Cult of the Lamb is a hardcore wolf in cutesy sheep's clothing. The new (and uncategorizable) game from Massive Monster is unquestionably adorable with a hand-drawn aesthetic and a high-concept, slightly twee conceit: you are an adorable lamb, spared from death, and charged with attracting followers to an ancient and evil god. Its art style is striking, but I've played enough games to know that an art style isn't enough to get me on board. Cult of the Lamb is winning me over by being the gamesiest game this side of Crusader Kings 3. And despite a flock of mechanics, Cult of the Lamb's approachability makes it so that you don't have to try real hard to be the shepherd.
If I just list out all the mechanics, it sure sounds like a lot: dungeon-crawling, farming, settlement-building, fishing, an in-depth religion system, a dice game, Animal Crossing-style social simulation, cooking, and manure-sweeping, among others I’m sure await as I get deeper in.
Much of the time, Cult of the Lamb is a Hades-style roguelike. Your character ventures into dungeons, equipping weapons and collecting tarot cards, clearing rooms, and fighting bosses. But, as you do, you're also rescuing followers who can be sent back to your base village. Here, they can worship you, generating devotion, which can be stored up and used to purchase new blueprints and upgrades for your camp. To build those upgrades, you need money and materials, both of which can be found in the dungeons.
On a basic level, Cult of the Lamb has a two-pronged structure: you crawl dungeons, and you build a settlement. Considering that Stardew Valley has a mine where your farmer can do battle with beasts and collect supplies, it isn't that different from what we've seen in other indie games these past few years. But, what's striking about Cult of the Lamb is how deep each half of the experience is. This isn't a settlement builder with dungeon crawling tacked on or a dungeon crawler with a settlement builder tacked on. It's both things, with all the depth you would want from either. And here, each is artfully designed to feed into the other.
The dungeon crawling begins simply. As the game starts, you only have a basic melee attack. But, as it progresses, you gain access to a ranged attack, too. As you explore dungeons, you can find new weapons, from a selection of swords you’ve unlocked, and tarot cards that give your lamb some kind of boon in combat. There are four dungeons, and (if my experience playing and replaying the first is indicative of the game as a whole) they become more difficult each time you beat them.
Outside the dungeons, there's a ridiculous amount to do, too. Back at the village, you can use the materials you collect on your delves to build crucial structures. Most essential is a temple, where your lamb preaches sermons, performs rituals, upgrades their own abilities, and can declare doctrine that your villagers must follow. All of this is cataloged in a Bible-like tome which you can reference inside your holy structure. If your followers' devotion is waning, you have a truly evil trump card in your back pocket; the option to sacrifice one of your villagers, inspiring fear and awe in the congregants who see them swallowed up by tentacles that appear from a hellish portal in the temple floor.
The game is stuffed with mechanics, but it manages to dole them out slowly, typically through a villager making a request or giving you a side quest. As you make progress in the game, more of the map is revealed and, with it, new mechanics. In a Lonely Shack to the north of your village, you can play a dice game. To the south, there’s a coastal settlement where you can fish and shop. I'm sure there's more out there, that will only be revealed as I expand the map and delve deeper into dungeons and doctrine.
Even with this many mechanics, learning Cult of the Lamb feels incredibly natural. That's because, to borrow and bastardize a phrase I heard a lot growing up in church, the ancient evil gods of Cult of the Lamb will never give you more than you can handle.
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