Title: Cult of the Lamb
Developer: Massive Monster
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: August 11, 2022
Platforms: Windows (Steam), Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Note: The developer has provided a copy of this game for review purposes, which has had no influence on the review score or opinions expressed therein.
Blending genres in video games is nothing new, especially in this modern age of complex gaming. It seems that most every title–in particular from indie studios–has some sort of “roguelike” element to it, or inspiration from the survival genre, or exploration quite similar to that found in The Legend of Zelda series, or even a little bit of all-of-the-above. Few developers though are able to blend these influences together so seamlessly as Massive Monster has with Cult of the Lamb.
First announced last year at Gamescom, Cult of the Lamb is equal parts roguelike, colony sim, action-adventure dungeon crawler, and resource management simulator. It’s a game that is ever evolving, starting small and simple, but quickly becoming much more complex, building off of what came before, just like that of an uncontrolled fire blazing in a forest.
The player assumes the role of a small, anthropomorphic lamb, the last of his kind, and as such is to be sacrificed to appease the four powerful Bishops of the Old Faith. Just as life takes you, the lamb awakens in a realm that is just as chilling as it is heavenly. The lamb is confronted by a towering, three-eyed, cat-like being that is wrapped in chains and wears a veil covering its menacing face. The creature explains that he is The One Who Waits: an ancient God that once ruled this world, but was overthrown and banished to this realm by the four sibling Bishops. The One Who Waits has used all of its power to bring you back to the land of the living, and in exchange demands that you to build a cult in its honor, and take back all he lost from the four Bishops that had you slain.
Right off the bat, we have to discuss the–as the developers so aptly puts it–“cute-but-creepy” art style. The game’s world is inhabited by cheerful, cartoony woodland creatures, much like our protagonist the lamb. These animals have big, doe-eyes, exaggerated smiles, and funny animations. Many of the surroundings too adopt this charming aesthetic, with mushrooms that happily bop to the music, and bright, warm colors that seek to welcome you in. At first glance, you cannot help but think of early Disney animations or other similar classic cartoons.
You don’t have to look hard though to see the darkness dwelling within. Creeping into this cute world is a sinister gloom, overtaking it like weeds in a garden. Next to those bopping mushrooms may be the gruesome bones of the dead; red glowing pentagrams and other devilish imagery lay burned into the earth; you’ll encounter enemies with deep, twisted expressions; and the once adorable animal folk may even, on occasion, leak thick streams of blood from their widened pupils.
All of this makes for a game that fits right in to the Devolver Digital catalog of published titles. Hotline Miami, Death’s Door, Carrion, My Friend Pedro, and so many others present some of the most bizarre, creepy, and–above all–thrilling experiences not just in indie gaming, but in the industry as a whole. Cult of the Lamb confidently sits right along side them.
A Camp for Cultists
Upon being resurrected, one of the first things you are provided is a large plot of land in which to develop the camp for your cult. Your overall goal here is to extract faith from your disillusioned followers, and in turn use that faithful essence to grow strong enough to overcome the might of the powerful Bishops. To do this, you must construct buildings, farm crops, cook food, harvest resources, add decorations, and plenty more to satisfy the needs of your growing flock of cultists. Satisfying them enough will lead to them gaining a level, increasing their usefulness as well as the amount of faith that they provide, so keeping them as happy as an indoctrinated clam should be your number one priority.
Much of the difficulty comes from managing the resources within your camp. Most every thing constructed within your settlement needs materials and/or a person operating it in order to run. For example, your plot of tilled earth does little good if you don’t have seeds to plant and a farmer to tend to it. Shelters provide comfort to your flock, but they will need to be frequently repaired with pieces of chopped wood, or else they’ll become unusable. You will constantly be gathering new resources to maintain your burgeoning camp, while also seeking to grow your number even further.
I do wish that it was a tad easier to assign your followers to the numerous chores that need doing. You have a menu where you can see all of your cultists at a glance, but not the jobs they are currently undertaking. Instead, you have to manually go up to each one and tell them what to do. When there’s so much going on, this can be quite overwhelming, and a simple option in the menus could fix a bit of the hassle.
Your devoted followers can also be a picky bunch. Some may be lazy in nature, and thus best put to praying at altars rather than performing manual labor. Others may thrive in a filthy environment where most will be sickened by it, so you must find ways of appealing to both sides without driving followers away. It’s this frequent balancing act of trying to keep your entire flock happy that really keeps you on your toes when managing your camp.
