Every once in a while you stumble upon a game that feels eerily familiar while simultaneously feeling entirely different from anything you’ve ever experienced. That for me was Massive Monsters’ and Devolver Digital‘s Cult of the Lamb. The game is a roguelike meets management sim equation, which in itself isn’t that unheard of. Where it differs comes down to a few key areas such as context and design.
Gameplay & Story
The premise of Cult of the Lamb is fairly straightforward. You take on the role of The Lamb, a sacrificial animal used by the followers of The One Who Waits. The One Who Waits is a bishop, one of the divine beings of the game’s world who act as god-like beings. However, The One Who Waits is meant to be representative of a being similar to the likes of Lucifer, who fell out with his peers. The game begins with the other four bishops using you as a sacrifice to end the efforts of The One Who Waits and their powerful Red Crown. Fast forward and you are saved from death by none other than The One Who Waits themselves, who then proceeds to lend you the power of the Red Crown. Your goal is to use its power to build a loyal following for him and use their strength to break the chains imprisoning The One Who Waits by killing each of the other four bishops.
All of the writing not only delivers the unsettling tone the game wants to convey, but it’s also full of personality. Every character feels distinct despite only having a few lines of dialogue each. Some of the bishops are cowards, some are merciless, and others have motives that aren’t clear. Despite the simplicity of the story in its delivery, you’re never left asking questions. It’s a really impressive feat to pull off such sound world-building that uses written lines more as an afterthought than the primary progression of the story.
If you’ve played an isometric roguelike before then you should know what you’re getting into with Cult of the Lamb. You have one button for your primary attack, another button to dodge, and a third that lets you use your special attack, or in the case of Cult of the Lamb, curses. It takes a lot of inspiration from The Binding of Isaac in terms of its simplicity so it doesn’t quite leave the same jaw-dropping impression through its combat as something like Hades does.
Fortunately, there is far more to the gameplay loop than just combat. You will be spending just as much time, if not more, taking care of your cult. This includes cooking them food, building them shelter, scooping up their poops, and performing lamb-tanic rituals to harvest their devotion and keep them happy. Devotion is the primary resource when it comes to upgrading your cult. Every time you indoctrinate a new follower you can assign them a primary task, one of these tasks is worshipping you. The more your followers worship you, the more devotion you accumulate, and the more upgrades you can get. Another way to upgrade is through sermons at your temple. Once a day you can preach to your followers to gain new combat abilities. These range from unlocking new weapons such as poison or vampiric weapons to new curses and more! Through the temple is also how you further your doctrine and learn new rituals. Every time a follower of yours has their faith in you level up they give you one-third of a new Commandment Stone. Once you have a full Commandment Stone you can then choose between two different rituals or follower traits for your cult to learn. These are what alter the cult side of the gameplay more than anything else due to how they alter the way your cult behaves. You instil new values through your doctrines, and you are always provided two polar opposite options so you can really feel how your decision impacts the game.
I found taking care of my cult to be much harder than fighting any of the bosses in the game. One wrong move or forgetting one small task and your followers’ faith could be at an all-time low. This causes you to have to sprint around the group fixing every small problem at once and spending days of in-game time to try and get everyone’s spirits back up. This did become easier with time due to the different rituals and doctrines you could acquire, but I had more than a few rough attempts at it near the beginning. That isn’t to say that the bosses are poorly designed either, some of my favourite boss fights in all of 2022 take place in Cult of the Lamb. It’s more so that each run of the ever-changing roguelike areas better prepared me for each of their own finish lines.
Art Style & Sound Design
I absolutely love the art direction in Cult of the Lamb. It is very expressive which is important when you’re limited in your dialogue. It assists in the delivery and understanding of events that take place. Think almost like Animal Crossing in this regard except you can tell when your followers are planning to usurp you due to how little faith they have. It uses a stark contrast between the art style which is mainly cute, wholesome and innocent and the actual context of the game which has you running a lamb-tanic cult, murdering and offering living sacrifices, blood-gushing eyes and Lovecraftian monsters. This gives the game a really unique vibe. It feels like something we’ve seen a lot of with management sims in recent years but hits you with whiplash when it comes to the tone of the game and what it’s actually about.
The overall designs for the game were impressive throughout despite a lack of variety in some areas. There are dozens of different forms that your followers can take and each area has their own unique forms that embody the design of the world. One such example is the water level having more aquatic animal forms for you to give to your followers. Each bishop and The One Who Waits also tie directly into their unique theme and are quite menacing in their own regard. The lack of diversity mainly comes from your standard enemies. Each area has maybe one or two unique monsters for you to fight during each run, but for the most part, you will be fighting the same half dozen or so creatures the entire game.
On the other side of the game’s design is its audio and music. The music is perfectly fine. It doesn’t quite live up to the competitors in the genre, but it is diverse enough in its sounds to keep you bopping your head around. It uses a very techno-esque gospel design that reminds me a little too much of church. That said, it does perfectly embody the creepy and unsettling tones the game aims for but doesn’t get your blood pumping the way many roguelike fans expect. The audio design is exactly what you would want! Satisfying noises when you hurt enemies, painful sounds that keep you on your toes whenever you take damage, and generally well-thought-out design when it comes to the many tasks you will regularly be doing (such as scooping poop). It’s essential for the audio design to remain engaging for players when they have to do a lot of the same tasks in rapid succession because otherwise you run into the issue of players slowly losing interest or being distracted by other things. Thankfully, Cult of the Lamb doesn’t fall into this trap.
The Bad Place
My experience with Cult of the Lamb was nearly perfect. Unfortunately, about halfway through the third area, I began to experience an onslaught of game-breaking bugs every time I attempted to do almost anything. From black screens that didn’t pause or freeze the game so you would randomly die due to not being able to see anything, just to be forced to quit the game and lose your progress, to enemies not spawning in arena fights preventing you from continuing on with your run. Again, this forced me to either abandon the run or quit and lose progress. Worst of all though was the straight-up game freezes. The issues didn’t end there either, because while these issues were game-breaking, the state of the game the further in I got resulted in it becoming more and more unplayable. The amount of stuttering, lag and missed inputs made even walking from one side of the cult to the other an absolute pain. I did manage to find a few fixes myself which included keeping my follower count below 20 and not playing the game via quick resume. The developers have also been very transparent about the amount of effort going into fixing things, some of which have reportedly been fixed since I beat the game. But that doesn’t change just how frustrating the last few hours were for me.
If you leave this review with any kind of impression, I hope it’s a positive one. While Cult of the Lamb might be a little rough around the edges it is still a one-of-a-kind experience, standing up with some of the absolute best of the industry in 2022.
Cult of the Lamb (Xbox Series X): Every once in a while you stumble upon a game that feels eerily familiar while simultaneously feeling entirely different from anything you've ever experienced. That for me was Massive Monsters' and Devolver Digital's Cult of the Lamb. The game is a roguelike meets management sim equation, which in itself isn't that unheard of. Where it differs comes down to a few key areas such as context and design. – mjszoke
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Reviewed on: Xbox
Developer: Massive Monster
Publisher: Devolver Digital