In the first few moments of runaway summer hit Cult of the Lamb, the protagonist is sacrificed and summoned back to life as an emissary of an imprisoned elder-god. Your job, as this titular lamb, is clear: gather devotees to worship the eldritch being, and murder the four heretic bishops who oppose him. It’s no small ask for a tiny sheep who has already been slaughtered. But the tables turn quickly in your favour, and soon you are the one wielding the blade and performing the rituals.
Cult of the Lamb is a game of two distinct parts that operate in sync. One half is a dungeon crawler. You, the Lamb, move through each of the bishop’s winding realms towards its leader, whom you need to defeat to free your own god from his chains. Your weapons are chosen for you at the start of each run, and your power-ups are determined by equally randomly selected tarot cards that you can uncover on your way. This surrender of choice means no two runs are ever the same, hearkening back to the structure of 2018’s critical darling Hades, and 2020’s tech-world satire Going Under.
The other half of the game is a cult-management simulator. Your cult is composed of followers you pick up throughout the four realms. Some you rescue, some you purchase from menacing spiders, some you acquire when horrifying level bosses dissolve into very sweet, small creatures and willingly join your flock. Your cult needs to be fed, cleaned, housed and preached to. They need jobs to do, graves to be buried in – and in return they feed you prayer, which makes you physically stronger as you go out on conquests to violently cleanse nonbelievers. There is an in-game clock that the cult operates by, and every day you have the opportunity to deliver a sermon or perform rituals – from feasts and weddings all the way up to blood sacrifices – which increase their loyalty. However, if their faith wanes there is risk of illness, starvation, or dissent among your believers.
This management is more reminiscent of Theme Park than of other society-building games such as Animal Crossing, or even resource management games like Stardew Valley. There’s an urgency, a need to keep an eye on utilities as well as infrastructure, rather than the need to foster relationships or decorate anybody’s lawn. The pressure of growing and keeping a thriving cult offers a perfect counterpoint to the winding, high-intensity dungeon portions of the game. You can’t spend too long in the labyrinth of Darkwood or the grimy depths of Anchordeep; you have to emerge from these wars to ensure that the bodies of the dead are buried and prayers are offered, spend a little time fishing or playing dice with your followers, or they will lose faith. The game feels large but not unwieldy, and almost troublingly compelling.
It is populated with characters reminiscent of Jhonen Vasquez’s illustrations, combined with a gothic and botanical bestiary that calls Hollow Knight to mind. The writing, though, is sparse and unsettling, not quite void of humour but nor silly in the way one might expect. The overall effect is darkly, fascinatingly cute: mall-goth meets folk horror, and the perfect set dressing for elegant, sharp gameplay. Cult of the Lamb has already amassed over a million sales in the first week of its crusade, for good reason. There’s little doubt that the flock will only continue to grow.