Devolver Digital has always had an eye for some wonderfully strange gaming experiences. Play as a monkey escaping its guards as free jazz explodes in the background. Robbing pretentious rich people as a con man in 18th century France. Like a drug-addicted ninja with PTSD tearing apart houses full of villains. The latest in this long line of memorable releases from the publisher, Cult of the Lamb, puts you in the role of an adorable fluffy lamb with the soul of a sinister timeless deity. It’s intense, it’s cute, it’s stressful and it’s definitely something you should try.
You begin your journey by being sacrificed by a forest cult that kills the poor creature because a prophecy stated that a lamb would be the vessel through which The One Who Waits would make its glorious return. The four inhabitants of Old Ones really weren’t fans of The One Who Waits, so they put it in another dimension to consolidate their power over the forest creatures.
Little did they know that sacrificing your lamb actually sent it straight to The One Who Waits, who resurrects it and gives it ghostly powers in return for its undying loyalty and devotion to killing the other four gods, which The One Who Waits would to free. So your lamb sets out to form a cult of its own in the name of its patron Eldritch Abomination, building up spiritual strength to aid it in its long quest for vengeance. While there are bits of lore in it that explain more of the conflict between The One Who Waits and its four brethren, the story usually takes a back seat to the excellent gameplay after the first few hours.
The gameplay is survival sim on the one hand and action rogue-like on the other, neatly split between your tasks of tending your ‘herd’ and your efforts to make your way through the forests of heretics. The roguelike half of the gameplay follows many of the genre’s expected trappings; you start with a basic weapon and a limited active ability and fight your way through room after room of enemies on randomly generated maps. A full dungeon run only takes about ten minutes, and you’re sure to collect a lot of loot along the way to help build your commune.
On normal difficulty, combat manages to strike a nice balance where you’re always kept on your toes, but never feel overwhelmed. Most weapons except the dagger can take out enemies in just a few strokes, and you also have a very useful dodge roll to give you some precious I-frames. Weapons have the usual array of axes, swords, gloves, etc, while your curses will usually give you some sort of AoE attack, such as a long-range sludge bomb or a burst that pushes enemies close to you. Although you start each run with one random weapon and curse, later you can occasionally get new ones to trade in as a reward for clearing a room.
We appreciated how this dungeon-running element of Cult of the Lamb manages to always feel fresh and never stay welcome for too long. New layouts and gear keep each run unique, while the intense and chaotic combat demands your full attention. Plus, any run that lasts just 10-15 minutes means you’re in and out before it gets too old. There isn’t that much hostile variety in any of the biomes and other than tarot cards, which give you temporary passive buffs for flight, you don’t get a whole lot of rope to “build” your character. So combat is simple, but it nicely fills the niche it needs in the overall gameplay loop.
Whether you kill the boss at the end of your run or get overrun at some point leading up to it, you’ll always come back to your cult’s commune and this is where the sim elements come into play. Occasionally, you’ll encounter new cult members on a run or “forcibly convert” after defeating them in combat, and they’ll join your growing herd. Each cult member can either work to maintain your commune – such as helping out with chores on the farm or going to the mines to get resources – or they can sit around the shrine in the center of the camp and worship it, which is your devotion. grants. Once you have enough dedication, you can invest it in upgrades for your commune, such as better sleeping quarters or a cabin from which you can send missionaries.
However, as your population grows, make sure you can maintain the overall Faith level as it keeps dropping. Keeping your herd fed and repairing structures when they collapse is critical so people continue to believe you, and low faith increases the likelihood of dissenters rising among you. Of course you can always throw dissenters in jail and ‘re-educate’, but this is a few hands less for you. If your faith gets too low, you can quickly boost it by hosting a ritual, such as a grand feast that will take away everyone’s hunger or anesthetizing your entire flock with psylocybin to keep them in a euphoric haze for a few days. The only downside here is that rituals all have pretty hefty cooldowns, so you’ll need to be strategic when choosing to invoke them.
