Blasphemous, the indie platformer that Spanish studio The Game Kitchen crowd-funded two years ago, is now available on every major gaming platform. While I wasn’t one of the Kickstarter backers, I have been looking forward to this release for some time, both as a fan of difficult Souls-like games and someone who has long had a complicated relationship with religion. Blasphemous delivers on both, providing a substantial challenge and bringing out some unexpectedly powerful feelings in me about my own religious upbringing.
I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, which most people don’t know much about other than possibly having heard of the Waco siege. Essentially, Seventh-day Adventism is Christianity with a couple of key differences, the most prominent of which is observing the sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday. My family joined the church when I was in fifth grade, and I was moved from a traditional Christian school to one run by the Adventist church around that time.
Like some Christian sects, Seventh-day Adventists have an almost paranoid obsession with the end times, or the period of time near the end of the world when the Antichrist will usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Where Adventists differ from most other sects, however, is that they believe there will be no Rapture, which is the phenomenon whereby the Christian god calls believers to heaven and leaves the rest of the world to deal with cataclysmic disasters and plagues. Adventists also believe that the Pope will reveal himself to be the Antichrist. As such, Catholicism is regarded by Adventists not as the Christian theology that it is but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, biding its time to seize control of the world.
To get back to the first point in this explanation: no, the folks in Waco didn’t belong to the larger Seventh-day Adventist church, but rather, an offshoot. Still, it’s easy for me to see how a more extreme and cult-like version of Adventism could have emerged after I spent my formative years being indoctrinated into its core beliefs.
Blasphemous is set in Cvstodia, an imagined empire of ritualistic adherence to fanatical religious tenets that draws very clear inspiration from the Catholic church. (Correction: 9/10/2019, 8:00 pm ET:.This story originally referred to the world as Orthodoxia, which was changed before release). The player character, known as the Penitent One, wears a large, pointed helmet reminiscent of the hoods worn by Catholic inquisitors in Spain and Portugal. Basic enemies consist of self-flagellating believers and bell-wielding nuns, and the architecture resembles the sharp steeples of places of worship from old Europe. Everywhere the player turns, statues honor unnamed saints, with frozen faces looking to the skies in supplication and stone arms reaching for heavenly salvation.
But something is very wrong in Cvstodia. Religion has twisted and distorted the world, leaving behind a wasteland, albeit one that’s more Bloodborne than Mad Max. It’s clear that this apocalypse has had a devastating effect on the populace, many of whom now huddle for shelter in the ruins of temples that offer more tangible protection than religious teachings ever could. Every item the player collects in Blasphemous—from ability-enhancing rosary beads to bones of notable dead—is a testament to this lost era of history, detailing an excruciating past that saw the world collapse under the weight of its dogmatic hubris. Cvstodia is some of my worst childhood nightmares come to life, and my mind was flooded with these memories as soon as I stepped into the well-worn boots of the Penitent One.
As a kid, I had a morbid fascination with the Catholic church. I would spend weekends anxiously poring through the histories of the inquisitions it inflicted on non-believers, starting in Europe and then carrying over to the Western hemisphere, with some of the most disgusting atrocities perpetrated against the native populations of North and South America. Having been told that the Catholic church would hand out similar punishment to Adventists once they took power behind the Antichrist, I became an emotional wreck over this as a child. Adventists do not believe in the rapture, and thus there would be no escape for me. How would I deal with being tortured on the rack? Would I feel anything before my head was guillotined from my neck? These aren’t the kinds of questions a pre-teen should have to deal with, but these images kept rattling around in my young mind.
In my few hours with Blasphemous, the same sick feeling of fearful fascination has risen in my stomach, kept a bay only by the “must win” mentality with which I’ve been self-indoctrinated over decades of playing video games. Fortunately, the game-y aspects of Blasphemous are very good, providing a rewarding counterpoint to the unnerving memories that the setting happens to bring out in me. Traversing the crumbling landscape gives way to satisfying dodge- and parry-based combat and imaginative shortcuts that impart the same feeling of accomplishment as similar moments in games like Dark Souls. I’m constantly teetering somewhere between wanting to see the next area’s horrifying enemies and atmosphere and worried I’ll be struck down before finding the next health-restoring save point. The lore, which is told mostly through item descriptions, can be too on-the-nose and dark for the sake of being dark at times, but the way it folds together real religious iconography and the fantastic elements of Cvstodia has largely been just as clever as the combat.
It’s hard for me to evaluate Blasphemous as a whole, and not just because I haven’t beaten it yet. Do I truly enjoy this experience, or does it just ping the same compulsive receptors in my mind that made me obsessively stare at a computer screen and scare myself with possible futures of torture and execution in my youth? Cvstodia’s devastated landscape resembles my current relationship with more extreme Christian religions, its few, fearful adherents still giving thanks through prayer yet eyeing the skies in fear of the next bloody horror to come screeching down upon them. Blasphemous has reminded me that I am still dealing with the sticky residue of indoctrination all these years later, but there’s something about it that feels familiar and perhaps even comforting in some strange way.