There’s no shortage of metroidvanias these days. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your perspective: I know plenty of people who get exasperated at the sheer volume of them, but I still get a flutter of excitement whenever I see the telltale Metroid-style map in a screenshot for some new game. There’s something so inherently satisfying in that core loop of non-linear exploration, item upgrades, and platforming puzzles that even a mediocre exploration platformer will still get its hooks into me.
Which brings us to Cathedral. Decemberborn Interactive’s debut follows the familiar metroidvania formula to a fault, doing little to stand out and occasionally stumbling even with the genre’s fundamentals. And yet, it’s still a game I struggled to put down until I could see it through—the lure of 100% map completion and the next big upgrade being too much to resist.
Cathedral casts you as a nameless, voiceless knight who wakes up in a strange kingdom with no memory of how he got there. A chance encounter with a playful little spirit sets you on a quest to recover five elemental orbs guarded by five powerful deities, in the hope that this will be the secret to finding your way home. It’s an unoriginal premise that paves the way for a forgettable story, but one that adequately sets up the main event: the exploration.
Cathedral‘s world is huge, even as metroidvanias go. More importantly, it’s intricate: every room feeds into and informs those around it, be it through multi-room puzzles, shortcuts to unlock, or simply foreshadowing the types of puzzles ahead. There are hidden secrets aplenty, and you’ll barely go a couple of rooms without seeing some sign of a path that you don’t yet have the tools to reach: a door you can’t jump high enough to reach, a switch tucked away inside a gap in the wall that you’re too big to fit through, and so on. The map is divided into different sections that are mostly self-contained, but even then, the edges between those sections tie together in interesting ways, gating progress through puzzles that you can’t yet solve rather than simply a door you don’t yet have a key for.
While there’s a “correct” path to follow as far as the order to tackle each area, Cathedral is also happy to let you explore off the beaten path, at least to some extent. Even if an area is designed to be approached later in the game when you’re much stronger, you can often explore at least part of it (upgrades permitting), and if you can withstand foes that are much stronger than what the game expects you to be fighting at that point, reward yourself with a nice health upgrade or some extra loot.
The upgrades that help you explore this labyrinth combine metroidvania staples, like a double-jump and a dash move, with a couple of more original ideas: a staff that summons platforms from nowhere is a particular favourite for me. The progression is steady, with a new upgrade—and the new exploratory possibilities that come with it—never too far away.
In short, Cathedral is classic metroidvania design, from a developer that clearly understands well what makes those old favourites tick.
Until it comes to difficulty, that is. Cathedral isn’t actually all that difficult a game, especially ones you get far enough in to have a few health upgrades, but it’s frustrating in a way that feels deliberate. Anyone who ever played the original Castlevania will no doubt vividly remember those bats and medusa heads and the nightmare of suddenly being knocked off a platform by an enemy you couldn’t see coming or didn’t have the space to properly avoid.
Cathedral‘s enemy design seems driven by a similar ethos, with foes seemingly intended to be as annoying as possible—not necessarily as challenging, once you’ve memorised their placements in each room, but the kind of nuisance where some monster will take you by surprise, knock you off a platform, and force you to retread a few rooms’ worth of puzzles to get back to where you where. It’s not uncommon to step into a new room and find something on the other side, attacking you as soon as the screen transition completes, or to find groups of enemies whose dynamic movements result in them overlapping in ways that make it almost impossible to avoid taking at least one or two hits while you clean them up.
This frustration gets accentuated by stingy checkpoint placement, so death usually means working your way through a few rooms’ worth of deadly puzzles to get back to where you were. That’s frustrating enough on its own, but becomes infuriating when a death is the result of something beyond your control.
Cathedral‘s respawn system doesn’t help, even though, on the surface, it seems like a less punishing option than simply dying and retrying. When you respawn, you keep any items you’d found and any changes in world-state remain intact—so if you overcame some tricky section to get a new upgrade or activate a switch, then die, you won’t have to do all that again. That’s all well and good, but it works the other way around, too: if you used any consumable items before dying, they stay spent when you respawn. That means if you find yourself stuck at a boss fight, retrying again and again, you’re practically limited to not using health potions and the like at all unless you’re willing to take a major detour back to the nearest town between every fight.
The consequence of all this? Cathedral is a metroidvania that, ironically, discourages exploration as much as it encourages it. The frequency of annoying enemies, cheap deaths, and needless extra backtracking—not to re-explore an old area with new tools, but just to get back to where you were after being unceremoniously dumped off a platform—dulls much of the appeal of stepping off the beaten track in the first place.
Cathedral is a competent metroidvania, made by a team that clearly loves the genre and knows well what makes it tick: it’s got a huge, detailed map to explore, full of secrets to find and upgrades that give you fun new ways to navigate the space. But it’s also an unremarkable game in a saturated space, and one that gets in its own way to often. Cathedral is an enjoyable enough game that will scratch that exploratory itch if you’re the sort of person who can never get enough Metroid (guilty!), but it won’t have much appeal beyond that niche.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.