Cult of the Lamb Review
The Lamb is my shepherd and my prayers have been answered
Rogue-like dungeon crawlers seem to be a dime a dozen these days. The likes of Dead Cells, Hades, Slay the Spire and The Binding of Isaac have propelled roguelikes into the mainstream. Parallel to this, simulation and farming games have enjoyed a huge boom in their popularity largely down to a global pandemic and the resulting upturn in people’s spare time. Games such as Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley and the resurgence of The Sims 4 have dominated the market.
Many seasoned developers would chortle in the face of an indie newcomer who would dare to attempt to meld a roguelike dungeon crawler and a farming/life simulator together. Yet fears of imbalanced gameplay, excessive mechanics and two extremely high benchmarks to meet haven’t scared away Australian developers Massive Monster. Their latest game Cult of the Lamb sees you take control of a lamb sent to the slaughter, only to be saved from abolition by a mysterious demon and sent back to the mortal realm to build a cult in his name. You are tasked with indoctrinating cute woodland animals and creatures into your cult to do your bidding, grow your following and ultimately stake your claim as the strongest and most powerful cult in all the realms. In order to do this, you are expected to run procedurally generated dungeons slaying naysayers and tearing down the four bishops who oppose your new master. All the while rescuing others from slaughter and re-educating those about your doctrines by way of violence. Your cult and its members live at a sanctuary that you will need to upkeep by gathering resources from dungeons, delegating jobs to your followers and looking after their health and wellbeing. Trust me when I say that despite the game's simplistic-looking nature, there is a hell of a lot to contend with here. Excuse the pun.
Let's get one thing straight. Cult of the Lamb boasts some of this year's best and most profound graphics and presentation. The hand-drawn, 2D cut paper animations coupled with the dark yet vibrant and oversaturated colours walk the line between alluring and creepy. The character designs are impeccably executed, ranging from goofy cublings right up to hideous monstrosities yet all the while maintaining a level of endearing cuteness that feels on par with games like Animal Crossing or Ni No Kuni. It's more than just this though, it's the way the shadows move across the characters, the subtle animations of moving objects, the depth of field effect that embeds the 2D objects into the 3D environments, and the slight shake of the screen whenever an action is performed. It's all of the above and more that come together to make something that is visually stunning and a world that is a pleasure to spend time in.
As mentioned before there are two main gameplay styles. Farming/life simulator and procedural dungeon crawling. I'm satisfied to report that despite their vast differences Massive Monster have sown these gameplay elements together to work in unison as each one compliments the other resulting in undeniably rich and addictive gameplay that in the 20 hours it took to complete the main scenario, never once loosened its grip.
After the game's brief story introduction, you meet the mysterious Ratau who guides you to safety through the forest. This serves as a short but ideal introduction to combat and dungeon running. Soon after you will be presented with the empty grounds which is to be home to your cult. Amongst the overgrown trees and rubble are a few key elements. An empty Stone Circle lies in the centre on which you will soon stand your very own shrine where your followers can worship you. To the right of that, you will find the summoning stone. Here is where you will welcome your latest recruits into your cult. To the left of the shrine is your crafting station used to build all manner of items to sustain your cult and decorate your grounds. The first thing you will be tasked with building is a cooking station to clumsily prepare meals for your flock by way of a very basic mini-game which increases in difficulty as you prepare more exotic meals.
Next on the list is building your temple. This is your cultist's place of worship and where you will perform daily sermons in order to maintain the faith of your flock. Harvesting their faith will allow you to unlock more HP, better weapons and better curses (spells) to take on your crusades. The temple will also be home to all manner of satanic rituals to gain various buffs or benefits, often to ease moments of hectic gameplay. Low on food? Performing the fasting ritual will lock your follower's hunger levels allowing you to restock. Morale running low around the camp? Throw a dance party around a bonfire to restore +30 faith. Have yourself a dissenter, spreading opposing messages to your teachings throughout your flock? Sacrifice them to send a message to those thinking of doing the same and collect on their soul to grow your own strength. It will be down to you to decide how you rule over your recruits, whether through the soft touch of embrace and affection, the hard vice of oppression and obedience or a delicate mix of the two.
Your cultists are ultimately the most important aspect. Each is fully customisable from the type of animal or beast they are, to their colour and their name. They will each come with a number of traits that will either have a positive or negative effect on certain aspects of their lives as a member of your cult. Some of them may be jealous when you bring home new followers decreasing your cult's overall faith. Others will be thrilled to welcome a new face. Some are more prone to sickness, others easily led and some are down-right insane. This is the honest truth; one of my followers required a bowl of poop to be fed to him in order to fulfil a dark desire. These examples are just scratching the surface of the complexities that the character trait system bestows upon your flock. It's all about maintaining a high level of overall faith within your camp and just about everything you do from handing out gifts to burying your dead will affect the faith level and each one of your followers' individual faiths. Trust me when I say that you will have moments of joy and moments of sadness.