Problems arise when their faith plummets due to not meeting their needs. Some followers may up and leave, while others will become dissenters, and will ignore commands in order to curse your name and spread falsehoods throughout your camp, recruiting more to their ignoble cause. To cull this aggression, the game presents you with a few different options: perhaps you calmly speak with them each day, very slowly steering them back to your way of thinking; you may choose to instead place them in prison, isolating them from the flock so you can brainwash them to your side. More extreme decisions come in the form of sacrificing them to make a gruesome example to the rest of the cult, and murdering them in cold blood is also always an option… just make sure no one else sees you do the deed.
Once per day, you can perform a sermon from within your camp’s temple to collect faith from all of you satisfied followers. Collecting enough will allow you to choose from a tree of combat related abilities to aid you in your adventures. You may increase your health, for instance, or unlock vampiric weapons that syphon health from defeated foes, or even multiply the amount of damage certain attacks do. The ability tree here isn’t too complex, with only a handful of powers on each tier. Some may dislike the lack of customization, but this method at least succeeds in making the player feel as if they’ve become a chosen warrior for an all-powerful God.
Devotion is another important currency that you can collect from your followers. Devotion is earned through the shrines that your cultists pray to, as well as aiding them in quests and helping them in other ways. You may even steal devotion from shrines erected to the Bishops that you encounter when adventuring. Devotion is used to enhance the construction of the camp, awarding you with new buildings, decorative items, and resources. Though the things acquired via devotion won’t really help you in your crusade to defeat the Bishops, they will make managing your camp much easier, and in turn give you more faith in the long run.
Lastly, tenets can be established that can give permanent traits to your cult as a whole. To create a tenet, you must acquire three slabs of a commandment stone, which are earned through quests, leveling up your cultists, or found exploring. Then, you may use the commandment stone to improve one of five beliefs within your cult: Law & Order, Possessions, Sustenance, Afterlife, and Work & Worship. With each improvement, you will be given a choice between one of two beliefs to adopt. For example, you may choose to make all cult members generate devotion 15% faster, or to increase their work production by the same amount. Another choice you may encounter is to unlock a fasting ritual, which will allow followers to not eat or be hungry for three full days, or a feasting ritual, where all followers become fully fed, and you immediately gain 25 faith. These kinds of choices do give you some extraordinary customization options that are missing in the combat areas.
Speaking of, rituals are an important asset to solving problems within the cult, and to quickly earn precious faith. Rituals involve everything from the feasting and fasting rituals explained above, as well as bonfire dances, sacrifices to The One Who Waits, wedding ceremonies, and so on. To perform a ritual, you will need to use the bones gained from slaying your enemies, so eventually you’ll need to take up your blade and launch your crusade into the Lands of the Old Faith.
To acquire resources for your camp, and to eventually face off against the four insidious Bishops, you will be plunging deep into the game’s randomly generated dungeons on valiant crusades.
Adventuring is very similar to other roguelike games such as Hades or The Binding of Isaac: when you first enter the dungeon, you’ll be given a random melee weapon and a magic ability (which this game terms as a “curse”). You must then travel through a series of randomly generated zones, with the end goal of reaching and defeating the boss at the end.
Dungeon zones are quite varied, giving you equal opportunity for combat and to scavenge supplies. You may come across a clearing that awards you with a stash of lumber, for instance, or maybe a store to buy new equipment, or even a new follower you must rescue if you want to add him to your number. Most areas though are complex combat zones, which are made up of multiple connected rooms the majority of which are filled with enemies to slay, although there may be bonuses like those described previously just waiting to be uncovered. There’s also the chance that you may stumble upon one of the dreaded Bishops in your travels, who will seek to punish you by summoning swarms of enemies to your location, or maybe even cursing your flock with a plague such as famine or sickness.
After completing a zone, you are given a choice on which one to enter next. Most of these zones have an icon that gives you a hint of what you may encounter within, though some are a complete mystery. This is very appreciated, as it allows you to practice some form of strategy for each of your dungeon runs. Maybe you want to maximize gaining materials, thus you’ll want to avoid combat as much as possible. Perhaps you want to quickly deal with the area’s boss so you can get back to camp before your followers grow disgruntled, so you choose the shortest route. There’s a lot more to consider here than in most other roguelike games, and it’s great to have some form of control in a genre that’s built to be so random.
Dungeon runs are also usually pretty brief compared to others in the genre. Where some games may expect players to run through multiple areas for upwards an hour or more at a time, Cult of the Lamb averages at about ten minutes per dungeon, so you’re not all that indisposed from your cult of followers for too long at a given time.
