Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’m thinking, not for the first time, about the pitiful state of video game nomenclature—and specifically video game genre nomenclature. No other medium has to suffer through this abysmal shit, to weather the indignities of, say, calling one of its most quickly growing genre branches a “roguelike”—and then having to explain that the Rogue in question is a 42-year-old Unix game that a vanishingly slim number of living people have ever even played, and that it doesn’t actually share all that many similarities with the “roguelike” games in the first place. (And the less said about that unholy portmanteau Metroidvania, the better.) Every artform steals from itself, true, but at least film and TV and music have the decency to do so with a modicum of elegance.
Anyway: Cult Of The Lamb is the new Frostpunk-ish roguelike Don’t Starve-a-thon from Devolver Digital and studio Massive Monster. It’s pretty good!
Sorry, sorry, that was maybe a bit too glib. But in a world where so much of indie game design can feel like developers are playing Legos with a variety of workable and trendy gaming parts, it’s interesting to see such a strange and unlikely chimera come to life. And that’s not even reckoning with all the other parts in play in this dark and bloody little package, which pulls a bit of the ol’ Happy Tree Friends trick, too, by taking very cute cartoonish designs and then running them through an explicitly Lovecraftian ringer.
The basic premise is simple: You are the last lamb (as in, a fuzzy little sheep), your kind hunted to extinction because they’re prophesied to resurrect an exiled god. Which is exactly what you set to doing, once your eldritch patron brings you back to life to exact some revenge—and form a cult of cheerful little animals to worship in its name. From there, gameplay is split between two major branches: Cult management, where you build temples, lead rituals, and, uh, “deal with” dissenting members; and crusades, wherein you venture out into the world to kill your way to righteousness.
The cult side, not surprisingly, is where the Frostpunk influences slip in; although Cult’s resource management elements aren’t anywhere near as brutal as 11 bit studios’ ultra-grim apocalypse sim, you’ll still find yourself forced to strike a balance between keeping your people happy and keeping them alive. (Even more explicitly, you’re repeatedly offered a series of binary choices that will shape the ways you develop your flock—although Cult Of The Lamb dispenses with any of the moral elements that made Frostpunk so deeply depressing at times.)
Meanwhile, the crusades will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time in the roguelike world over the last 10 years: procedurally generated levels, melee combat that’s built around keeping track of all the little enemies zipping around the screen, and a series of randomized upgrades to keep you ahead of the power curve. The gameplay is satisfying enough, but this is a crowded genre, and Cult’s fighting, on its own, would leave it as little more than an also-ran.
The fascinating part, then, comes from how the two sides influence each other: Crusades generate resources that allow your cult to thrive, and the stronger your cult, the more spiritual power you can fleece from your followers in order to make your bloody work more successful. It’s an extremely satisfying loop, made only moreso by the glee with which the game presents is cute, gory world. It’s also nice to see a game so willing to really come to terms with its own darker impulses: “Human” (deer, rabbit, whatever) sacrifice is a perfectly viable and accepted way to handle HR problems in this particular organization, and if one of your cultists comes to you politely asking to be served a meal made of, I don’t know, actual feces that you’ve cleaned up off the ground? Well, who are you to judge, especially if it keeps their Faith meter nice and high? It’s less gross than calling a video game a Frostpunker or a Soulslike, at least.