Cult of the Lamb hands-on: Animal Crossing meets the dark arts

You know the sweet old nursery rhyme: Mary had a little lamb, but then it was resurrected by the devil and forced to create a murderous cult.
enlarge You know the sweet old nursery rhyme: Mary had a little lamb, but then it was resurrected by the devil and forced to create a murderous cult.

Devolver / Massive Monster

When I first played Cult of the Lamb, which launched on August 11 on PC and all major console families, I imagined its demonic tone had originated as an internal joke for the development team. Maybe the makers of Massive Monster were sitting around looking at the sim management likes of Animal Crossing and The Simsand then thought the only way they would top those games is by making a deal with the devil.

Then they went ahead and created a sim game where players do just that. After spending 90 minutes playing the game’s extended demo provided by the publishers at Devolver Digital, I’m inclined to think the choices about tone, art direction, and sim-meets-Satan gameplay were the right choice. . (There is currently also a free public demo, available on Windows and MacOSbut it’s much shorter than what I sampled.)

The one who waits

Seems like a reliable entity to me.  Let's make a deal for our souls.
enlarge Seems like a reliable entity to me. Let’s make a deal for our souls.

devolver

Cult of the Lamb begins with the game’s hero, a Disney-esque cartoon lamb, being led to the slaughter as a form of religious sacrifice. But death is only the beginning in this game. In the afterlife, you will meet a mysterious underground beast wrapped in chains, simply called The One Who Waits. You will be given the opportunity to rise from the grave, raise a cult full of devout followers, expand your mastery of the demon arts and defeat a series of monstrous rivals. You can answer this call in one of two answers: “yes” and “absolutely”.

A look inside my underdeveloped cult.  Note that two of the characters have been socialized and become friends.  This can change their traits in ways that are helpful, but can also make them sad if one of them dies of gastrointestinal disease (which can happen).
enlarge A look inside my underdeveloped cult. Note that two of the characters have been socialized and become friends. This can change their traits in ways that are helpful, but can also make them sad if one of them dies of gastrointestinal disease (which can happen).

devolver

After a top-down battle, Zeldalike sequence and killing your previous captors, a guide with similar demonic tendencies teaches you how to find, free and convert hapless woodland creatures. The formal loop of the game begins with assigning basic tasks to your only follower on a vast expanse that your cult calls home: gather resources, build structures, care for farms, and so on. Once your follower is occupied, enter a gate that takes you to a randomly generated series of battle rooms, where you progress through your kill list, collect rarer resources, and find and employ more easily impressionable animals to join your cult.

Assigning tasks, giving gifts: it's all part of the daily work as a cult founder.
enlarge Assigning tasks, giving gifts: it’s all part of the daily work as a cult founder.

devolver

Bring them back to the village and you’ll get into the game’s leader-of-a-cult cosplay in earnest.

Everything you need to become more powerful revolves around maintaining the faith and loyalty of your cult members; the former can be exploited and drained from any cult as a sort of ectoplasm, while the latter sticks around as a more permanent “experience point” meter. The time between demon-hunting battles can be spent leading faith-consuming services, spending individual time with cult members to make them happier, or learning about and solving side quests they ask for.

Just another day to learn the right word.  Today we learned a ritual where I can kill one of my followers to claim rare items and resources.  Everyone seems on board with the plan!
enlarge Just another day to learn the right word. Today we learned a ritual where I can kill one of my followers to claim rare items and resources. Everyone seems on board with the plan!

devolver

That’s one way to save resources

However, unlike regular RPGs, you have an option other than being helpful. Maybe you don’t care about certain cult members, or maybe you missed the time window to help them solve problems like hunger, disease, or loss of faith. (The longer you adventure and battle, the more adrift certain minions can return to the cult ranch, as evidenced by an ever-running day-night cycle.)

Early on in the game’s skill-tree system, cult leaders learn that they have the ability to sacrifice their followers outright, which can bestow rare rewards on your cult. This might take some of your other followers’ admiration, but as far as I can tell, smart cult leaders can still balance their emotional needs while feeding their lust for blood and power.

Each combat encounter is randomly generated and your hero each starts with randomly assigned melee and ranged attacks.  The game's skill tree decisions can give you more options in terms of weapons or other completely different perks.
enlarge Each combat encounter is randomly generated and your hero each starts with randomly assigned melee and ranged attacks. The game’s skill tree decisions can give you more options in terms of weapons or other completely different perks.

devolver

Cult of the Lamb could very well have come up with a half-fighting, half-sim ecosystem that sounds a lot simpler or drier, and without the satanic undertones, the game is very similar to the 1991 SNES classic actress† The developers, artists and writers of Massive Monster deserve credit for making this game fun to talk about, watch and think about; Cult management systems lean on brutality in ways that make sense yet add mechanical fun to the question of how players can move forward as cult leaders. One of the game’s skill trees asks a cheeky question early on: Would you rather build beds for your followers or instead develop the ingenuity to build disease-reducing graves? You can’t have both in the beginning. Decisions decisions.

But this game does more than just lift the mechanics of another decades-old game. While the randomly generated battle levels clearly draw inspiration from Binding of IsaacCult of the LambThe cult’s upgrade system requires careful management of the cult’s farm region, in terms of resource management, skill decisions, and even side quests to unlock more “tarot cards” (which are shuffled and randomly dealt during battles to increase your chances of survival). A series of unlockable village posts near your cult add everything from fun new characters to side missions to mini-games, including a clever tap-to-reel fishing mode and a tricky, surprisingly engaging twist on Yahtzee.

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