And just like that, 2022’s game of the year season has begun, not with a bang but with the whimpered bleat of a cartoon sheep. Yes, action-cum-management game Cult of the Lamb is excellent — a fascinating creature from the Island of Dr. Moreau’s Video Game Boutique that turns its adorable nose up at any rigorously defined concepts of genre.
Released last week for consoles and PC, Cult of the Lamb is as derivative as it is dizzyingly original. Perhaps you’ve seen it likened to Animal Crossing, for its onus on micromanaging anthropomorphic animals. Or maybe to The Binding of Isaac, for its insistence on sending you dungeon-ward. Or maybe to Hades, because that’s the benchmark by which all indie games are measured these days — an apt comparison, in that both have striking, painterly art, are fundamentally roguelikes, and are caught up in scrutinizing mythology. They also both quietly took the gaming world by storm.
Holy shit this game rules.
Cult of the Lamb opens with your death. You, the last living titular lamb are murdered on a sacrificial altar. But a lost god revives you, and tasks you with killing the other gods who previously chained it up. For half of the game, that means navigating procedurally generated isometric dungeons, smacking occult-themed enemies with swords and spells. For the other half, you’re building a small town, recruiting citizens (acolytes), and constructing facilities to keep them content, all while maintaining a sense of personal décor. The catch is that everyone in your village is an animal. Oh, and you’re a cult leader. (Get it? They’re your flock!) These two core tenets feed into each other in inextricable ways.
There’s a lot going on, and you learn about most of the game’s key systems over the course of very little time. Within the first, oh, 30 minutes, you’re taught about faith and crusades and doctrines and famine and sickness and rituals and sermons, which are some of the many systems you’ve gotta keep tabs on to keep your flock satisfied. You’re introduced to key resources like lumber, stone, bone, grass, and gold, and taught about the many things you can build with them.
It’s a lot to take in, but the game’s irrepressible charm compels you to push ahead through any confusion. Cult of the Lamb feels alive in ways few of its contemporaries do. Text bounces across speech bubbles to give certain words an emphatic effect. (You can disable this in the game’s settings.) The animals are procedurally generated, right down to their names. (You can change those if you want.) Jokes abound. (There’s a flesh-eating spider named Helob, an obvious play on the Lord of the Rings character.) Cult also just feels really, really good to play.
At the start of each run, you’re given a randomised weapon — a sword, dagger, ax, or something like that — which keeps fights feeling fresh. Combat has meaty muscle to it: Every time you give or receive damage, the screen shakes, much like last year’s Death’s Door, a similarly terrific occult-themed dungeon-crawler about animals. So far, I haven’t stumbled upon a weapon or ability that allows you to block or parry; instead, the focus is on dodging, giving fights a fast-paced, frenetic verve. Typically, when you die in a roguelike, you lose everything, and have to start from scratch. But Cult of the Lamb is generous: After death, you get to keep a full 75 per cent of the resources you find, or, you know, sacrifice a follower to steal their life and carry on.
This is a kindness, as you typically don’t return with everything you need to build everything you want to build. So then you have to make tough choices, such as: Do you allocate your grass and gold to build up farming plots, to stave off long-term famine for your flock? Or do you use that grass to cook flavourless meals to slake immediate hunger? Every run, too, results in you earning at least some progress on those (many) systems I mentioned earlier, so you’re constantly unlocking skills, attributes, weapons, and other abilities. Then, back home there’s devotion to milk from your followers in a variety of ways, which itself unlocks more opportunities to improve the town. There’s a grind here, but it’s almost entirely devoid of friction — yet another part of the game that compels repeated play.
Whenever I’ve been fighting heretics, I’ve found myself itching to get back to my flock, to sate their hunger and pick up their shit. (You have to play a while before unlocking an outhouse.) Whenever I’ve been meticulously overseeing my village, I’ve found myself wanting to get back into the dungeons, to do…dungeon stuff. Neither component of the game has been a chore — at least not yet.
To be clear, I haven’t defeated all of the bosses yet, nor have I fully constructed my little village. And sure, there’s the vanishingly small chance Cult of the Lamb could fumble the ending with an anticlimax. But I already feel confident recommending this game with my entire chest, even if doing so comes back to bite me in the arse. Isn’t that the point of cultish faith?
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