Few games make as strong a first impression as Cult of the Lamb. It had us in its thrall within a minute, and we remained enraptured for most of our 20 or so hours with the game. It’s a title that frequently delights, with an arresting tone, gruesome gameplay, and a cavalier approach to taste and decency. Only a handful of minor gripes hold it back from bona fide greatness, but we have no qualms whatsoever about recommending the game to anyone with a penchant for the freaky or the macabre.
The art style of Cult of the Lamb is truly striking. It’s an unholy mish-mash of the pure and the profane. The lamb is an instantly sympathetic character, both because it’s cute and because of the stellar animation that gives it a perpetual bounce not unlike many of the cartoon characters of the early years of animation. But then the world the lamb inhabits is one full of grotesqueries and eldritch beings, and the game is teeming with pseudo-satanic imagery.
It’s a game that we found ourselves just looking at repeatedly during our time with it. We mean really just looking at it – poring over the screen at the details, and gleefully watching the woodland creatures of our cult go about their daily lives, performing tasks that are sometimes wholesome and other times abhorrent. The balance between the charming and the revolting is at the heart of Cult of the Lamb, not just in its aesthetic, but pervasive throughout the story, the gameplay, the systems, and the decisions you have to make.
The game begins with you guiding the lamb to the slaughter. It’s waddling and terrified and as we discover it’s also the last of its kind, with all other lambs having been sacrificed already to appease four vile, bloodthirsty gods. The axe-man cometh and our lamb is unceremoniously dispatched to the great beyond where it meets a fifth god, betrayed and imprisoned by the others, and seeking your assistance in striking back at those who wronged you both in a most unsavoury way.
You’re resurrected by the fallen deity under the proviso that you start a cult in its honour and murder each of the four gods so you can both be free. From this point forward you’ll divide your time between managing the cult and battling your way to the gods that you’ve sworn to slay. There’s also some minor exploration of the island you’re on, and a couple of minigames you can partake in, but the meat and potatoes of Cult of the Lamb is presented to you succinctly in these opening minutes.
Combat in the game is simple but challenging. You have a weapon and you can hit things with. You can also roll to dodge. As you progress you’ll unlock magic attacks, and the weapons get stronger or contain various additional properties such as poison or transforming the enemies you vanquish into ghosts that then attack your foes. You make your way through dungeons and you’ll fight all manner of monstrosities before eventually reaching a boss and then you move on to the next one.
While the combat is certainly engaging and a mite tougher than we expected, the lack of variety in the weapons and the limited options available to you mean that it never seems to truly progress. Sure, the enemies will fire more projectiles and your sword or hammer is stronger, but you’re fundamentally doing exactly the same thing at hour fifteen as you are at hour one. It’s not bad by any means, but a little more variety wouldn’t hurt.
Whether you’re successful in a dungeon or you meet a sticky end, either way you’ll be transported back to the cult afterwards. If you were killed in battle and then resurrected, then some of your cult members will be disheartened, but otherwise there’s not really any punishment for death. While you’re on a crusade your cult members will do their best to keep everything ticking over but once you’re back you can take a more hands on approach.
You’ve got a plot of land to work with and you can build on it as you see fit. Your cult starts small, and at first you’ll need to mine some stone and chop some trees down to give you the materials to build a handful of crude structures. Later, you can automate the process with mines and lumberyards. You’ll need farmland, toilets, and a place for your cult to worship.
Later, you’ll begin to unlock doctrines and rituals that help you shape your cult, and often you’ll have to make a decision to pick one direction over another. For example, you could introduce the idea of ceremonial burial to your flock in case any of them snuff it, replete with gravestones for the survivors to mourn at and even funerals. Or you could just tell them to get a stew going and eat their recently deceased friend. Waste not want not.
The management side of the game is simplistic and it runs out of steam towards the end of the game once you’ve built a large cult. It’s never too taxing, and if any of your cult members get out of hand you can always just have them killed. Speaking of the cult members, when you begin you might have the temptation to make a follower that looks like a kitty and name it after a beloved pet. In a word: don’t. We made this mistake, not anticipating having to beat little Colin to death when a cruel god manipulated him into turning on us. It was grim.
Cult of the Lamb is a game that is much more than the sum of its parts. Taken on their own neither the combat nor the cult management would be strong enough to carry the title, but together they form a compelling whole that's then further enhanced by the delightful art style and pervasive sinister tone. It's evil and wonderful and more than a little unhinged. It's also one of the most impressive games of the year.