Monday 4 September 2023

Blasphemous II Review (switch)

 Written by Dan Gill

The Game Kitchen served up a gorgeous-yet-gruesome looking action-adventure in 2019’s original Blasphemous, a title with all the ingredients of a MetroidVania with the difficulty veering towards that of a Souls game. While it was a solid piece of work, it fell a little flat in some areas. The combat became a bit dull as the game went on, and the difficulty at times – especially during boss battles - felt cheap.

Blasphemous II picks up after the events of the first game’s Wounds of Eventide DLC, where the Penitent One is woken to prevent the rebirth of a curse called “The Miracle” which threatens Cvstodia. The introduction is beautifully animated and is the first indication that this is a step up from its predecessor. The game still takes its theme and visuals from Andalucian culture, Spanish architecture, the nation’s Holy Week and huge amounts of Roman Catholicism, and the creepy and surreal imagery from the original is built upon, but more on that later.

Once the player gains control, they’re presented with three weapon choices. This is the first major change to the original, where the only weapon available was the Mea Culpa. While the sword was able to be upgraded, the parry/dodge/attack routine remained throughout. This time combat is much more varied through the fast twin blades (Sarmiento and Cintella), the slow but heavy flail (Veridicto) and a balanced sword (Ruego Al Alba). The weapon you choose ultimately doesn’t matter, since you eventually claim all three during the game, but it will determine your initial progress, since each weapon’s abilities unlock certain areas. This makes progress feel more natural than in the original and feel more in line with other games in the genre. It also makes for more interesting combat. Each weapon has its own skill tree, giving the Penitent One more devastating attack combos and rewards for parrying. The variety offered goes a long way to showing how Blasphemous II betters the first game.

Other features return, such as the Fervour meter, which is depleted when using chants and prayers. Chants are lower cost powers, while prayers are more powerful and tend to deal out damage over a longer period. This can take the form of a trail of flames or a floating ball of miasma, but there are also prayers which offer other abilities, such as fast travel to the game’s hub. Alongside this you also have passive abilities which take the form of rosary beads. On top of that you now also have statues which can be equipped to offer additional buffs. These are found throughout Cvstodia or carved by the sculptor in the City of the Blessed Name (the game’s hub). There’s a lot to manage, but once you take the time to equip the Penitent One accordingly you can make the game a little easier for yourself.

Blasphemous II also retains the difficulty of the original, but the combination of items and weapons you can acquire provide some flexibility when tackling its grotesque enemies.  The Game Kitchen also seem to have adjusted encounters a little, especially regarding bosses. Blasphemous often felt unfair, with very little wriggle room during its bigger fights, but Blasphemous II somehow manages to keep the difficulty, but keeps everything fair. One boss took me multiple attempts to finish, and while initially seeming impossible, I could feel I did a little better on each attempt. The placing of Prie-Dieus (the game’s save points) is generous, and they’re normally close to boss battles meaning retrying isn’t quite the chore it could be (I’m looking at you Dark Souls). The battles range from screen-hogging monstrosities to bullet hell team-ups. They’re quite exhilarating, and there was much air punching and trash-talking (albeit to an empty room) during my playthrough.

It’s not all dishing out damage through. This is a MetroidVania, and exploration is key to progress. I found myself stumped at one point, but that was down to my man-looking at the map, leading me to miss a massive section. As mentioned, progress feels more natural than in the original, and it’s worth digging for secrets. NPCs are tucked away throughout Cvstodia which offer their own quests and/or items, and they add to the game’s lore. Blasphemous II is one of those games that you more you put in, the more you get back, and it’s grimdark world is a joy to explore. The game loop of uncovering those previously inaccessible nooks and crannies you’d expect of the genre is present here and keeps you coming back for more.

Everything looks as gorgeous as you’d expect. The silky-smooth animation, both in cut scenes and in game looks great, and the design of everything from the enemies to the backgrounds really captures that Catholic aesthetic. While nothing explicitly looks like the works of Heironymous Bosch, the design has that same feeling of his work; a surreal vision of hellish creatures and heavy religious imagery. Nothing else looks quite like it. It’s accompanied with a brilliant soundtrack filled with melancholic strings and classical guitars. The atmosphere is foreboding yet light enough as to not feel that it’s being laid on too thick.

There are a few minor gripes. The backtracking can become a little tiresome, especially as fast travel is initially restricted to specific portals, and resting at a Prie Deiu respawns any enemies you’ve defeated, leaving you trying to jump and slide your way past everything to get to where you want to go, but this is standard for the genre. There are also some sections where the camera misbehaves in the sense that it doesn’t know what it’s meant to focus on. These hiccups aren’t game breaking and seldom appear, but it’s noticeable.  This is something that’s likely to be addressed with a patch (and may even be fixed by the time you’re reading this), but really, I’m just nitpicking at this point.

The Game Kitchen stated that Blasphemous II was built from scratch without using any code from the first game, and it shows. They’ve crafted a MetroidVania with plenty of variety, a feasable challenge, a distinctive aesthetic and lots of depth. I came into the game expecting more of the same, and it seems they’ve kept the best bits and tightened up everything else, leaving something that stands among the genre’s finest. Why wait for Hollow Knight: Silksong when you can play possibly the best MetroidVania of the year right now?


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