Resource management is key in the early hours of gameplay. It's a balancing act of keeping cultists happy whilst consistently growing. With every new follower comes an extra pair of hands to worship you and to be put to work. On the flip side, it also means another mouth to feed, another bed to be added to your sleeping quarters, and another personality for you and your faithful members to contend with. Followers will demand ever-improved facilities, amenities and meals, they will ask you to collect resources to aid them in building relationships with other members of the cult and they will expect justice brought to those that have wronged them. New buildings will require wood and stone, meals will require meat, fish and fruit. Seeds, grass and fertiliser will be required to tend your farms, bones and money to perform your rituals. Sadly all of this cannot be acquired self sufficiently within your grounds. This is where crusading comes into play as you roam the lands of the old faith to collect the resources you require.
The crusades take place behind four sealed gates which you will gain access to as you progress through the campaign. Each area houses a Bishop. These Bishops are responsible for sealing away your saviour and slaying each one will break the seals which confine him. This is your overall main story goal, yet the time-sensitive wants and needs of your followers will often take precedence over the main objective. Whilst each area delivers a new colour pallet, a new range of enemies and new materials to collect, the environments themselves are kind of all the same. Square rooms with some procedurally generated decor are often shrubbery, blockades or traps. It's not something that hinders the addictive gameplay loop but it would have been nice to see a little more variation in the layout of dungeon rooms.
Each dungeon run begins with you entering a room containing one random weapon and one curse to take on your crusade. However, absorbing the faith of your followers at sermons will improve the pool from which these are randomly selected. You will then move through a series of rooms tackling enemies, encountering random events and meeting NPCs who will aid you on your journey. Each dungeon is split into a number of sections spread out over branching pathways. At the end of each section, you will choose your route using a pathfinder. Some of the routes will hint at what you are likely to find in the next section. Be that, food, materials, weapons or new followers, allowing you to plot your course according to what you need the most. At the end of each run, you will come face to face with a boss. Sent by one of the Bishops to do their bidding the first 3 runs of any given area will pit you against a Bishop's crony. On the fourth run though you will get your chance to go head to head with the Bishops themselves. Even once an area has been ridden of its Bishop there are still reasons to revisit; to collect resources and to unlock specific items.
The assortment of enemies and bosses in Cult of the Lamb is impressive. Each one presents its own unique challenge. Varied size, speed and attack patterns keep the gameplay loop particularly addictive. Bosses and larger enemies often present you with AoE attacks to dodge and bullet hell moves to outmanoeuvre. Most of the time you will be expected to deal with multiple enemy types at once requiring you to have a keen eye for enemy attack tells and a swift response on the dodge-roll button. Yet despite the hectic combat, Massive Monster have done a fine job of making the difficulty of the game feel well balanced. You rarely feel like the odds are weighed too heavily against you and with the frequent drops of tarot cards (single run modifiers) and the generously rewarding chests at the end of each room, it means that if you do perish you never feel too hard done by.
Whilst none of the mechanics in Cult of the Lamb are particularly unique on their own, the base building/management can be easily compared to Two Point Hospital or Campus. The collecting of cultists isn't dissimilar to welcoming villagers in Animal Crossing. The foraging for resources is similar to Don’t Starve, the combat reminiscent of Death’s Door and the dungeon running can be compared to The Binding of Isaac. What makes Cult of the Lamb so special is the amalgamation of all of these into the same game without any of them feeling out of place or any less fun than the next. Every gameplay style is well considered and plays a vital part in the overall construct of the game.
It would be remiss not to mention the wonderful soundtrack that Cult of the Lamb offers. The blend of serene music whilst I spent time at my cult grounds building and engaging with my followers, to the foreboding and intense music present on the crusades. Even the choice to leave music out entirely from the fishing area is a well-considered choice that adds to the tranquillity of time spent there.
Cult of the Lamb is as bravely unique as it is immensely addictive. Juxtaposing dark and sinister themes with cute and endearing gameplay that will satisfy every gamer's need for action and companionship. I am in awe of its presentation and astonished by its cohesion despite blending so many mechanics and systems into one pot. Priced at a welcoming $25, I have spent a good 25 hours with my cult so far, but I expect I will spend at least another 25 continuing to tend to my loyal followers and revisiting the realms of the old faith to seek out the many cosmetics and unlockables still to be found.