Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Cantes de Confesión, by Carlos Viola for the Blasphemous OST. 🎵
Before I talk about Blasphemous, let's talk about artistic commitment.
I remember hearing Ron Howard interviewed to promote the live-action Grinch and he said something I loved (paraphrasing from memory): "Working with Jim Carrey was delightful because he always surprised you. I'd go so far as to say the worst thing that can happen to you as a director is to say 'Action!' and get pretty much what you expected." In my experience, most theater directors would much prefer to tell an actor to pull back their performance, rather than the more common case of begging them to go harder. While hammy actors are the subjects of many jokes, they're also how legends get made, and most creators feel they're further out in the water than they actually are.
I'm in a very weird place with Blasphemous, which I played as a something of a palate cleanser after hitting 200 berries in Celeste: I don't think it's very fun, actually! There are many mechanical bumps, and without looking things up ahead of time you'll probably only experience about 60% of the game, since a lot is hidden through extremely oblique paths that are entirely optional. As a non-linear action platformer, I think you'd have a lot more fun playing Ori, or Timespinner, or Hollow Knight, or The Messenger.
But I still think you can do worse than playing it? Mostly, because wow does this game commit to its theme. They go hard on their imagery, symbolism, dialogue, and never, ever relax about it. About 10 minutes in I was begging them to cool it a little, but nope, literally every character is a Kisser Of Wounds, or a hunched-back member of the Barefoot Order Of Pilgrims, or a baby with a crown of thorns bleeding out if its eyes. The start of the game has this bit:
None of it makes any damn sense, but part of the fun of it is that it doesn't matter anyways, you're playing video games.
Okay, what's wrong with it? It drives like a bad car from the 70's. It's a combination of a few mechanics that, when combined, lead to a frustrating experience. One example: the game tries to make ledge grabbing super forgiving, but often this means you can't jump down easily because you'll accidentally grab the ledge. There's a small lag if you hold down and press Jump to "let go," and frequently it'll just read the jump input to bring you back up the ledge. I played the game for ~11 hours and still couldn't just "drop" consistently.
But if you're trying to wall-climb, if you get attacked, you can't grab back on, you just insta-fall to your death. And yes, there are spikes and pits in this game that are insta-death. The penalty isn't severe (you can cast fewer spells when you respawn, until you go back to your death spot) but the time it takes to get back to the spikes from your save point might be significant, and the fall normally feels so cheap you (correctly) don't think you'll hit it next time, either.
With insta-death, can you see what's below you from where you're standing (think holding Down in Hollow Knight to zoom down the camera)? No! You can kind of hack it with the ledge grab, which is precarious and doesn't always work, or leap of faith.
I did the calculations, and this game would be 2.4 times as easy to recommend if they changed spikes to be a health penalty instead of a full-death. While I suspect there's some element of "we're a brutal game for real gamers, man!" I refuse to be shamed about getting mad that I was on a moving platform and some offscreen enemy threw a book at me, NES-Castlevania-style knockbacking me into some spikes. That shit just feels cheap and there are ways to mitigate it.
And what's great about it? While I loved the level of commitment to theme, the level of craft, independently, is just gorgeous. The pixel art is phenomenal, many of the bosses are magnificent, the Lore extras for every item is a great way to sneak in more content, and contains a ton of fun writing.
While I don't think the execution was there, I did like the compositional choice to make augmented movement (the "double jump" type mechanics) purely optional; it is entirely possible (and if you're playing without consulting the Internet, I'd argue it's likely!) that you'll get the final boss not that much more powered up than you started.
Where the execution falters is that a lot of it is very well hidden, which is a shame because the game is way, way more fun when you've powered up a bit. There's a mechanic called "rosary beads" where you can buff your character, and if you get a certain item, you can increase your capacity. But that's not all there is to it! You need to take that item to a silent ghost in a cage on the way left side of the map to actually equip the extra slots. No, this wasn't explained anywhere.
You have these healing items called Biliary Flasks. When you use them, they get
empty. You upgrade by acquiring new ones, but do they equip on pickup? Nope.
There's a blood fountain that offers to "refill empty biliary flasks" for
"Tears of Atonement," which I ignored because I'd refill them for free at
the save point. But by "refill empty flasks" they mean equip new
ones, not refill your exiting used ones, so I walked around the game
wondering when I can get more healing pots, while holding a bunch of empty ones
the whole time.
All this to say: a lot just isn't very clear in this game. But while I would say Ori is a more enjoyable game, I went further in this than I did in Ori because I was digging the art and the style enough that I wanted to keep plumbing it. All in all, I'm glad I played this, but it's not something I'll rush out to tell you to play.
I think it's funny how many
Metroidvanias non-linear platformers
have a similar schtick in setting: This Place has been corrupted your adventure
will bring closure to it. Ori has the fading light of the great tree, Hollow
Knight has its Radiance infection, this has The Miracle, and hell, even The
Messenger kind of has its demon army/music box curse.
Also, when writing my D&D character Homage, one of my favorite (if understated) things about him was that he's a martial monk who trained in a monastary of Ilmater. I liked a monastery dedicated to Ilmater as an idea: "the Crying God, the Broken God, the Lord on the Rack, and the One Who Endures." It's a hell of a thing to worship, frankly, and that shit is right at home in Blasphemous. While Homage is a bit of a quippy bastard, in my head the need to glorify stuggle, penance, and bearing weight was always present in his psyche underneath it all, as it is in mine.
I found myself thinking a lot about this article, about difficulty in video games. Namely, that all games are more fun with mastery, and "death" or error in "hard" games tend to be about communicating how to get better to the player, rather than a sincere "you fucked up." I didn't feel that most of the deaths in this game really gave me more to work with than before I died.
Other games posts
- Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night writeup.
- I wrote up Ori and the Blind Forest and Shovel Knight here.
- Timespinner, The Messenger and Hollow Knight here.
What should my next game be? Ping me, or drop it in the comments 👇
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