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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Cult of the Lamb’ is cute, but it didn’t make me a convert

(Washington Post Illustration; Devolver Digital)

Cult of the Lamb

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

Developer: Massive Monster | Publisher: Devolver Digital

Release: Aug. 11, 2022

“Cult of the Lamb” is a combination roguelike management sim that doesn’t seem built for fans of either genre. Its messy combat system and lack of dimension aren’t likely to satisfy what players expect of roguelikes, a genre defined by its punishingly difficult but tight gameplay and repetition. And as a management sim, it’s obscenely macabre, not exactly the best fit for a genre synonymous with cozy vibes. That left me wondering: Who is this for?

I initially thought the answer to that question would be a resounding “Me!” since its combination of cutesy visuals mixed with horror themes is very much up my alley. But as the credits rolled I just felt frustrated and unsatisfied — a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, if you will.

The game begins with your death. Four eldritch deities of something called the “Old Faith” order their followers to execute you, speaking cryptically about preventing a prophecy. Your soul is saved by a mysterious being — “The One Who Waits Below” — who, evidentially, has beef with those other gods; you make a Faustian bargain to become his next earthly vessel to strike them down. He grants you the ability to use fearsome weapons and horrific curses that summon Lovecraftian horrors on the battlefield, but to grow stronger, you’ll need to cultivate a following of pious devotees willing to lay down their lives in your name.

Gameplay is split between roguelike dungeon-crawling and managing your flock and cult grounds. In each crusade through the procedurally generated dungeons, or the lands of the Old Faith, you’ll use your newfound abilities to tear through enemies, gather resources, steal devotion from the other four deities and convert their demonically warped followers to your cause.

Devotion is a resource used to unlock new buildings and decorations back at your home base. There, the souls you find in the dungeons can be indoctrinated and put to work mining resources like wood or stone to use to build shrines, summoning circles and other structures, or worshiping your effigy to gain devotion. To keep your followers happy, you’ll need to satisfy their earthly needs — i.e. feeding them, tending to them when they’re sick, keeping the hallowed grounds clean — as well as their spiritual ones. If they lose their faith in their leader, they’ll leave, and possibly convince the rest to join them. Conduct daily sermons, grant blessings and survive your crusades among other things to keep them faithful, which in turn unlocks more powerful weapons and abilities as your flock grows.

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I’ve been itching to play “Cult of the Lamb” since it was first revealed in 2021 because developer Massive Monster’s previous game, “Adventure Pals,” had a charming sense of humor — think the offbeat silliness of “Adventure Time” with the sharp timing and delivery of “Psychonauts” — that I was eager to see incorporated into such a dark game concept. But that game suffered from chaotic and imprecise combat, and unfortunately that’s also an issue with “Cult of the Lamb.”

Slaying demons in the lands of the Old Faith feels like fighting on a slip and slide. Enemy attacks knock you back, your attacks push them away, and the game’s 2.5D perspective would make it difficult to gauge where you are even if you weren’t constantly sliding all over the battlefield. You might think you’ve landed a hit — only to realize your last strike pushed the enemy just a little bit to the side; while it’s still in front of you, now it’s slightly off to the left, so you miss completely.

Vines, trees and other scenery surrounding the playable area block your view if you stray too close. It doesn’t help that many enemies are the same color as the environment, and you can knock them out of the playable area. The perspective makes it hard to tell when there’s an object in your path until you’re dodgerolling away and realize you can’t move forward.

Fighting feels floaty, your attacks and positioning are unreliable and whether your evade window will kick in is a crapshoot. That kind of combat can’t carry a roguelike, a genre that lives and dies by how compelling it is to try another run. When you can’t tell what just hit you (which I found was often the case) trying to learn how to recognize move sets and reliably predict when it’s safe to attack feels like scrambling blind in the dark. Part of the fun of roguelikes is uncovering the hidden rooms and other secrets tucked away within a dungeon’s ever-changing walls, but “Cult of the Lamb” has none — or at least none that I found during my hours poking around the lands of the Old Faith — making it feel sterile and uninspired. A lack of variety in both level and enemy design makes its dungeon-crawling portions a slog.

I found the most success by just bringing my followers along into battle (you can temporarily turn them into demons to give health and attack buffs). When I died, I got one free extra life by sacrificing one of theirs.

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In case it wasn’t obvious already, this game is dark. Your followers are a source of fuel both on and off the battlefield, and you use them as you might use items in your inventory in other games. Draw power from them using sermons to unlock more powerful abilities and weapons. Perform rituals using the bones from the desecrated bodies of your slain enemies to make your followers work faster or starve for days without losing faith. Dead followers can be harvested for meat, which can be cooked into dishes to feed the flock. Issuing doctrines, unlocked by collecting pieces of broken slabs from powerful bosses and devout followers, dictates your flock’s behavior — for instance, my followers gained faith rather than lost it whenever I sacrificed a member.

Gruesomeness aside, it struck me how similar “Cult of the Lamb’s” management systems are to farming sims like Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons or “Stardew Valley.” You begin on a derelict plot of land that you’re in charge of cleaning up and cultivating into something great. You assign tasks to your followers to gather resources and maintain the property, similar to how you would with the Harvest Sprites in Harvest Moon games. You plant, water and farm crops on a grid layout. There’s a fishing minigame because of course — and it’s practically identical to “Stardew Valley’s.”

Granted, I had the most fun in the game building my cult from the ground up, but that also made its messy combat even more frustrating, since each crusade impacts your flock. They lose confidence in you if you die in battle, and if their faith dips below a certain point, they become dissenters who sow doubt among the rest, or run off with funds from the church’s coffers. It was discouraging to see so much of the faith I’d cultivated evaporate almost instantly, to come back to chaos and rush to perform damage control after a failed crusade where I couldn’t even tell you what killed me.

If you have a dark sense of humor, “Cult of the Lamb” might scratch that itch. But once you get over the shock factor of all the horrific things you can do in the name of growing your flock, there’s not much meat left on the bone.