Videogames are a great vehicle for new experiences. Almost anything you’d want to be is out there in some form for you to experience. Joining the ranks of gaming’s hallowed hall of fantasies now, however, is the experience of being an…
Emissary to a fallen god who leads a bloody crusade against the ones who deposed them, all the while “building the faith” by forming and maintaining a cult! That’s a mouthful, but more importantly, it’s really goddamn fun.
From the very moment Cult of the Lamb begins, players embark on a rollicking, deceptively cute, but ultimately sinister journey through the lands of the Old Faith, and it never lets up. Within seconds of gaining control of the game, the player is executed for being a potential vessel for The One Who Waits, a god who’s been bound by chains. This fallen god saves the player before charging them, a literal sacrificial lamb, with taking up a crown and restoring them to power. From there, players engage in a lot of frankly dubious behavior, indoctrinating dissidents of the Old Faith into a cult and deciding how best to exploit them.
Mechanically Cult of the Lamb combines a couple of seemingly disparate genres. It’s a solid-as-hell action roguelite slammed into a fun and approachable management sim. It’s one thing to get part of that equation right, but to nail both and make it gel so well is the tricky part. Cult of the Lamb finds great success with this mixture, making for an utter delight of a journey into the heart of darkness.
On one hand, you’ll fight your way through screens of a procedurally generated dungeons, engaging in an entirely familiar combat system (a melee attack, a magical ability, and a dodge) that is freshened up by a revolving door of tarot cards that modify your capabilities on the go. You’ll pick certain tracks to follow to the dungeon’s end (similar to Inscryption), picking between combat scenarios, mysterious dialogues, possible followers, or resources. It’s straightforward and highly enjoyable, especially thanks to strong sound design and animation that brings your rip-roaring cult leader to life in action. If there’s a shortcoming in this half of the game, it’s that the boss fights, while mostly engaging, kind of blend together. They only really ramp up in terms of how much stuff is on screen, occasionally devolving into something like a bullet hell, and it’s here where you (most annoyingly) begin to feel the game’s difficulty.
The other half sees you taking care of your followers at camp and increasing your own power. You deliver sermons and perform unlockable rituals that impact, among other things, your cult’s hunger and faith. In return, cultists provide you with their literal service, tending to mines, lumberyards, farmland, etc., and providing various XPs that increase your capabilities in the field as well as your camp’s ability to build better structures. There are also other areas accessible from this hub, and you can meet vendors, fish, or play a dice game, but Cult of the Lamb is smartly lean on the extracurriculars while still offering a serviceable rotation of things to break up the pace of the game.
While it may seem like a lot at first glance, Cult of the Lamb is actually a perfectly ideal entry way into management sims, never tossing players into the deep end. Challenges arise, like food poisoning, which can hilariously result in your followers quite literally shitting all over the woods, but there are always methods to get out of what might appear to be a bind. If someone begins losing faith they might start swaying others to leave. You can softly reprimand them and slowly win them back or lock them up in a public prison where they can be shamed and “reeducated” more quickly. If you care little for caution, you can straight up murder them, or make an even bigger example of them in a ritualistic sacrifice. It’s garish stuff, but such is the way of cults, and the game at least provides flexibility and fun while painting an equally gruesome and wholesome picture of it all.
Smartly Lamb isn’t heavy-handed about its themes, which concern the destructive power of faith as an institution in all its various forms, and instead revels in making literal fun of it, all the while shooting a devilish wink at the player. There are doctrines that you can mandate that draw some line in the sand between faux-kindness and straight-up depravity, but at the end of the day a grift is just that and everyone’s a victim no matter how the cloth is cut. Cult of the Lamb doesn’t really moralize beyond that, and I actually think it’s a better game for not muddying the water reaching for something greater or profound.
Cult of the Lamb’s greatest strength might be its honesty. Action games are about this absolute physical dominance over other things and people around you, and management sims have always been about pulling on threads and watching systems big and small do your bidding. In a sense, Cult of the Lamb is this wholly self-aware marriage of two distinct, but intrinsically tied, genres about the order of things and just immediately inserts you at the top of that hierarchy, laying it all bare. It drops all pretenses and weaves conquest and violence of various forms (spiritual, physical, and systemic) into its systems and simple story very satisfyingly. At the end of the day, your cult leader is little but an avatar for destruction masquerading as a hero. How much more of a videogame could you be at that point? And for that frankness alone, Cult of the Lamb is more than deserving of high marks.
Cult of the Lamb was developed by Massive Monster and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Switch, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.