The roguelike action-adventure game Cult of the Lamb wraps the grotesque in a charming little package of characters that look like they could be pulled straight from a children’s story. The 2D animations are simple. And despite the overarching narrative being one of sacrifice, there is a sort of levity here, with picture book-style illustrations and vibrant 2D backgrounds. This is further enhanced by the almost whimsical score that incorporates a sort of midi vocal track, which emulates chanting or incomprehensible songs of worship. It helps disarm the player, in a way, as they tear their way through dungeons to seek out the four Old Gods that had sent them to sacrifice.
Cult Of The Lamb gets off to a roaring start. You begin life as a lowly lamb awaiting sacrifice at an altar of the Old Faith before four eldritchian Bishops - the big bosses of the game. Within seconds, you're executed. But then you're brought back from death by a chained godlike being known as The One Who Waits, who promises life and otherworldly powers in exchange for your servitude. In the span of two minutes from starting the game, you've turned from a hapless lamb into an unstoppable servant of Death itself, slashing apart Old Faith cultists like blades of fleshy grass.
However, what makes Cult of the Lamb unique is the opportunity to make a truly horrific pocket of organized religion. Because ultimately, that is what you, the player, are doing. You are cultivating followers, using your supposed “divine” powers to lure them into your flock. To you, their devotion is key to progressing and expanding your influence over the quartet of Old Gods that screwed you over, to begin with.
At first, it feels like vindication, or even morally just, to steal away their devout followers and take them to your own budding settlement. As you unlock doctrines through the use of ominous sacred tablets, your religion truly begins to take form. It is also where Cult of the Lamb’s wider commentary and more engaging narrative lies.
Imposing doctrines on your cult impacts their greater beliefs. And before you know it, despite the pentagrams and pseudo-Satanic imagery, you’ve created a monster resembling something like the Catholic Church. And I do not say this lightly: You can impose religious doctrines concerning possessions and material wealth in order to extort gold from your followers. You accrue a currency called “Divine Inspiration” when your cultists worship an idol at the center of your settlement. You can also send missionaries to gather resources to further bolster your cult. Through its gameplay loop, Cult of the Lamb posits the question: Are all forms of religion cultlike in some way? And yes, you can create a cult based on the acquisition of capital.
That said, Cult of the Lamb does allow for players to veer straight into the absurd or comically bizarre. I had one follower shyly, but persistently, confess that they had always wanted to eat poop, and requested that I make them a meal consisting of fecal matter. Accepting this quest would have generated faith, which would have increased this follower’s belief in not only the cult but in my godlike powers. But I declined. I didn’t need someone eating shit and making the entire convent ill. Because while you can go out of your way to sacrifice those most loyal and devout to your cause (or even impose a doctrine allowing members to murder and cannibalize one another), your followers are the backbone of your society.
I spent the majority of my time trying to satiate my followers by showering them with gifts or investing in better housing and agriculture to keep them comfortable. This aspect of Cult of the Lamb made it a fairly enjoyable sim game. As my proverbial flock grew, I became more conscious of how I was spending my time between dungeons, making sure to allocate enough time to sermons and cultivating crops to feed my congregation without making them ill. This became all the more difficult in the late game when the four Old Gods began sending famine, pestilence, and plague my way.
You can gamble with the wizened old Ratau (a rat who had once occupied your same position) at the Lonely Shack, or fish at the Pilgrim’s Passage for foodstuffs. Some of the characters you meet in these areas are genuinely interesting, with their backstories mostly obfuscated and enhanced by their charming picture book-esque designs.
However, engaging in these leisurely activities isn’t without consequences. Followers can and will die — either by your hand or through the passing of time. They can either be buried at your convent, their remains cannibalized by those that yet remain, or prematurely sacrificed to The One Who Waits. Cult of the Lamb does a good enough job of trying to humanize each of your followers, with some of their individual requests asking you to find their loved ones or find flowers in the forest. But like everything else in the game, they ultimately become a means to an end.
Regardless of the cult, you choose to create, it will revolve around consumption, worship, and sacrifice. Everything you do, you do for more power and more control. While you, the lamb, serve as a pleasant and obvious irony, Cult of the Lamb begs the question as to what kind of leader you will be. Will you lead your flock to ruin? Will you allow them a false autonomy from the shackles of the religion you’ve cultivated over hours of laborious work? Or will you bring them to the slaughter, becoming the very god you attacked and dethroned?