With a market flooded by Souls-likes and Metroid-likes, it’s really difficult for a game fitting those descriptions to stand out. Blasphemous is strongly inspired by both of these subgenres — but it doesn’t necessarily do anything new. However, its combination of visual and atmospheric artistry, tight gameplay, and memorable, intriguing level design elevates it to a plane many similar games fail to go.
Blaspheme from the paspheme
Blasphemous concerns the journey of the Penitent One, a man bearing a mask and cone helmet, on his journey of, well, penitence. It begins with him entering the land of Custodia and being greeted with the countless corpses of those who embarked on the same journey. Their bodies piled to the sky, their many cone helmets standing out clearly against the background.
The game takes its storytelling cues from Dark Souls in a way most other games don’t dare. You’re meant to slowly unravel what everything is by having cryptic conversations and reading item descriptions. There are cutscenes, though; gorgeous, animated pixel cutscenes to be exact. Even if you’re not sure what the hell is happening, Blasphemous‘ story elements will likely grab your attention in a big way.
It’s worth mentioning that there aren’t many choices in the game. If you’re expecting to be able to kill a bunch of NPCs for items and find different ways of dealing with certain situations, you won’t find that here. Blasphemous wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but it doesn’t copy anything. Regardless of familiarity, it’s very much its own game.
Take a look around
Blasphemous‘s level design is truly impressive. The designers have managed to give all the areas memorable layouts with a good sense of place. Everything also oozes personality, with very little wasted space or areas without purpose. As is common for the genre, there’s also a great degree of interconnection between the areas that you’ll find regularly.
But what really separates the game from the pack are its secrets. The areas are so densely packed with things to find and new mysteries waiting around every corner. Some of these contain multiple complicated steps that require some serious thought in order to figure out. And even then, there are surprises waiting afterward.
Interestingly, progression in Blasphemous isn’t gated behind getting new abilities. The game is divided into two halves and you can choose your route through each of them. Each half requires that you beat three bosses and use their items to progress. There are abilities that allow you to reach new places, but these almost exclusively lead to power-ups and other items. You can get to the last boss without obtaining any of these abilities if you wish. But it’s so much fun to explore the game’s world that I don’t recommend doing that.
Blasphemous takes a lot of structural inspiration from Dark Souls. You have a health bar and can refill it with bile flasks that you can find and pay a fee to use. You rest at small shrines that refill your health and flasks, but they also respawn any enemies you’ve defeated. When you die, you get part of your special attack meter locked off. In order to remove the limit, you simply go back to where you died and touch your ghost. These don’t disappear, either, so you can collect them whenever. I did find an issue with this, though. If you die on instant kill spikes, sometimes your ghost will be left directly on the spikes, leaving you incapable of collecting them, which is rather annoying.
The combat, however, is decidedly not like Dark Souls at all. The Penitent One fights with a sword that he slashes quickly. These slashes can be chained into a three-hit combo at first, with three different unlockable fourth hits. Killing enemies and completing certain quests rewards you with Tears of Atonement, which you can use to upgrade your sword skills, purchase items at merchants, make bile flasks usable, or to remove your guilt at Confessor statues if you can’t or don’t want to reach your ghosts.
The Penitent One has two defensive options – a dodge slide and a parry. The dodge slide has i-frames and is great for getting out of the way once you get the hang of it. The parry can repel most enemy attacks, but more powerful enemy strikes will knock him back. The strikes that don’t knock him back can be followed with a counter if you press the attack button right after. Spending Tears of Atonement while performing a mea culpa at certain statues gives him access to powerful new abilities, including the extremely strong fourth combo hits, a downward stab, a rush stab that can be used during your dodge, and a strike that must be charged up. There are seven levels to reach in this skill tree, and you unlock each new level by finding one of the seven mea culpa statues.
Rip and cut
Blasphemous‘s combat is uniformly excellent. Everything is extremely responsive and fun to use. Enemies fall apart in gory ways when defeated and fighting them with the Penitent One’s full set of moves is satisfying and easy to get the hang of. You can even modify various aspects of his combat abilities with rosary beads you find throughout the game. These can do things like increase the distance of your dodge, or extend your parry window. There are also multiple beads offering protection against different types of damage. You can really tailor his equipment to your playstyle.
