Devolver Digital has always had an eye for some delightfully odd gaming experiences. Play as an ape escaping its captors while freeform jazz blasts in the background. Rob pretentious rich people as a con man in 18th century France. Eviscerate houses full of goons as a drug-addicted ninja with PTSD. The latest in this long line of the publisher’s memorable releases, Cult of the Lamb, places you in the role of an adorable fluffy lamb harboring the soul of a sinister ageless deity. It’s intense, it’s cute, it’s stressful, and it’s absolutely something that you need to try out.
You begin your journey by being sacrificed by a woodland cult which is killing the poor creature because a prophecy stated that a lamb would be the vessel by which The One Who Waits would make its glorious return. The four resident Old Ones really weren’t fans of The One Who Waits, so they imprisoned it in another dimension to consolidate their power over the woodland creatures.
Little did they know that sacrificing your little lamb actually sent it straight to The One Who Waits, who resurrects it and gives it spooky powers in exchange for its eternal loyalty and commitment to killing the other four gods, which would free The One Who Waits. Your lamb thus sets out to form a cult of its own in the name of its patron Eldritch Abomination, building spiritual power to aid it on the long quest of vengeance. Though there are bits of lore sprinkled in there explaining more of the conflict between The One Who Waits and its four brethren, the story mostly takes a backseat to the excellent gameplay after the first couple hours.
Gameplay is one part survival sim and one part action roguelike, divided neatly between your duties tending to your ‘flock’ and your efforts to fight your way through the forests of heretics. The roguelike half of the gameplay follows many of the expected trappings of the genre; you start out with a basic weapon and a limited use active skill and battle your way through room after room of enemies across randomly generated maps. A full dungeon run should only take you about ten minutes or so, and you’re sure to collect plenty of spoils along the way to help aid in building your commune.
On normal difficulty, combat manages to strike a nice balance where you’re always kept on your toes, but never quite feel like you’re being overwhelmed. Most weapons—except the dagger—can take down enemies in just a few hits, and you also have a very useful dodge roll to grant you some precious I-frames. Weapons run the usual range of axes, swords, gauntlets, etc. while your curses usually give you some sort of AoE attack like a long range sludge bomb or a burst that pushes away any enemies close to you. Though you start out each run with one random weapon and curse you can later occasionally acquire new ones to swap in as rewards for clearing a room.
We appreciated how this dungeon running element of Cult of the Lamb manages to always feel fresh while never overstaying its welcome. New layouts and equipment loadouts keep every run unique, while its intense and chaotic battles demand your full attention. Plus, every run being only 10-15 minutes in length means you’re in and out before things get too stale. There isn’t all that much enemy variety in any of the biomes and other than tarot cards, which grant you temporary passive buffs for the run, you aren’t given a whole lot of rope to ‘build’ your character. Combat is simple, then, but it nicely fills the niche it needs to in the overall gameplay loop.
Whether you kill the boss at the end of your run or get overrun at some point leading up to it, you’ll always come back to your cult’s commune and this is where the sim elements come into play. Occasionally, you’ll come across new cult members in a run or you’ll ‘forcibly convert’ them after beating them in a fight, and they then join your growing flock. Every cult member either can work to help maintain your commune—such as pitching in with farm chores or going down in the mines to get resources—or they can sit around the shrine in the center of camp and worship it, which grants you Devotion. Once you have enough Devotion, you can then invest it in upgrades for your commune, such as better sleeping quarters or a hut from which you can send out missionaries.
As you grow your populace, however, you’ll need to ensure that you can keep the overall Faith level up, as it is constantly decreasing. Keeping your flock fed and fixing structures as they collapse is critical to keeping people believing you, and low faith will raise the chances of dissenters rising up in your midst. Of course, you can always toss dissenters in jail and ‘re-educate’ them, but this is then one less pair of hands working for you. If your Faith is getting too low, one way you can shore it up quickly is by throwing a ritual, such as a massive feast that removes everyone’s hunger or drugging your entire flock with psylocibin to keep them in a euphoric haze for a few days. The only drawback here is that rituals all have pretty hefty cooldowns, so you have to be strategic in when you choose to invoke them.
