It would be hard to argue that Cult of the Lamb is a cozy horror game, but I supposed the aesthetics can give that idea. It’s more of a rogue-like with city-building elements, with a cute visual overlay. Honestly, you could change the visuals to eldritch horrors and the game wouldn’t really miss a beat, except for perhaps some of the minor humor elements.
The core concept of this game is built upon rogue dungeon runs that have branching paths, multiple weapon/skill upgrades, and the now-typical dodge-roll/i-frame mechanic. You run a dungeon enough times, unlock a big boss, do that 4 times, then free an elder demon. The runs themselves are rather quick, less than 10 minutes, so it’s a bit more of a fast-food approach than something like Returnal’s multi-hour journeys. Dying is a small speedbump, rather than anything horrible.
Oh, and works solid on the Steam Deck.
Between runs, you build up a literal cult at your camp. This means finding new followers, passing new doctrines, collecting worship (to unlock more buildings or more power in combat), and then keeping all those followers alive. See, they need food, sleep and get old and die. There’s a small logistical puzzle involved, and for 90% of the game, that puzzle has no disastrous consequences. They die, you find another. Which I suppose is the critique of cults in the first place.
I will say that the logistical beats are oddly balanced, where at the start you are severely under-resourced to keep it all going, and then reach a point where you have a flood of resources and no real good way to spend them. Perhaps that more my playstyle and your mileage may vary.
The step-by-step items are interesting. You need an outhouse to collect fertilizer to grow food to cook to then use an outhouse. You can research the ability to ascend or revive a follower. You can marry them, get a fishing bounty, build idols, or complete some menial tasks. The system works rather well, all told. There are side-areas as well you can visit, with some optional content: a stacking dice game, simplistic fishing (!!!), quests, or gambling. There’s enough without it feeling overwhelming.
The dungeon runs are a mix of combat and path choices. Each of the 4 zones has a somewhat unique set of enemies and mini-bosses, plus a unique material that is used for your camp. The combat is mostly melee combat, with a spell (curse) attack that has limited use and recharged as you kill enemies. There’s also a relic mechanic, which is a sort of super move with a similar cooldown. You have hit points that recover though some random elements, so you’re really looking at the more typical attack/retreat model for these games. The bosses themselves are straightforward enough, with telegraphs, minions and a decent dose of bullet hell. I’d argue that most people will hit a wall the first time they reach a real boss, then again at the final boss, as new mechanics typically show up at those points.
You need to successfully complete each dungeon 4 times to proceed to the next. Runs past 4 primarily provide resource benefits.
Unfortunately, the mechanics of battle are less pleasant here, as there are some practical portions that aren’t well balanced. You start each run with 2 random combat items presented (weapon + curse). Combat is predicated on quick reactive movement, and in some spaces, the ability to plan attacks based on patterns. Sadly, the bosses have a significant amount of random, making planning quite difficult. There are 5 weapons, of varying speeds. Daggers are quick, gloves are fast, swords are normal, axes are a bit slower, and hammers are glacial speed. To a point where hammers are frankly un-usable, and axes are borderline depending on the luck of the run, due to their attack speed and “attack lock”. If hammers acted more as mortars, then this would be offset, but they are instead melee range only.
For the base game, you will reset a run if you get a hammer, and give the axe a chance. This is the only item in the entire game where I had a negative experience, as it defeats the core concept of a rogue-like.
The core gameplay loop comes to an interesting conclusion sooner than I had expected. Or perhaps the gameplay loop was just so pleasant I hit it before the shine had rubbed off. April 2023 had a free DLC added that extended the post-game portion, which feels like a decent content patch. It’s not new content so much as it is an extension of the existing ones… more doctrines, more automation in the camp, quality of life boosts, and more customization of followers.
The more post-game you complete, the more automation you can set up for much longer runs. It’s an interesting feedback loop with a decently long tail. The skill hurdle can increase through optional modifiers (e.g. deal more / take more damage), though I’d argue that if you go this path, you’re going to reset runs until the combat weapon is one you want.
Overall, the game has a good loop and feedback structure, with enough “just one more bit” to keep you hooked for longer than you’d plan. I’ll have a future topic on how I am finding the sweet spot of gaming to be at this entry level. $30 today seems to get you a lot more than a $70 AAA game.