A little over a decade after its release, videogames are still feeling the vibrations of influence left behind by Demon’s Souls and its more popular spiritual successor, Dark Souls. From Software’s landmark combination of tough-as-nails difficulty, RPG character customization, and a mysterious world where fragments of a story are told through snippets of lore resulted in one of the most important games of the modern era.
Throw a stone in any direction and you’ll hit a game that cribs hard from the tenets of so-called “Souls-like” games: Hollow Knight, The Surge, Nioh, Ashen, Dead Cells —even Remedy Games’ latest, Control, clearly lifts some ideas about checkpoints and boss battles from Souls. One of the hardest challenges of evaluating this tide is the déjà vu that goes along with playing them. For the vast majority of these games, I’ve almost always felt like I was just playing another, and lesser, version of the games that From Software has made since 2009.
This is not the case with Blasphemous.
On the surface, Blasphemous certainly appears to be another Souls clone—it’s an action-platformer set in a grim, enigmatic land called Cvstodia where monsters are trying to kill your fragile self. There are also potions that function exactly like Dark Souls’ Estus flasks and characters that refer to the cataclysmic events that shaped this hellworld in hushed tones while giving you side quests to pursue. However, developer The Game Kitchen wisely uses the Souls template to present a genuinely compelling take on religion, one with a dark Catholic bent.
Games have tackled religion before, but most of those attempts ultimately boil down to stories about how organized religion can reduce otherwise civilized, empathetic people into brutal, mindless cults (Far Cry 5, Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed). Depending on who you ask, that thematic thrust might not be wrong, per se, but it sure is dull when you have the major players all hitting that same beat. Blasphemous, instead of telling a story about religion, presents a world that could very well be knitted together from the nightmares of the tortured faithful.
You play a mysterious figure wearing a massive iron maiden-like mask who goes around killing creatures hiding away in mysterious castles, surreal dreamscapes, and wastelands in order to restore a cursed world to its former glory. Many of them carry crosses, while others are bishops with rotting flesh or even look like nightmare versions of sculptures created by Michelangelo, the stone on the forehead falling away to reveal pulsating red meat. The world of Cvstodia is one of self-flagellation and yearning for punishment. Your hero powers himself up by cutting themselves with a sword while one of the side-quest doling characters you run into begs you to find him an item that will intensify his pain. It’s the sort of stuff that you might be tempted to connect to kink but there’s nothing sexy about Blasphemous. Its denizens are lost in torture, both self-afflicted and those carried out by others, addicted to it like a drug, creating a portrait of despair as opposed to something titillating.
The non-linear world template (with this particular iteration inspired just as much by Metroid as Souls) proves to be fertile soil for religious terror. As someone who was raised Christian in the South, the creatures in Blasphemous go beyond grotesque. The heavy use of religious symbols combined with animations suggesting these beings are in pain gives way to paradoxical feelings of pity and disgust, granting the satisfying combat a queasy edge. The locales, such as an abandoned temple and cross-filled canyon suggestive of Golgotha, never let you forget these are places of spirituality—corrupted spirituality but spiritual nonetheless. I constantly found myself lost as I wandered around Cvstodia, frustrated but undeterred, always searching for the next piece of an answer about where to go next or how everything went to hell —though my answers often only resulted in more questions. The lack of a concrete, easy-to-discover explanation for the world’s state or the identity of the protagonist ties into a number of Catholic-themed works. Perhaps the most famous piece of Catholic literature of all, Inferno, begins with Dante bemoaning being lost (often interpreted as the poet struggling with suicidal feelings):
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost
Similarly, but in a more grounded, less allegorical sense: In Ulysses, agnostic Irishman Stephen Dedalus feels the anxiety of growing up in a Catholic home and country in every interaction he has —forcing him to remain aloof from his countrymen and even his family. Being lost in a Christian sense is a harrowing experience, one where doubt and guilt overwhelm the person. You find yourself wondering if you’re doing the right thing in a world that seems bereft of a moral compass, or you’re fixating on guilt or wondering whether there is such a thing as hope or god—especially amidst such cruelty. Blasphemous, in a way that no other game I’ve ever played has achieved, manages to gamify that debilitating level of anxiety with a deft hand. And it’s not just a matter of pinpointing a particular element, either.
Everything—the challenging boss fights, the lore-riddled bleakscape of Cvstodia, the confusing navigation, the constant death traps around every corner—is filled with just enough religious imagery, torturous frustration, and inescapable melancholy so that Blasphemous comes together as a unique work that rises above being yet another homage. Plenty of games have created terrifying experiences by focusing on creatures of the underworld and darkness, like vampires and demons; however, Blasphemous is the first one I’ve played to convincingly create an unnerving one out of terrors that are quite holy. In fact, for an experience so in tune with the thematic thrust of deeply spiritual works, its title feels more like a misnomer than anything else.
Even the execution animations and brutal combat the game’s marketing has relied on to grab players’ attention don’t feel particularly gratuitous when compared to famous religious paintings such as Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John The Baptist, half the things that Virgil and Dante see in hell, or even much of the Bible. To call Blasphemous a moving, incredibly important piece of religious art might be overselling its accomplishments. However, unlike most games I’ve played that seek to do something innovative with religious themes, it is a thematically sound work about spiritual anxiety that’s worth playing if you’re willing to plumb some uncomfortable depths.
Javy Gwaltney is a writer and videogame developer for hire who’s written for Paste, Playboy, Vice, and Game Informer. You can check out his portfolio at javygwaltney.net or follow his twitter here.