It’s almost October, which can only mean one thing: spooky season is officially upon us. And how better to celebrate all things that go bump in the night than with a game where you start your own Satan-worshipping cult? Well, I don’t know if there is a better way to enjoy the pre-Halloween season, but I’m certainly doing so by playing Cult of the Lamb. This macabrely goofy title, developed by Massive Monster and published by Devolver Digital, was a surprise hit this past August, generating a decent amount of hype on social media. So I was excited to see just what this game was about, and if it was really as addictive and fun as everyone said it was.
The premise of Cult of the Lamb is unflinchingly weird, as is much of the game itself. The game begins with you, as the titular lamb, learning that you are to be sacrificed to one of the Old Gods, who the mysterious forest priests wish to trap indefinitely. The priests’ plan goes sideways, however, when the Old God (named The One Who Waits) confronts you in the afterlife, promising to return you to life if you’ll start a cult in its name and defeat each of the forest priests one by one. There is quite literally no way to refuse. And hey, it sounds like kind of a sweet deal anyway.
That’s about as much plot as you get during Cult of the Lamb, which isn’t particularly narrative-heavy; the general story basically just sets up the framework for the gameplay before stepping aside. That’s just fine by me, because there is a hell of a lot of gameplay. Lamb is a quirky mishmash of a simple roguelike and a management sim, and both aspects are equally important to your and your cult’s survival. The core loop consists of traversing through various dungeon-like areas of the mystical forest in which you reside, knocking out enemies and gaining resources as you go. Then, when you’ve defeated the boss at the end of the dungeon (or, alternatively, when you die), you’re returned to your cult’s base, where you must give sermons, upgrade the base, and manage your “flock” of adorable cultists by keeping them happy, healthy, and well-fed. It’s a bit like Animal Crossing, if the cult-building aspect of Animal Crossing was a little more apparent. (Kidding!…Mostly.)
The roguelike-style combat in Lamb is fast-paced and exhilarating, with fluid movement and fun mechanics in equal measure. Put simply, it just feels good to play. Slashing down enemies and clearing levels is incredibly satisfying, and even though the game at its base difficulty setting isn’t particularly hard, I died just enough times to make it gratifying when I finally succeeded. I didn’t always love the “curse” mechanic, which lets you cast varying spells of destruction on your enemies, from blowback AoEs to targeted blasts of fire; the “curses” tended to feel unwieldy, and never seemed to cooperate with what I wanted them to do. Also, the fact that the game forces you to change your equipped weapon and curse at the beginning of each level to whatever randomly generated options the level’s first room gives you is…extremely annoying. If I’ve found an effective sword and a curse that feels like it actually works on a previous run, I don’t understand why I can’t just keep them or level them up along with my character. Forcing me to change playstyles just so the game could show off the variety of weapons and spells available made me need to relearn mechanics that I felt I’d already mastered, which sort of defeats the point of a roguelike (or any of its derivatives).
Regardless, this was actually a fairly minor part of the combat, which was overall an absolute blast to play through. The world is beautifully designed and rendered in a hand-drawn, 2D style. It’s often reminiscent of Scott Benson’s iconic art for Night in the Woods, another creepy-cute indie title about eldritch horrors (among other things); there’s also clear influence from The Binding of Isaac and the Darkest Dungeon series in terms of themes, style, and overall “feel”. It works perfectly for what the game is, and I often found myself distracted during boss battles by the incredibly awesome designs of the bosses themselves. And yes, this did get me killed and sent back to the start of the area multiple times. Thankfully, the dungeon portions are fairly short for a roguelike (or, more accurately, a roguelite), nearly always clocking in at under fifteen minutes, so this didn’t set me back too much. And the bosses are just so damn cool!
Naturally, once you’ve beaten the bosses, they turn back into harmless woodland creatures and beg to be indoctrinated into your murdering hell cult. And, benevolent leader that you aren’t, you take them back to your base and give them a sense of evil purpose by making them worship you. Said worship in the form of collecting “faith” from your followers allows you to level up your powers and gain new resources for your base. Personally, I found the base management sections of the game to be highly engaging, though not always exactly “fun”; turns out that it’s hard to manage a cult AND engage in daily outings to kill or kidnap anyone who may disagree with your doctrines. If you aren’t keeping a close eye on your cult’s hunger, health, and faith, they might starve, die, or revolt against you. None of these are optimal outcomes.
Regardless of the often stressful aspects of managing my cult, it was generally more enjoyable than not; I wasted a good amount of time on just reorganising my buildings so they’d be set up exactly how I wanted them, and also wasted a good amount of crafting materials on creating decorations that gave absolutely no buffs to my cult but, instead, just looked cool. I chose to play as a slightly more benevolent leader than others might, as I inevitably got attached to a few of my cultists; thankfully, the game allows you to successfully run your cult in myriad ways, each of which are unique and entertaining. I also discovered during this down time that, like Stray (which lets the titular stray cat “meow” on command), Cult of the Lamb also has a “baa” button. It doesn’t do anything. You just bleat like, well, a lamb. It’s way cuter than it should be, as is much of this game.
Clocking in at around twelve hours, Cult of the Lamb has a fairly short runtime – but that’s if you don’t take the time to really get the most out of the game. Redecorating your cult’s base, playing knucklebones with your wizened mentor, fishing at the dock with what’s presumably an actual fish who’s just really into cannibalism, and interacting with your growing flock of cultists are all aspects of Cult of the Lamb that make the game truly stand out. The game is whimsical, weird, often gross, and, yes, addictive. And, best of all, it’s inspired me to get the jack-o-lanterns and fake cobwebs out early this year. The kooky, spooky spirit of Halloween waits for no one – not even the lambs.
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