Let’s Get Sacrilegious
I honestly didn’t imagine I’d get the chance to review Cathedral, let alone on Nintendo Switch. See, I first discovered the game randomly on Steam and was quickly charmed by the visual style. When I found out it was nominally a Metroidvania, I got more excited. But though I occasionally enjoy gaming on Steam, I much prefer playing on my Switch since that allows more portability. So I waited a long while, and was rewarded when it was announced Cathedral was coming to the console. Was this quirky Metroidvania worth the wait, or should I have just played it on Steam?
A Soul-ful Ally
Cathedral starts in, you guessed it, a strange cathedral. You appear there unexpectedly and quickly need to find your way outside. I was initially worried that the entire game would take place in this single locale, but fret not. There’s a vast overworld in the game. And though the titular structure is integral to the plot, it’s only the beginning. You start as a lone knight beset by monstrous forces. Though your hero isn’t much for words (they actually don’t speak at all), you do the talking with your sword and shield. At first it’s just you against the many skeletons, gargoyles, angry spirits and the like, but you eventually find an unusual ally. That ally is a mischievous red robed spirit named Soul, and they have the gift of gab. At first I thought Soul was my foe, since they set a giant eyeball monster after you, but eventually Soul starts being more helpful. You’ll find magical charms which allow you to control Soul remotely, using them to activate switches, push blocks and attack foes. Later on, Soul can even help you float slowly.
Ivystone Ridge – Your One Stop Destination
Once you make your way out of the cathedral, the next big stop is Ivystone Ridge. It’s your primary HUB area, with a place where you can heal, shops, and an eclectic group of villagers. They have some great personalities, but my favorite is the muscular librarian named Conan. He pays you back for every missing book you find with cold hard cash. That’s important since there’s one way Cathedral mimics Souls games. Every time you die, you lose 10 percent of your total gold. If you want to hold onto it, you’ll need to safely bank it with a kindly old lady in Ivystone. If you don’t take advantage of this feature, you’ll lose a lot of money if you keep dying. Given that money is used for a variety of vital activities, it’s best not to lose too much. You should also visit the town mage to heal yourself and get some bonus hearts (savepoints don’t replenish your health at all) or talk with the sketchy fortune teller if you get lost. Most important is the warp point and Charm Shrine, however. You’ll come across many warp points as you explore, so it helps to be able to bounce from one area to another seamlessly. As for the Shrine, these locations are the only place you can equip the charms you’ll find, much to my dismay. But more on that later.
A Vast and Dangerous World
The flow of Cathedral is pretty intuitive. As you explore, you’ll accumulate new quests you need to fulfill. They’re all important, but some get dealt with quickly while others are gradual. One such quest is finding all the orbs to unlock a mysterious door found in the cathedral. Lesser quests include activities such as lighting torches in a graveyard to unlock the Bone Church, or finally finding an upgrade to your sword. That last one is a sticking point with me for one reason – enemies can take a LOT of hurt. Even basic foes might take more than 5 slashes with your sword before they fall down. This was the case for the first several hours of the game. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact many enemy types teleport in unexpectedly, while others can float through stage geometry. I started to get really irritated with this phenomenon, especially since foes can detect your presence before you can even see them. So I would be climbing a ladder or navigating a narrow tunnel when suddenly a grim reaper floated into my path. Or I would fire a projectile and accidentally attract the attention of a nasty skull enemy that resembled He-Man’s nemesis, Skeletor.
I’m not against difficulty in games, but I am a believer in balance. And unfortunately, Cathedral leans in a bit too much towards a game design that’s challenging just to be challenging. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the game at all. I did. I just wish there were less irritating elements and more of a focus on just exploring a vast world and fighting massive bosses.
Dance For the Necromancer!
On the topic of bosses, there are some great ones in Cathedral. The first you face is an angry Gargoyle that is surprisingly fast and mean, while later on, you’ll face the aforementioned gigantic floating eyeball. Once you start the quest for the orbs, you’ll face some truly harrowing foes. One is a Necromancer whose bones you’ll have to gather first, and then his reanimated skeleton comes after you. Despite his jaunty top hat, he’s a rapid-fire killing machine. I honestly lost to him within seconds, again and again, until I started to figure out his patterns. Even then, it was a challenge given how fast he moved and how brief the window for attack animations was.