If there’s one word that feels best describes Cult of the Lamb, it’s stressful. There’s a neverending day/night cycle at play and it always feels like you’re just barely able to keep up. Maybe you don’t have enough money to pay for a new sleeping bag for your new cult member. Maybe you just ran out of food and half your camp is starting to get hungry. Maybe someone just died and you don’t have the resources to make a body pit. Going on a dungeon run is usually a somewhat fraught experience, then, because you leave knowing that you’ll be coming back to a camp much worse than you left it and you might or might not be able to find the resources you need while you’re out.
In light of this, you have to sometimes get creative in amusingly dark ways. If a follower dies of old age, for example, you can desecrate their body while everyone’s sleeping and use the meat for tomorrow’s meals or you can turn it into fertilizer so your crops will grow a little faster. If a new dissenter speaks out and your prison is full, you can just kill them when nobody’s looking. If Faith is getting too low, you can always marry yet another cult member to boost everyone’s beliefs. It’s your cult after all, and you’re entitled to be as unethical as you must to get the results The One Who Waits needs.
Cult members themselves can be leveled up via Loyalty, which grants you more devotion and a new piece of Doctrine after they pass another milestone. More loyal members will prove to be better workers and once you have three pieces of Doctrine fragments, you can declare a new doctrine in church that either unlocks a new ritual for you to use or a new passive effect that applies to all cult members. We appreciated this doctrine system especially, as it goes a long way towards making management easier as you grow you flock.
As you progress through new biomes, you’ll also slowly unlock other locations besides the forests and your commune where you can interact with other NPC cults and participate in special activities. Head over to the lighthouse, for example, and you can play a fishing minigame to collect food for your flock. Visit Ratau’s and you can gamble money over a creative dice game that smartly balances luck and skill. Meanwhile, the mushroom people run a shop where you can buy new blueprints for decorations at camp or new tarot cards to potentially show up in future dungeon runs.
All this feeds into a nice sense of progression and synergy that encompasses nearly everything that happens in Cult of the Lamb. For example, your exploits in the forests will directly influence your ability to maintain and expand your commune, while your efforts to keep your flock happy lead to direct benefits to your combat ability in the forests. Whatever it is that you choose to do with your limited time, you can be sure that there will almost always be another unlockable blueprint, ability, or recipe just around the corner. You can’t do everything you want to, of course, so you have to prioritize what’s most important now, but we appreciated how nothing feels unnecessary to the gameplay loop. There’s a fine balance to all activities that offers enticing incentives regardless of what you do, which can make it remarkably difficult to not play for ‘ten more minutes’ and suddenly lose an hour.
Unfortunately, one element that is decidedly substandard here is Cult of the Lamb’s performance on Switch, which is disappointing to put it nicely. The frame rate stays consistent as long as there isn’t too much happening on the screen, but it gets real choppy as things get busier and the frame drops led to many instances where we took unnecessary damage or lost a run. Worse yet, Cult of the Lamb outright crashed on us once and softlocked a few more times, necessitating a return to the title screen. Between all of this, we also noted loading screens that could last as long as 15 seconds—not devastating by any means, but just long enough to get irritating during lengthier sessions.
It seems that not all these issues are exclusive to the Switch version and the developers have already announced that patches are in the works for all platforms to address some of the technical issues. Even so, Cult of the Lamb is in a rather sloppy state right now, which is a real shame given the excellent underlying gameplay and design on display here. It never feels good when a glitch or performance hiccup directly drags down some notable part of the gameplay experience and the issues with Cult of the Lamb right now are rampant enough that you’re sure to encounter something the longer you play.
As for its presentation, Cult of the Lamb manages to impress with its visual style, which is vaguely reminiscent of the dark 2D art style seen in Don’t Starve. Everything from enemies to cult members to patches of grass has a flat, hand-drawn look and these are all facing the camera, which holds a fixed perspective. Plus, there’s an interesting fusion here of cute and horrifying, as you have things like bright-eyed, smiling animals participating in a blood-soaked midnight bacchanalia. Nothing features here that we feel qualifies as truly disturbingbut that ongoing contrast of light and dark remains thrilling all throughout the 15-20-hour campaign as you come across new biomes and characters.
To match the ‘creepy but cute’ aesthetic, the soundtrack mixes together various chants and whispers with tribal sounding music that has a somewhat primal vibe. Most of the soundtrack is thus low-key and relatively ambient, the kind of music that’s discovered rather than announced, but some of the boss music ratchets things up to more exciting heights.