Surprisingly, Blasphemous isn’t a particularly difficult game. I went straight through it initially and plowed through to the last boss without much issue. The combat and level design are mostly very fair, plus new shrines show up at frequent intervals. The game has a bunch of really awesome boss fights too, but even those aren’t too difficult, save for a couple at the end that took some practice. I will say that, when a boss has repeated lightning strike attacks, getting hit by them can stunlock you sometimes, which is really annoying. The game even lets you access an NPC who will heal you during boss battles if you’re struggling to get through them. But as long as you’re good with the game’s mechanics, they probably won’t take more than a few tries each.
Watch out for spikes
There aren’t many things I take issue with in all of Blasphemous aside from the aforementioned lightning stunlock. The ones that come to mind immediately are the instant kill spikes and two specific projectile-throwing enemies. Some of the spike sections can feel a bit cheap, but they’re not even that bad. Save for a single room covered in spike pits and swinging blades that knock you into said pit if you get hit. I think the majority of my deaths in the game were experienced in that one extremely obnoxious room that I found to be much harder than it necessary.
The enemies that throw projectiles are a bisected man who throws a cross at you and a librarian who hurls a book. Blasphemous occasionally likes to throw these enemies at you while you’re trying to platform and they’re insanely annoying. Getting hit by their projectiles sends you flying and the hitboxes on these feel a little weird to me. Thankfully, you can cancel them out just by hitting them with your sword. You can also parry them, but they can still go behind you and hit you in the back. There are also some ghost enemies that vanish and reappear that I dreaded contending with.
Aside from these, the enemy roster is particularly excellent across the board. There’s a ton of variety in these enemies and you’ll frequently meet new ones in each area you go to. The enemies are mostly just really fun to fight as well, with their variety lending to the gameplay not growing stale at all.
There’s also a lot of platforming, which is similarly excellent. Jumping is responsive;you have a lot of control over the Penitent One, making these challenging sections a lot of fun. These typically just involve jumping to other platforms, grabbing ledges, dodging hazards, and climbing walls by plunging your sword into them.
The art in Blasphemous is some of the best I think I’ve ever seen in any pixel game. Everything is so detailed and rich with personality that it makes the game even more of a joy to play through. The backgrounds are gorgeous and made with a high level of artistry. Similarly, the sprite work is also incredible. Both the Penitent One, his enemies, and bosses are all beautifully animated and wonderfully put together. It reminds me of SNK’s best work.
All of the NPCs are fully-voiced, surprisingly. There’s a stylistic choice where all these voices were recorded in a lo-fi way with a lot of reverb. I personally thought it was a very eerie, discomforting choice that works well. These lines do take some time to get through, but you can skip to the next if you don’t want to listen to the whole thing — there’s a fair amount of dialogue to be had.
Against all gods
It took me about 11 hours to beat Blasphemous with some exploration. That being said, I put in about 25 hours altogether after scouring the game looking for secrets. There are a ton of things to find, and figuring out what certain items do and what areas mean can be really cryptic and tricky. There were only a few things I couldn’t figure out. One of these I was able to get some help with. I simultaneously couldn’t believe I overlooked something so massive and could totally believe it because of how clever it was. In the end, I got 99% completion and am looking forward to figuring out how to solve the remaining three rooms that I couldn’t get past.
But even that is satisfying in its own right. I was a little disappointed once I finally pulled off the big secret, not because it wasn’t satisfying, but because the feeling of being part of a mystery whose solution could be anywhere or anything is something that I don’t often see in most games.
Blasphemous really grabbed me. It offers an endlessly intriguing world filled with tricky mysteries, gorgeous artwork, and tight, satisfying combat. Possibly the best of its kind to be released this year. Genre fans will find a ton to love about it and I’m definitely going to be playing through it again once the promised new game plus and hard mode are added. I’m not looking forward to doing that spike room again. I’ll probably just skip it next time. Stupid instant kill spikes.