Dungeons aren’t the only places you may explore while away from your camp, either. In your travels you may come across inhabitants that unlock other regions. These areas don’t have enemies to kill, but do have quests to accept, stores to barter with, and collectibles to obtain. They even have enticing minigames that can provide nice rewards, such as a dice game called “Knucklebones,” and a fishing game that is ripped straight from Stardew Valley (though nowhere near as difficult).
Combat is rather simple, but exciting enough that it feels much more than it actually is. You have a button to perform your melee attack, another button to cast your single curse spell, and a button to roll dodge out of harm’s way. That’s really all there is to it.
Enemy variety keeps the combat from growing stale. You have foes that will continuously chase you around the arena, stationary fiends that launch area of attack projectiles at you, large brutes that will knock a chunk out of your health, speedy baddies that you’ll have to swiftly avoid, and plenty more. Arenas are often tight, enclosed areas that are packed with enemies, so while it can be a little overwhelming dealing with everything being thrown at you, the dungeon’s short length keeps things from getting too out of hand.
The random nature of acquiring weapons and curses also helps keep things fresh. Because you never quite know what you’ll be armed with at any given time, you’ll need to become familiar with everything if you wish to survive. Weapons include heavy axes that are slow to swing, to gauntlets that allow for huge combos to be built, standard swords with decent reach, as well as short daggers that cut swift and deep at close range.
Curses provide a bit more of a unique experience to these standardized armaments. You can leave a pool of poisonous goo that will sap away the energy of anyone trapped within, fire off a group of homing fire balls, blast a foe with powerful spirit energy, set up a force field that returns projectiles back to their senders, and many more. These can be devastating to an enemy’s health, but you have very limited uses, so players will need to find the perfect opportunity to capitalize on their power.
Tarot cards can also be collected, and are extremely useful in that they provide passive boosts that remain with you until you return to camp. You may be able to double your melee attack damage for example, or permanently gain an extra piece of health. The longer you are in a dungeon, the more likely you are to come across tarot cards, which leads to more bonuses, and a far easier time against the game’s brutal boss fights at the dungeon’s end.
As previously stated, there are four regions that are under control by each of the four Bishops. To reach each major boss, the player must complete a region at least four times, defeating the Bishop’s lieutenants at the end of each run, before finally unlocking a battle against the big bad. This allows plenty of opportunity to get accustomed to each regions unique enemies and hazards, as well as collect as many treasures as possible, before ultimately moving on to the next. As an added bonus, after defeating a Bishop, that region’s enemies will grow stronger, presenting a greater challenge but leading to greater rewards and a more lengthy excursion to boot.
The roguelike genre is notorious for it’s difficulty, and fortunately Cult of the Lamb remains challenging while being accessible to most everyone. There are four difficulty settings that you may choose from, to the “so simple a caveman could do it” easy setting, to a hard mode made especially for you masochists out there. Death shouldn’t be something that’s overly feared, either, as you’ll lose only a portion of the things you’ve gathered rather than everything that you’ve obtained, so it’s really only a minor setback rather than the crushing blow seen in other roguelikes.
Music and Sound
A good soundtrack can really elevate a good game to great status, and believe me when I say Cult of the Lamb’s music goes hard. Composer Narayana Johnson, AKA River Boy, provides a hypnotic electronic score that will leave you brainwashed like a zombified cultist. The trap beats on top of haunting environmental sounds really immerses you into this unique world of cute critters and deadly demons. On paper, it doesn’t seem like it should be a good mix, but in execution, well, I can guarantee this game’s soundtrack will be on a lot of “Best of” lists at the end of the year.
Sound effects are also superbly well done. Monsters speak in an appropriately devilish language of grunts and chants, while your cultist’s “oohs” and “aahs” are–like the game’s graphics–both adorable and spine tingling.
Cult of the Lamb juggles many parts with surprising precision. It’s difficult to piece it all together in a coherent review–there’s just so much going on–but the game’s pacing and presentation keep it simple and well understood. The graphics, soundtrack, and bizarre uniqueness makes this game something special that will be talked about for a long time. It does come up short in just a few areas though, namely with the lack of customization in building your cult leader, not having a better menu system to keep track of all that’s going on within your camp, and a combat system that could use just a tad more depth. With the promise of at least two substantial free updates on the way, and a playtime of around 15-20 hours with plenty of replay value, Cult of the Lamb has enough reasons for gamers to “drink the Kool-Aid” and embrace this title for all of its dark, deadly charms.
Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.