fish and necessary materials for the commune.

Like the roguelike combat, the cult management aspect of Cult of the Lamb is less complicated. There are only three meters to worry about for the group (cleanliness, faith, hunger). You'll need to put in some effort to feed and clean them, but it takes a lot to drop the meters significantly, so you don't need to be meticulous or overzealous. The size of the commune's area doesn't grow or shrink, so it remains manageable. The only things you need to rebuild are sleeping areas, which occasionally break, and resource buildings, which produce a finite amount of material before disintegrating.

Despite this, there's enough to keep the cult simulation aspect feeling meaty. The various ceremonies you can do, from dancing around a burning pyre to holding funerals, give the game a dark religious edge, but the doctrines give you a better sense of freedom in how the cult is run. For example, old age can either be praised or shunned, and sacrifice can be something the cult supports. Dissenters can be sacrificed, re-educated, or put to prison, and each option is perfectly acceptable. You can have them worship work or material goods, you can scare them to stay in line, or you can be kind so they embrace death rather than fear it. You can get into some real philosophical quandaries with the cult aspect. It's a strong incentive to have several games running on different saves to see how good or bad you're willing to be.

Players may spend more time in the cult management section because of the absurd cultists. Some of the stuff is benign but amusing. You can read their thoughts and see what they think about the other cultists, but the off-the-wall stuff comes from their requests. Some feel typical, like asking you to take in sick or hungry people to be potential cult candidates. Some feel nice, like finding a fellow cult member's lost sibling. Things get weird when they ask you to test the faith of a cult member who they feel may be a spy. Then you get requests like asking to be sacrificed or resorting to cannibalism, consequences be damned. The game never stops fluctuating from normal to weird when it comes to these requests, and you almost wonder how far things can go.

The merger of both roguelike combat and cult management creates a complementary loop in Cult of the Lamb. Going into dungeons means carving up and collecting everything in sight, since it usually yields something you'll need later for the cult. Even if you avoid those marked spots, you'll always get a follower by beating a miniboss, so your cult tends to grow or replenish — depending on whether you lose cult members to death or sacrifice. Back at the commune, all of the prayers are necessary to make you more powerful and grant buffs for future runs. It works well, and the overall journey lasts long enough that you'll get an ending before you get tired of it all, but there's a good amount of stuff to do if you like to play some more after the credits roll.

If there's one thing that may irk some people, it would be the presence of time. You expect a day and night cycle to occur while you're in your commune and when visiting other locations, but time also passes at the same pace when you're at a dungeon. The dungeons don't take long, but life still goes on at the commune, so taking an extended run through a completed dungeon still means that the meters drop at a normal rate. You run the risk of returning to very dissatisfied cult members who are starving; losing faith; and distraught at seeing feces, vomit, and the dead present. For a game that goes at a very casual pace, the timer adds a sense of urgency when you're away.

The graphics do a great job of amplifying the dark elements and downplaying it with a cartoon-like veneer, somewhat reminiscent of The Binding of Isaac. The environments show off a wide spectrum of colors with a darkened finish to convey a sense of dread. By contrast, both the enemy designs and the adorable animals you save are all done up in a 2D Paper-Mario style with very expressive faces. Every place you go to feels very alive thanks to loads of vegetation, enemies, and breakable objects, and the game runs at a constant 60fps on powerful machines, with only an occasional stutter.

Like the graphics, the audio does an excellent job of balancing the game's dual vibes. Go to your commune or just about any player-friendly place, and you'll get a soundtrack that sounds happier than expected, given the subject matter. Perform any ritual or enter a dungeon, and the soundtrack gets dark but still has enough of a tempo to keep you adventuring. The voices are gibberish, like you'd hear in the Banjo-Kazooie or Yooka-Laylee games, and it fits very well for each character. Overall, this is well worth bumping up the volume.

For those planning to play this on the Steam Deck, the experience is quite good. Compared to its initial release, the game experiences fewer brief pauses while playing, but it still halts for a few moments when you enter a new area. The game defaults to High presets, but it holds at 60fps when the stutters don't occur. Battery life averages around 2.5 hours, but dropping settings can increase that without doing anything to the visuals. Improvements are always welcome, but at the moment, the experience on the device is very good for most people.

Cult of the Lamb does an excellent job of combining two distinctly different genres into an absolutely fun experience. It helps that both genres are presented in their simplest form, rather than aiming for more advanced users with a bevy of options, so the mash-up isn't so overwhelming. Both genres play well on their own, and the balance is thoughtful while still providing a good challenge.

Score: 9.0/10

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