The first thing you fight in Blasphemous isn’t some grunt or a low-level underling, but rather a full-scale boss known as the Warden of Silent Sorrow. He’s garish, hulking, and makes the protagonist of this aptly titled 2D action-platformer instantly appear small in stature. It’s an early indication that, regardless of whether you’re ready for what awaits or not, this is a game unafraid to challenge you. And while it’s true that Blasphemous shares plenty of mechanical traits with that FromSoftware game, its brand of brutal battles and maze-like traversal makes it a punishing ride well worth taking.

I’ve always felt that it’s important for a game like this to do all it can to make you always feel empowered, regardless of its difficulty. To know that you not only stand a fighting chance, but also have the means to finish any combat encounter without taking a hit. Thankfully, this is a mindset Blasphemous quite clearly agrees with, gifting you a suite of weapons and abilities with which to wreak havoc upon your enemies. Your sword, known in-universe as the Mea Culpa, is your primary method of doing so. Slashing with it feels fast, frantic but most importantly satisfying, backed up by several slick kill animations that really highlights the grimness of this gothic world.

Speaking of which, Blasphemous is perhaps one of the best cases I’ve ever seen of the by now  overplayed pixel art aesthetic being used to great effect. Environments are incredibly detailed, with all of the interconnected areas feeling noticeably distinct from one another, making fighting and surviving through each of them never a bore. Your journey through the kingdom of Cvstodia will take you through everything from menacing underground caverns to sky-high snowy mountain tops, all as part of a map stacked with grizzly collectibles and worthwhile mysteries to seek out.

Most of these objects work into Blasphemous’ fairly extensive upgrade systems, which all tie into having you customise your own unique build. You accumulate general XP needed to unlock new combat skills just generally through fighting, sure, but then any prayers (magic attacks, essentially) require you to discover them naturally in the world, while rosary beads work similarly to Hollow Knight’s charms in letting you lock in passive abilities like added defence or the capacity to see enemy health bars.

At times it can seem like Blasphemous has too many skill trees and upgrade slots for its own good, but most are at least dished out at a sensible pace. It’s often the case that you’ll find an item not knowing what to do with it. Dig around deep enough, though, and all tends to become clear eventually. If you’re ever really at a loss, you can rest easy that a suburban area at the centre of the map works as your hub. And it’s here where everything you collect finds its purpose.

If you hadn’t already guessed Blasphemous drops you into a universe steeped in a lot of lore, with much of what you do serving to provide some much-appreciated context. You’re told from the beginning that you’re a lone wanderer referred to by all as The Penitent One, by what has happened to this world and what exactly is your purpose within it? You won’t get all the answers to these mysteries by simply beating this 12-15-hour adventure, but there’s plenty of other secrets to find once you’re done. I only had 70% total completion by the time I rolled credits.

While the game certainly had its moments where I found myself wanting to throw the controller or repeatedly bash my head into a wall, Blasphemous isn’t too egregious in terms of how it handles its Souls-like qualities. Dying mid-conflict transports you to the last shrine you prayed at, for example, but its only mana or ‘fervour’ you lose, instead of your overall XP or health. Getting killed also then limits the amount of fervour you can hold, so its always worth tracking down your old self.

Overall, Blasphemous delivers a firm but fair challenge that always kept me believing that success was just an inch away. And even when I did become frustrated with it, I could always forgive such punishment thanks to the slickness of the combat, inventiveness of the bosses and general creativity found in each the location. It certainly is one of the grizzliest indie games I’ve played since, perhaps The Binding of Isaac, but that doesn’t mean this delightfully lore-heavy and brutal action game was any less addictive.