Videogames are more than code on a disk; subject matter is a major ingredient in providing interpretive possibilities for gameplay. Themes and motifs uniquely mingle with art styles and music and then combine with systems and mechanics to create novel experiences inside games. The words we use to describe these elements have a historical, cultural, and personal legacy in the outside world that guides our understanding of what we’ve witnessed. Thus, new subject matter can be paired with classic gameplay for eccentric effects.
Now imagine the glee of religiously subversive videogame fans when The Game Kitchen revealed Blasphemous: a classic metroidvania steeped in dark religious iconography presented in pixel-art of the highest quality. Nevertheless, an inverted cross or pentagram alone are not enough to meaningfully critique religion, as any fiction which naively inverses its inspiration is nothing but a reverse copy.
Still, when you name your game Blasphemous, you’ve chosen a theme centered around the violation of customary rules preventing criticism of religion, and in some countries, actual laws that sanction the death of apostates and punish unacceptable commentary on doctrine.
Blasphemous art and inquiry is now common in contemporary society. The sacrilegious spectrum ranges from serious Satan worshiping metal bands that committed terrorism, to public anti-theists who intellectually challenge the core notion of faith in gods, and to tamer fictions that co-opt sacred imagery to the discomfort of believers who are willing to engage. Such is the profane measuring stick that determines the flavor of Blasphemous’s central subject in the fiction it has created.
In Blasphemous, the player controls the Penitent One, meaning one full of guilt. His flesh was chosen and animated from a mass of bodies to reverse what is known in the land of Custodia as “The Grievous Miracle”. This duty compels the player through an impressive collection of locations that interconnect, branch, and unfold in a concise manner that honors the metroidvania genre.
Here, combat manages to find a unique quality in comparison to the action-platformers of most recent prominence. The Penitent One is weighty and is unable to bounce around the screen as would be expected in Hollow Knight or Shovel Knight. A couple combos, a plunging attack, a nice dodge, a wicked parry, and a handful of spells comprise the succinct tool kit at the hands of the player.
With his sadistic blade called Mea Culpa, a litany of enemies meet their end in brutal fashion. Blasphemous is incredibly violent, adding to its squeamish character, and the special execution animations are smooth enough to make uncomfortable ultra-violence alluring. The areas that constitute the game map are distinct in their visual identity and pursue simple platforming concepts and puzzles to their logical ends, which makes the spaces between monsters engaging.
While the aforementioned features contribute to the game’s overall integrity as an old-school 2D action RPG, it is the stunning pixel-art which elevates the title above the rest in presentation. The mastery of individually placed pixels convey an authority of technique in the artists who produced it and immediately engage the audience in a reverence for what has been achieved. This treatment is applied comprehensively to all visual elements and gives shape to a host of fiendish imagery and illustrious character designs.
Within moments of beginning, it is apparent that Blasphemous explores its title theme through grotesque gore and desecration of human bodies. Fonts of blood, saintly nudes impaled with swords, and ghastly chimeric figures are frequently presented in striking detail, animated in such a way that conveys a pain in their existence. These raw representations are off-putting at a subconscious level.
Yet, while these spectacles are upsetting on a human scale, it is the saturation of Christian inspired lore that provides an additional debasement of “holy” iconography and builds the game’s overarching commentary on real world belief. The fictional land of Custodia is afflicted by a supernatural occurrence that unleashed beasts and blight on the medieval population. In character dialogue, predictably religious attitudes reveal that this was either a just retribution to a sinful past or the next trial to overcome on the path to salvation.
Meanwhile, the existing clergy who held power at the moment of the turn remain as removed from the population as they did before. Rather than accepting some form of guilt for the possible punishment inflicted by “The High Wills” for their misguidance, they cling to the power presumed in gilded cathedral halls, claiming now to be the vicar of the new state of the world.
In this context, each boss slain by the player constitutes “blasphemy” within the confines of the fiction. The Penitent One was chosen by god itself to serve retribution on the corrupted ecclesiastic after their increasingly tyrannical rule swept the land. The details of their twisted order can be tracked in the dozens of item descriptions within menus, and highlight a strict parallelism with real history in which power structures sanctioned by divine right lead to sadistic ends.
Blasphemous’s level of dissident commentary occupies the space between distorting real religious imagery into dark and twisted analogues, historical commentary on the nature of divinely inspired despotism, and an internal plot of blasphemy itself. It’s easy to think that those who grew up on black metal would find the content to be a tame and entertaining ride, while others for whom faith has been a foundational role could feel it is, well, Blasphemous.
In the end, The Game Kitchen’s biggest triumph alongside the stunning art style and gorgeously droning guitar work is the way players must wrestle with its themes, because they are paired with such worthy gameplay. The design is uncomplicated, progress through the map is flowing, bosses are epic if not a bit easy, collectibles hide behind fake walls, and the bugs are tolerable. In the same way that the pop-metal band Ghost tricked us into singing satanic lyrics using impossibly catchy tunes, The Game Kitchen’s superior metroidvania and satisfying combat is so fun to play that its devious motif earns full contemplation from those who can stomach it.
Edited by Malia Hamilton
Originally published on OK Beast