A boss I thought was initially easier was basically Anubis. He would slowly shuffle forwards, alternating between fireball attacks and slashes with his cane. Then he started teleporting, roasting me with hellfire and summoning foes. And that was just the first half of the fight. I won’t ruin the second part, but it totally caught me by surprise. Though I enjoyed the boss fights in the game, they are sadly privy to the same balance issues in the rest of the game. They also have way too much health, which makes all the battles drag on. Plus, I have another small nitpick. Pretty much every boss dungeon provides a unique item that lets you explore new areas. I’m used to Metroidvanias incorporating such artifacts into the boss fights as well and was disappointed that’s not the case in Cathedral.
I Hope You Like Wandering
One thing I can’t complain about is a lack of content. Cathedral‘s world is pretty huge, and there are tons of well-hidden secrets. So many, in fact, that I encountered my first one at the very beginning of the game, and worried I was immediately stuck. The game loves to use hidden entrances and destructible blocks. Hell, the Necromancer’s Den is pretty much devoted to mind games like this and throws in imaginary spikes to really amp things up. And while it’s more than fine for a Metroidvania to have secrets, the map in the game makes them a bit hard to deal with. See, the map is layered, and you have to switch between the front and back layers. This means the path forward can really meander at times, and it’s not clear sometimes if the way to open a room is found via one route or the other.
A good example is in the Bone Church. I saw there was a room next to the boss room, but I couldn’t find an entrance. This meant I had to keep respawning from a more distant save point, often leading to me losing some health before I even got to the boss. Eventually, I stumbled onto the entrance to the room, and not only found a save point but health and arrow respawning statues. And that was after a couple of hours trying, and failing, to beat the Anubis boss. My point is, this can make exploration a bit of a chore, and I started to get anxious I would need to look for FAQs or guides to help me proceed. I actually did after I got the Telepathy charm for Soul, and couldn’t figure out how to get back to Ivystone Ridge. Had the game made it so you couldn’t only equip charms at specific locations, that wouldn’t have been an issue. But you can only swap out Charms at a Shrine. When you consider this includes things like being able to double jump or dash, you start to see the problem. It made the game much more difficult than it needed to be. I would have been fine switching which charm I had active, so long as I could do so from the pause screen.
Lost in the Jungle
I wish I could stop complaining, but now I need to talk about quirks and bad game design. Enemy projectiles can follow you even when the enemy firing them is off-screen. I’ve also observed such projectiles glitch through stage geometry, and manage to hit me when they shouldn’t have been able to. Some enemies also require perfect accuracy to hit. Early on, you get a gauntlet that can fire crossbow bolts. That’s great in theory, and it does open up some cool puzzles. What’s less great is the bolts fired are incredibly tiny and narrow. Some foes are equally tiny, making this even worse. I found myself doing crazy jumps just to hit some foes that attacked from the ceiling.
More irritating is sometimes the path forward is not at all intuitive. In the Bone Church, you’ll need to unlock several gates to reach the boss lair. One of those gate switches is supposed to be reached using a wand that spawns floating platforms. There’s just one problem. You can only spawn one platform at a time, and can only spawn another while on solid ground. To reach the said switch, you need to spawn a second platform in mid-air. Suffice to say, I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I had to get creative. I lured a floating enemy towards me from a pit of poison, and then Scrooge McDucked off his head repeatedly until I got enough vertical height to reach the switch. I’m positive that’s not the way the developers intended for that to be done, but that’s the sort of design issues I kept running into in the game.
Glittering Set of Armor
There’s one area that Cathedral absolutely shines, and that’s in the visual and music design. Stylistically it reminds me of Castlevania by way of Shovel Knight, with big, bold artwork. Most of the artwork is lushly detailed, and only is lackluster in some stage backgrounds. I loved the variety of foes you face, and there aren’t really any clones or borrowed ideas. But what’s truly incredible in the game is the music. It’s chiptune glory, and I love every note. Each stage has a distinct personality thanks to the music, and you won’t get bored as you play. If I could just review Cathedral based on this category, it would get a far better score.
Not Exactly Dogmatic
In the end, I have very mixed feelings about Cathedral. I appreciate the style and concept, and even find the game fun a lot of the time. But all that is put at risk by questionable design and unbalanced difficulty. If you’re not afraid of a little pain, you’ll likely have a lot of fun. Those that are adverse to annoyance will need to decide if this game is worth the price of admission. That said, I do hope that developer Decemberborn AB is able to use my critiques to make a more balanced Metroidvania in the future. Because rough spots aside, there’s a lot that I enjoyed here.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Elden Pixels; Developer: Decemberborn AB; Players: 1; Released: February 18, 2021; ESRB: E for Everyone, Alcohol Reference, Mild Fantasy Violence; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.