Cult of the Lamb – Zero Punctuation

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Steam is doing one of their quaint little themed sales at time of writing they’re calling Survival Fest, acknowledging the genre of survival crafting games in the same way one “acknowledges” a gigantic monstrous frog blocking all six lanes of the highway you use to get to work. But this has been a wonderful time for me because if there’s one thing I love more than anything else, it’s picking up bits of wood. I’ll pick them up in meadows, I’ll pick them up in singles bars if they’ve got shapely knotholes, I just can’t stop myself. My wife has had to buy all metal furniture because I keep picking up the wooden stuff but joke’s on her because I’ll be crafting a stone forge the instant she lets me play on the gravel driveway. And my goodness do I feel well served by the survival crafting genre and the wonderful spectrum of picking up bits of wood that it offers. But that said, picking up bits of wood has gotten so ubiquitous that it alone can no longer carry a game by itself for most people, cultureless bastards that they are, and so the challenge is now to find new gameplay styles that have not yet been enriched by the addition of picking up bits of wood.

Such as in the case of Cult of the Lamb, which presumably owes its existence to somebody playing the Binding of Isaac and thinking much as I did “Boy, I wish there was more picking up bits of wood in this. While retaining precisely the same amount of human shit.” So in brief, Cult of the Lamb is a crafting base management ’em up combined with a roguelite dungeon crawler. Roguelite dungeon crawling being the other gameplay style so overdone it now can’t carry a game by itself so this is a fucking marriage made in Rl-yeh. We play the titular lamb who gets sacrificed by four unknowable godlike beings in an effort to prevent the rise of a fifth unknowable godlike being who the others didn’t like because he smelled or had ginger hair or something, but then Nobby Nomates The Undying restores you to life as their herald on Earth to take up the task of gutting your way through the followers of the four cool kids and establish your own community where none shall be judged harshly by their interest in Sonic the Hedgehog fanart. So the game consists of two phases: the base management part, where you hang out in your cult’s campground building stuff and interacting with your followers until you run out of money, bits of wood or piles of faeces to clean up,

and the dungeon crawling part, when you venture out to the procedural lands with your big heresy whacking stick and a wheelbarrow. It’s the faeces that’s one of the sticking points for me, faeces being notoriously sticky. I guess socially well-adjusted people aren’t the type to join cults generally speaking but I don’t remember Jim Jones having to go around the compound every five minutes with a pooper scooper. Something’s very wrong here, you can’t build a fucking outside loo until you’re like three levels deep on the tech tree but I’d think these people would at least know how to dig a fucking hole in the ground. This is part of the larger issue that the management stuff you have to do is frequently of the micro-variety. You’re basically having to constantly make food for these simpering twats, the upgrade that stops them complaining when you make them eat grass is heartily recommended. You have to work on the loyalty of every cult member individually, and that means remembering to give them all a blessing every day. And once your cult goes past a certain head count it’s hardly worth bothering to shake the dandruff off your blessing hand. I found it was very easy to get bogged down with the micromanagey chores in the base because something always pops up if you hang around for too long. It’s like being a kindergarten teacher.

“Miss! Could you harvest the pumpkins? Miss! Penelope died of old age and the corpse is making us all sick and we still haven’t figured out how holes in the ground work. Miss! Lionel blasphemed against our dark savior, could you sacrifice him for his impudence dele?” I would, but I can only interact with cultists by standing next to them and pressing the contextual button and Lionel is currently standing in the same spot as three other dudes and one of my base facilities and I don’t want to accidentally murder the septic tank. I ran into a few bug issues in the base management. One time one of my oldies dropped dead but their alive self was still there standing over the body, and something told me it wasn’t because he’d become one with the fucking force. Also, he showed up at my next sermon, only to drop dead again. And when I picked up the corpse I couldn’t put it down again and the game softlocked, presumably as I was holding a body that the code believed was simultaneously dead and alive, and that’s a particularly confusing position for the high priest of a death cult to be in. This was far from the only bug I encountered, but probably best not to harp, you know how game developers these days patch like a second hand trouser shop in porcupine country.

But as I say this is one of those hybrid games where the two flavors of gameplay are in different compartments rather than blended together, more of a Nerds than a Skittles arrangement. And the high watermark for that is the XCOM or Persona thing where you can use both gameplay modes to take a break when you’re bored of the other one. And once I could finally drag myself away from sermons, blessings and cleaning up the booboos, it certainly did feel like a relief to switch to some nice relaxing fights to the death. The roguelike dungeon crawling isn’t going to set too many pairs of trousers alight; there’s a standard suite of melee weapons and spells with which you go from room to room murdering the absolute sweetcorn-studded shit out of everything. And by everything I mean everything, there’s always the chance that bonus hearts or crafting materials will drop out of random rocks, grass clumps and end tables so it frequently has more the vibe of a lawnmowing simulator. There’s not enough variety in the core gameplay to prevent it getting terribly samey after a while. The dungeon crawling in itself doesn’t hold up alongside a Binding of Isaac or a Hades, just as the base management stuff can’t compete with the genre’s most highly regarded picking up bits of wood simulators.

But the hybrid game is like sexual intercourse in that something jolly interesting happens where the two things meet, and I certainly did find it hard to stop playing Cult of the Lamb. It strikes a balance where you feel a constant motivation to keep moving onto the next item on your neverending task list without making you feel overwhelmed. Although I did feel the pace in the back half of the game when I hadn’t gotten even to the fourth dungeon and I was already nearing the ends of the upgrade trees, it made me wonder why I was still bothering with half the game’s systems were rolling in faster than I could spend them and there wasn’t much left to buy except more decorative elements I couldn’t be arsed to build because my cultists remained perfectly happy as long as I flung one of their elderly into the void every few days to spare myself the cost of digging a grave. And I didn’t see the point in that fishing minigame at all by that point. Maybe it was to drive the comparison to Animal Crossing after Tom Nook decides to finally drop the mask and sell you a crafting blueprint for a Scientology test centre.

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