By Neil Merrett
Blasphemous, released on PS4 in 2019, developed by The Game Kitchen & Castlevania, released on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, developed by Konami
It is fair to describe Blasphemous as an adventure game in the style of latter-era 2D Castlevania games. However, in replacing Dracula and his monstrous minions with a devout order of religious zealots striving to uphold a brutal church-like structure, are the player’s violent actions a justifiable response to a different kind of monster.
When it comes to sticking it to the man, the Castlevania series of videogames posits that the biggest bad out there, the Darkest of all Lords, is the nefarious Count Dracula.
Thankfully based on rights issues alone. The game’s Dracula is very much a public domain king of all vampires – as opposed to mimicking any specific version or depiction of a character.
In all fairness, Dracula is arguably the most uber of all Vampires, both from a narrative and hierarchical sense. This has meant the character has been immensely adaptable in terms of setting, motivation and their sympathetic nature – or lack thereof.
The Castlevania series relies on Dracula as a somewhat one-note end boss – think Mario’s King Bowser with an even greater bloodlust – save for a more nuanced take on the character seen in the recent Netflix anime adaptation of the games.
Dracula is the ultimate bad guy of Castlevania, this is the case whether the player is directly opposing him, or working to prevent the evil count from rising once more to terrify the modern or ancient world.
Plotwise, Castlevania games are effectively about battling cult figures from classic horror movies such as Frankenstein’s monster or mythological figures such as demons and monsters.
More often than not, the player is basically tasked with collecting an arsenal of weapons and destroying these creatures in a fairly clear-cut story of good overcoming evil creatures and beasties.
Needless to say, this is not a series interesting in examining the man behind Bram Stoker’s count as what his responsibilities may be as a father, a husband, alongside being a literal monster and an ever living being. Dracula is simply a figurehead for relentless evil that could only be dealt with via the classic gaming trope of killing everything on screen.
What gamers get from Castlevania is usually a rollicking series of adventure games. These titles began as challenging platformers on the NES and SNES, before adopting various RPG elements to create less linear games where the player could choose to explore the titular castle and the surrounding world with greater freedom.
This evolution of the games allowed the player the choice to avoid confronting Dracula or his lieutenants until they have sufficiently levelled up their abilities or uncovered ancient relics and weapons that can make their arduous quest a little less difficult.
This non-linear style of game design was popularised in games such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which was released on the original PlayStation in 1997. These mechanics were arguably taken, or adapted, from games such as Nintendo’s Metroid series that was released almost a decade earlier.
However, Castlevania for a good decade and a half after Symphony of the Night, was attached to sprawling epic 2D adventures that were particularly popular on handheld consoles. This approach to game design still exists in a range of platformers including Blasphemous, which was released in 2019 on a range of platforms including the PS4.
Blasphemous is a game in the style of the non-linear 2D platformers often identified as ‘Metroidvania’ games. This sub-genre relates to a game that makes use of many of the mechanics originally associated with the Castlevania and Metroid series.
Modern hardware is used by Blasphemous’ developers to build a brutal-stylised experience that owes some of its atmosphere and combat mechanics to modern 3D adventure games such as Dark Souls.
The player is able to upgrade their abilities and uncover new powers, while also learning some special moves that makes them a more brutal warrior. These skills are vital to fight through a labyrinthine world of decrepit dungeons and monasteries, as well as sometimes beautiful chapels that house all kinds of monstrosities – both literal and figurative.
Blasphemous could, in some ways, be a Castlevania title, except that the game’s setting and opponents directly evoke Catholic imagery – albeit it in a twisted or monstrous form – as opposed to classic horror films and mythology. A crude writer may seek to draw a parallel between these two gamines series at this point!
A touch of satire?
Ultimately, Blasphemous functions almost as a loving satire of the Castlevania concept – where a skilled lone warrior must bring down a monstrous order that has been warped and mutated to serve the whims of a grotesque master that feeds on the worst impulses of the world around them.
Rather than a vampire hunter, Blasphemous sees the player control the Penitent One, a lone warrior that aims to bring down a monstrous order of tortured souls that have been warped and mutated into mindless foot soldiers of a seemingly barbaric and dogmatic group of religious leaders.
This order includes monstrous bosses, flame wielding nuns and mindless warriors that serve only to oppose the Penitent One’s quest to brutally slay the bad guys.
In heavily evoking not only the aesthetic design and architecture of Catholicism, but also the concept of ‘Original Sin’, the player’s actions as the game’s hero – though simplistically violent in their execution – take on a certain complexity in regards to their overall morality.
If, as Original Sin posits that, all humans are tainted with the legacy and collective failings of their species from the very start of their existence, how can we be certain that any action is good and worthy?
Granted, it’s often kill or be killed as the Penitent One comes across the game’s numerous inhabitants.
Some of these enemies are a horrific combination of newborn child and thorned serpent.
Others appear to be dutiful knights that seem to echo the Penitent One in style, ability and perhaps even purpose. They jsut believe a little differently Some beings are even angelic in appearance, while one of the penultimate battles is against a being called ‘His Holiness Escribar’.
But there are other beings in the game world that are seemingly monstrous in form that require some form of kindness or release from their condition. This kindness is some cases can be collecting artefacts hidden across the game world, other times it is granting a seemingly merciful end using the one tool at the player’s disposal.
The simplicity of the player’s mission, to murder and slay all who oppose them, is set against the fact that they are working against beings anointed with holy titles – often residing in beautiful churches honouring unknowable beings and incredible powers. It is safe to assume that to the beings you slaughter across the game, they verymuch believe or depend on the world the player is charged with bringing down.
Blasphemous’ battles take place not only in ruins and sewers, but also in ornate temples where the player must overcome death-traps such as giant incense carrying thuribles.
This isn’t Dracula that the player is now opposing, but the apparent lords of the game world itself. These are the builders of its temples and the keepers of the setting’s theology. The Penitent One’s actions are truly blasphemous to those who oppose him. After all, they are the ones who own the churches and chapels.
The game itself, as well as being an excuse to battle through beautifully realised worlds reflecting the central conflict of the Catholic faith, might also function as a critique on how dogmatic adherence to any belief or power, no matter how lofty its titles or ornate its furnishings, serves ultimately to create truly monstrous things and actions.
And yet, the Penitent One’s own actions through the player are a form of blind faith where the player takes it upon themselves to bring down a kingdom and its leaders with the belief that they are the hero of their game.
Even the game’s multiple endings are less about moral choice, and more about how devoutly and effectively the player has sought to dispatch their various opponents and conquer its dungeons. Some might even call it a crusade. All who stand against the player’s sword have to fall, because that is what adventure videogames require of their hero.
The sainted ones are those who are left to build the chapels and tell the Penitent One’s tale…. to the victor the spoils.