Review: Cult of the Lamb
Last month we previewed Cult of the Lamb and I left off eager to see how its combination of roguelike dungeon crawling and base building held up in the full game. Now that I’ve had a chance to sit down with it properly, it’s time to see where it’s held up and where cracks have started to form.
Cult of the Lamb releases August 11, 2022 on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PS4. The Steam version was played for this review.
Led to the Slaughter
The plot is as follows: It was prophesied that a lamb would awaken a great old one named The One Who Waits. Four bishops, rulers of the known land, decided the best way to keep this from happening was to simply slaughter every last lamb. No lamb, no prophecy, easy peasy. Unfortunately for them, in killing you they managed to send you straight to him, and gave you the perfect reason to accept his offer. Serve him and you’ll get another chance at life and revenge.
As you explore each bishop’s land, you’ll learn more about them and their connection to The One Who Waits, as well as meet various NPCs who’ll introduce you to other friendly settlements. Well, maybe friendly isn’t the right word. Cheerful? There’s a certain grim comedy to most of these NPCs, who will greet you warmly and openly while simultaneously asking you to indulge in murder and sacrifice. It all paints a certain messed up picture of the world, and I for one am all for it.
As for the writing itself, the twists aren’t exactly hard to guess, but one may say the real story was the friends we made along the way. The characterization and atmosphere is where the lion’s share of the charm is, and each new face I met was extremely memorable, if a bit unsettling at times. In the end, it’s their flaws that make them who they are, that truly make them unique, and absolutely makes them fit in a world where things have certainly gone wrong.
My Friends are My Power
Gameplay in Cult of the Lamb can broadly be divided into two parts: A roguelike dungeon crawler, and a town builder. For the dungeon portion, you venture through one of four regions, battling through randomly generated rooms to collect resources. At any given time you can have one weapon and one spell, though you can swap these out with new ones you find, and can collect tarot cards during your run for passive benefits.
RNG is a bit on the low side as far as roguelikes go, as the most important aspect of your build is your weapon type, and there are only five variations on that. Each weapon also has a level, but you’ll always start with the second highest and any weapon you find will be the highest level. Weapons may also have a secondary effect, but these are merely nice benefits rather than something that’ll make or break a run. As for spells, while there is a nice variation and some are definitely more desired for certain playstyles than others, you can’t really use them exclusively (unless you’re super lucky with tarot cards), so by nature they’re just a nice bonus rather than what will carry your run.
Lastly, the tarot cards. I definitely found myself adjusting my playstyle depending on the cards I drew, but unlike more RNG-focused roguelikes there’s a limit to how much they can synergize. Most cards are things like extra health or dropping a bomb with flat damage when you roll, which don’t combo with anything, and the few cards that DO combo like being able to grab both melee damage and speed increases are limited by only being able to take them once each.
While you’re crusading you’ll come across resources and followers, and the town building aspect is where you make use of them. Your followers have needs and are just astonishingly bad at taking care of themselves, so it’s up to you to make sure they have a place to sleep, a clean environment, and food to fill their bellies. Indeed, taking care of them is a whole facet on par with waging war against the bishops, and you might be asking yourself why go to all the effort to take care of these brats. The reason why is because without them, you are nothing.
Unlike most roguelikes with meta-progression, Cult of the Lamb doesn’t have you advancing solely through combat. Instead your followers continuously supply you with devotion, and it is with this devotion that you unlock better weapons and spells, as well as new buildings to help take care of them better. As you unlock new facilities they’ll even be able to help you more directly, whether that means collecting resources on their own to take the burden off of you, or even being able to house a demon and journey with you as a (thankfully invincible) NPC ally.
Now, that all said, that doesn’t mean you have to be NICE to them. You can absolutely do the bare minimum to take care of them, keep them in line through fear and drugs, or even straight up sacrifice them to harvest a juicy chunk of devotion right now rather than wait for them to slowly give it to you over time. After all, it’s not like there’s a shortage of fresh meat eager to follow your honeyed words. Or you could genuinely be a benevolent leader, it’s up to you.
This hands-off approach to the morality of your actions is honestly something I love. It’s the “shopping cart theory” of video game moral choice. Nobody will know or admonish you for your actions; it’s not about seeing how many good or evil points you acquire. The game is simply giving both of them as options and asking you to do as you wish… and the best part is, they’re equally valid options.
In general it felt like being nice and taking care of your flock emphasizes the base building and is the slow, long term investment kind of playstyle. Doing positive things for followers will level them up, increasing how much devotion they provide and how effective they are at aiding you. Acting mean on the other hand emphasizes the roguelike dungeon-crawling aspect and is a more fast-paced progression, giving you immediate rewards, actively reducing how many of them you need to take care of and allowing you to better neglect them while you’re off fighting.
Now, while I largely enjoyed how well the two meshed together, there were a few issues I had with the base building side of things. For starters, a lot of basic actions for the followers, like the ability to pick their own crops, unlock oddly late in progression. While giving them more autonomy to take care of themselves IS a sizeable upgrade, the early game felt like I had WAY too much cleanup to do whenever I returned. My other main gripe is that the same button is used for almost every command in your base, which causes a lot of headaches when trying to interact with things that naturally attract followers, like building sites or dead bodies.
In spite of those minor issues however, I found the combination extremely engaging. There’s this back and forth of needing to take a break for town building after combat to take care of the things your followers can’t do for themselves, before heading back out into the wild to gather more resources so you can build more facilities. I wound up playing a more benevolent route that focused on taking care of followers and remembering the fallen, and while it took me a while to reach the end I was absolutely at the height of my power. The last few bosses did feel a bit on the easier side, but at the same time it felt like I earned that.
There’s just something about adorable critters engaging in unspeakable bloodshed, that juxtaposition of the saccharine and the profane, and Cult of the Lamb has that in spades. Everything about the aesthetics screams cute, from the adorable cartoon critters, to the puppy dog eyes they give when asking you to save them, to the little bubble popping noises when collecting resources. Yet this is all contrasted against the subject material.
You’re working for a demonic entity, and you regularly bleed from the eyes as you conduct dark rituals (before shaking the blood off and smiling once more). You’ll come back to your cult’s camp, holding aloft the torn out heart of your enemy, before bringing a hopeful lost soul into your loving family, sacrificing them to dark powers, and serving what’s left of them for dinner. Throughout ALL of this, it still manages to look cute, and that’s a definite feat.
It’s no exaggeration to say that vibe is this game’s biggest selling point, that thrill and almost taboo shock. While it’s certainly not the first piece of media to mix a cartoon aesthetic with dark themes – there’s a few things I grew up with that this reminds me of – it’s not exactly common these days either. Understandably so, it’s not easy to ride that line. Go too far with either side and it’ll drown out the other, but Cult of the Lamb manages to absolutely nail it.
Cult of the Lamb is the most hard-to-put-down game I’ve played all year. It’s so easy to get that “Ok just one more” itch of wanting to head out and get the last few materials you need for that new facility, or deciding you’ll just do a little bit of redecorating and next thing you know the sun is rising.
That’s not to say it’s completely perfect. There is a little bit of that indie game jank, it’s not terribly long, and there are a few bugs here and there ranging from minor graphical ones to more major ones that halted my progress temporarily. Thankfully the devs are already hard at work on a patch, and while the main story may be short, I’ve managed to sink 20 hours in so far and I’m nowhere close to stopping.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.