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Video games and religion have a rocky relationship. For decades various religions railed against games as a force that corrupted the youth with sex and violence. Video games responded in kind, depicting organised religion as immoral, controlling, hypocritical and abusive. To be fair neither party is wholly wrong or right but it’s still rare to see religion depicted in games as anything other than an insane, doomed death cult. It might be a death cult in Blasphemous but it is far from insane or doomed.
The Penitent One awakens on a mountain of naked corpses. All wear the same helmet as the Penitent One for they are his sworn comrades in the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow. A curse has fallen on the pious land of Cvstodia. Known only as the Miracle it has populated the land with warped inversions of once holy men and women and driven the faithful into hiding or exile. As the Penitent One it is the player’s job to find the source of the Miracle and kill it.
Blasphemous exists in the tradition of the Souls-like genre. It’s combat, open world and grim-dark setting are all inspired by the Dark Souls series but it’s religious imagery and story are all drawn from the real world. Blasphemous wears both inspirations on its sleeve. The Penitent One’s helmet is a clear riff on the hoods flagellants wore while the more violent imagery comes from Procession of Flagellants by the definitely mad Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Although the imagery of Blasphemous is unique it only becomes truly horrifying when you consider the all-powerful deity that demanded they be worshiped in such a way.
Whatever God or Gods are worshiped by the people of Cvstodia – Cvstodians I suppose – they are clearly a capricious and cruel sort. Pain and suffering form the backbone of penance in Blasphemous. The Penitent One is doomed to a life of undeath until they reverse the Miracle’s curse. Other spirits are cursed to haunt sewers and muddy ponds, grasping at the still living. Elsewhere twisted nuns wield massive bells and command lava flows. Bullheaded tribesmen exist at the fringes of Cvstodia and mad priests haunt the high chapels that dominate the country’s towns. But it’s never really the basic enemies in Blasphemous that give you a true sense of the kind of cruel religion that is practiced here it’s the allies, bystanders and bosses you meet on your journey that do.
One man’s penance is to witness your journey. After every boss beaten he appears scroll held aloft and arms pinioned by thick ropes to congratulate you on your victory. Occasionally he offers cryptic advice such as “Seek out the Three Humiliations Penitent One, only then can you cross the Bridge of Three Calvaries”. The longer I play the guiltier I feel as this man’s torment is prolonged by my own.
At certain set points Saints of the Church will appear to you. Gemino, a man bound into a tree on a snowy peak will ask to have hot oil poured into his veins. The Lady of the Six Sorrows, an impaled vision, will increase your health. The Kissers of Wounds, a holy order in the town of Albero, heal the wounds and ills of the sick by literally kissing them better. All of these people give you a sense of the world of Cvstodia as it once was and is now but it’s the bosses that illuminate the nightmare.
Many of the bosses are either amalgamations of stone and flesh or profaned idols or saints of the Church. Ten Piedad for instance is a goat-man hybrid whose smash attacks summon twisting thorns. He is found in a dungeon deep below Albero. Before he gets up to fight he is found posed in a statue’s arms like Michelangelo’s Pietà. High above Albero past even the eerily titled Where Olive Trees Whither in an old monastery a boss called Our Lady of the Charred Visage waits. Rosary beads held in her floating hands fire unholy beams of light and balls of fire. One half of her face is encased in melted gold the other bears a grievous wound – her only weak spot. Why is she there? What did she do? Like the best holy books Blasphemous leaves itself open to interpretation.
Blasphemous is critical of religion certainly but not in the slap-dash way most games are. Blasphemous pulls at certain threads within the Christian mythos and unspools long lies regarding penance, absolution and guilt. Guilt comes packaged with faith by design but it is only certain doctrines that demand we suffer for it. In every facet of its design from its punishing but fair combat to its punishing and occasionally unfair platforming Blasphemous revels in guilt. The bent backs of its characters. The distant statues representing the fall into damnation. The young woman who offers aid in boss battles only to age exponentially each time. So why do Cvstodia’s people choose to bear this cross? Why don’t they find a different God?
If nothing else the ghosts and monsters that haunt the barren wastes and desolate cathedrals of Cvstodia prove one thing: God is real and He hates his creations. If God is real then it shows the tangible effect He can have on the world. I don’t know about you but I would certainly live in fear and subjugation under such a being. Even so at least there is something out there. There is small comfort in knowing that life goes on even if it is a life of cursed hatred. But even then there is hope that for as many trials as the God of this twisted country can visit upon his creations then there are as many bounties as well. In Blasphemous faith is not a prison but guilt is.