Around the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.S., Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released. I was never one for life-sim games, with the exception of Harvest Moon: It’s A Wonderful Life on GameCube when I was a kid. I had more patience then, and a day slipping by didn’t feel as horrible. But Animal Crossing came at just about the right time: when all the days were slipping by, and it didn’t matter. I got hooked. For a while, at least. My personal issue with getting into these games is the waiting around, the wandering, the calmness of it all. I get antsy, I guess. Every now and then, I want a little carnage. Which is why Cult of the Lamb hits so right.
Story time. As I enter the game’s second location, the area boss curses my followers with hunger to weaken my cult. I return to base after my expedition to find that not only is my cult starving, their loyalty is lower as a result. I quickly enact a decree ordering the cult to fast for three days to offset their famine but, having not read the fine print, this sends their loyalty through the floor. A dissenter emerges, preaching lies about me to the flock. I gather everyone in the church, marry the dissenter in ritual matrimony to boost morale, then sacrifice him immediately after to give it a little extra bump. The Sheeple’s Temple lives another day.
The main crux of Cult of the Lamb is managing a flock of followers as a resurrected lamb serving an enchained and mysterious god. You’re tasked with building a cult in the god’s honor in exchange for your resurrection following an execution at the hands of the three other god’s followers. You’ll obtain thralls while questing around the world’s various locations, or by finding them while spelunking through the forbidden domains of the other powerful deities.
Not all who are indoctrinated are done so willingly, but regardless of your methods, they’re your subjects to command. You’ll order these furry followers around your designated plot of land — a humble grove on which you’ll build a commune. The usual survival tropes are all here: keep everyone fed, build shelter, gather resources. But the faith of your followers must also be managed, either through individual blessings done each day or a more efficient sermon at the church.
There’s a fair bit of automation compared to something like Stardew Valley when it comes to maintaining your base, as structures that provide seeds and water can be assigned to followers to ensure you don’t have to lay a divine hoof on them yourself. But you’ll start out bearing most of the grunt work, since building a church is far more of a priority than an outhouse. After all, upgrades to your base can only be unlocked through the prayers of your followers. It’s like doing a pure culture run in Civilization, only smaller.
Let’s talk tone. Cult of the Lamb does the “scary thing but it’s cute” aesthetic pretty well. I absolutely love the Paper Mario-inspired art direction, the color palette, and god, the music. The music is just the best. But is it trying to say anything? I don’t really think so. It certainly doesn’t need to, but I guess I thought the game would have some more subtle flavors. I don’t necessarily expect the funny cartoon lamb game to explore the complex nature of cults or the reasons severely disenfranchised people join them, but to lean into the concept so hard purely for aesthetics feels a little trite.
Cult of the Lamb is easy on the eyes (and ears). The voice acting is hilarious, delivered with such confidence that despite being sing-songy gibberish it lands every time. Likewise, sound effects in and out of combat hit all the right notes, and I was enamored with the otherworldly shriek when casting one of the game’s many spells.
Combat is simple but tough. The biggest obstacle is visual clutter, whether it’s grass, effigies, or other enemies. It can be hard to see where foes are and when they’re about to strike, but this feels by-design (environmental clutter can be destroyed with the swing of your weapon). While the controls are snappy and satisfactory, combat wasn’t a highlight for me. That said, choosing your path through enemy domains to gather your most needed resources makes it more than worth the expedition.
Once an area’s big bad is defeated, it increases in difficulty. Defeating an area’s Bishop will also unlock the ability to go on longer explorations for greater rewards. It’s a clever way to get a lot more juice for the squeeze from each zone and meant I had more incentive to revisit each one.
Returning to base means putting your gathered resources to good use. There are dozens upon dozens of buildings, decorations, and utilities to be crafted. It’s not quite enough to give Animal Crossing a run for its money, but it’s pretty darn close. Followers can be assigned to different stations, like farms and lumber mills, to generate resources and let you focus on the action. It’s a simple system, but it’s essential to make sure you aren’t lacking any serious amenities or you’re going to be neck-deep in corpses.
The most macabre and satisfying benefit of your hard work comes in the form of the previously mentioned ritual sacrifice.
Followers can be leveled up over time, be it through quests or gifts, and this increases the power they grant when sacrificed. Like the fattening of a pig before slaughter, you’ll kowtow to and satiate the needs of each of your adorable lambs before they’re brutally crushed to death by eldritch tentacles and yanked into the abyss below. But hey, it’s alright — you unlocked a cool new sword.
Cult of the Lamb is a genre-mixer done right. It takes some really satisfying parts of an action roguelite and a casual survival base-builder and blends them together pretty effectively. You aren’t shoe-horned into playing it any sort of way, either. I feel like you could just as easily do about half the dungeon delves that I did and come out just fine with all the tools given to generate resources back at home. While I do wish there was a little more meat to the subtext, this is a groovy little survival cult builder.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided for review by Devolver Digital.
Cult of the Lamb is a Satanic blend of a few genre greats -- the loop of action and settlement management is fueled perpetually by satisfying combat and rewarding unlocks. And it's all adorned with fantastic art direction and music.