If there’s one word that best describes Cult of the Lamb, it’s: stressful. There is an endless day/night cycle at play and it always feels like you can barely keep up. Maybe you don’t have enough money to afford a new sleeping bag for your new cult member. Maybe you’ve just run out of food and half of your camp is starting to get hungry. Maybe someone just passed away and you don’t have the resources to make a body pit. So going on a dungeon run is usually a bit of a fraught experience, because you’re leaving know that you will come back to a camp much worse than you left it and that you may or may not be able to find the resources you need while you are gone.
In light of this, sometimes you have to be creative in entertainingly dark ways. If a follower dies of old age, for example, you can desecrate his body while everyone is asleep and use the meat for tomorrow’s meals or you can make fertilizer from it so that your crops grow a little faster. If a new dissenter speaks out and your prison is full, you can just kill him if no one is looking. If Faith gets too low, you can always marry another cult member to boost everyone’s beliefs. After all, it’s your cult and you have a right to be as unethical as it takes to get the results The One Who Waits needs.
Cult members can level up themselves through Loyalty, which gives you more dedication and a new piece of Doctrine after reaching a new milestone. More loyal members will prove to be better workers and once you have three pieces of Doctrine Fragments, you can proclaim a new doctrine in the church that either unlocks a new ritual for you to use or a new passive effect that applies to all cult members. We especially appreciated this doctrine system because it makes management a lot easier as you grow your herd.
As you progress through new biomes, you’ll also slowly unlock other locations besides the forests and your town, where you can interact with other NPC cults and participate in special activities. For example, go to the lighthouse and play a fish mini-game to collect food for your flock. Visit Ratau’s and you can gamble money on a creative dice game that cleverly balances luck and skill. Meanwhile, the mushroom people run a shop where you can buy new blueprints for decorations in the camp or new tarot cards to potentially appear in future dungeons.
All of this creates a nice sense of progression and synergy that encompasses almost everything that happens in Cult of the Lamb. For example, your exploits in the forests will directly affect your ability to maintain and expand your community, while your efforts to keep your flock happy will directly benefit your combat ability in the forests. Whatever you choose to do with your limited time, rest assured that there will almost always be another unlockable blueprint, skill, or recipe just around the corner. Of course you can’t do everything you want, so you have to prioritize what’s most important now, but we appreciated how nothing feels unnecessary to the gameplay loop. There’s a good balance of all the activities that offer tantalizing incentives no matter what you’re doing, which can make it remarkably difficult to not play “ten minutes longer” and suddenly lose an hour.
Unfortunately, one element that is decidedly below par here is Cult of the Lamb’s performance on Switch, which is disappointing to put it nicely. The frame rate stays consistent as long as there’s not too much going on on the screen, but it gets really choppy as it gets busier and the frame drops led to many instances where we took unnecessary damage or lost a run. Worse, Cult of the Lamb crashed on us once and was soft-locked a few more times, necessitating a return to the title screen. In between all this, we also noticed loading screens that could last as long as 15 seconds – not devastating in any way, but just long enough to become annoying during longer sessions.
It seems that not all of these issues are exclusive to the Switch version and the developers have already announced that patches are being worked on for all platforms to address some technical issues. Still, Cult of the Lamb is in a rather shabby state at the moment, which is a real shame given the excellent underlying gameplay and design seen here. It never feels right when a glitch or performance issue immediately takes a notable part of the gameplay experience down and the issues with Cult of the Lamb right now are rampant enough that you’re bound to run into something the longer you play.
In terms of presentation, Cult of the Lamb manages to impress with its visual style, which is vaguely reminiscent of the dark 2D art style seen in Don’t Starve. Everything from enemies to cultists to lawns has a flat, hand-drawn look and these all face the camera, which has a fixed perspective. Plus, there’s an interesting combination of cute and gruesome here, as you’ve got things like beaming, laughing animals partaking in a blood-soaked midnight bacchanalia. There is nothing here that qualifies as genuine in our opinion disruptivebut that constant contrast of light and dark remains exciting throughout the 15-20 hour campaign as you encounter new biomes and characters.
To match the ‘creepy but cute’ aesthetic, the soundtrack mixes various chants and whispers with tribal-sounding music that has a somewhat primal feel. So most of the soundtrack is low-key and relatively ambient, the kind of music that’s discovered rather than announced, but some of the boss music takes things to more exciting heights.