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February 2023


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Elden Pixels
Developer: Decemberborn Interactive
Release Date: Feb. 18, 2021


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Switch Review - 'Cathedral'

by Cody Medellin on Nov. 26, 2021 @ 1:45 a.m. PST

Cathedral features a vast world, meant for exploring as you make your way through more than 600 rooms, and unravel the secrets of your past by finding the five elemental orbs.

Among the various subgenres that have become popular among the indie community, the Metroidvania has seen plenty of traction. There are some modern classics, from Hollow Knight to Axiom Verge to Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and just about all of them have made the Switch their home. Cathedral is the latest game to do so, and it does a good job of fitting in, even if it doesn't do anything to help it stand out from the crowd.

Compared to most of its contemporaries, Cathedral is rather light on story. The game starts with you as a nameless, mute, red-clad knight walking up to the outskirts of a castle. From here, you wander the castle grounds until you meet a spirit who shows you a door in the heart of the titular cathedral. As the spirit places one of the gems in one of the five slots, it becomes clear that you must find the other four gems to open the door and encounter whatever lies past that. Except for the ending, the story isn't referenced again, making it serve as window dressing — unlike most Metroidvanias.

Your move set is initially robust when you consider that similar titles start you off with far less. You have a sword and armor, and while you have some basic sword slashes, you can also perform a jumping downward thrust. That's used for more than just hitting enemies from above, as the move can break bricks, activate switches, and get some height from the jump if you position yourself correctly. The combat is fluid, but you'll have to get used to enemies taking more than one hit or needing to retreat after a few slashes because most foes attack in wide arcs.

You'll also have to get used to the game's adherence to old console limitations, as most enemies tend to respawn if you are a good distance away in the same room, as opposed to only respawning when you leave a room and return to it immediately. You'll collect gold to buy temporary things like health potions and permanent upgrades like health, but you'll face increasing costs after every purchase. In your journey, you'll also come across some upgrades, such as a shield for projectile blocking or a wrist-mounted crossbow whose bolts can pass through walls. You'll also encounter more upgrades meant for traversal, such as a dash and the ability to place blocks anywhere.

Gradual upgrades are only a part of what makes these games tick, as exploration is a good reason for some players to keep coming back to this type of game. To this end, Cathedral feels rather expansive, as it boasts around 600 individual rooms to explore. The environments vary from the cathedral itself to frozen lands and towns filled with people who are still alive and kicking. Secrets are aplenty, but the most distinct thing about the exploration is its lack of explicit guidance. Unlike some games in the genre that hold your hand to give you a good start, the title simply plops you down in the world and expects you to figure it out. It makes for a classic Metroid experience where you'll get lost despite having a map, and it's common to stumble upon areas that you're not supposed to be. The level layouts aren't convoluted, and you'll easily figure out by instinct where to go and what you should be doing.

Both the combat and exploration are well done, but the number of rooms in the game make for a very long journey. The average playtime for the campaign can get in the high teens for the mainline quests, but those who specialize in sequence-breaking will make that playtime go much, much lower. Some will argue that the long playtime comes from the amount of backtracking needed in the campaign, but others will brush this off as a side effect of the genre. One thing that might hamper you from the beginning is the game's tendency to take 10% of your gold after every death. The penalty sucks if you've been trying to save up for a special upgrade, but it doesn't seem that bad when you consider that some of the gold can be easily regained by killing a few enemies. It also helps that the game is rife with checkpoints, so you don't have to trek that far to your point of death.

Cathedral nails down the mechanics of the genre rather well, but it lacks the one thing that makes its contemporaries stand out: identity. You can name any one of the modern classic Metroidvanias on any platform, and each has at least one thing that makes it different — and therefore appealing — from one another. Nothing like that exists here, as the setting isn't special, the mute knight carries no personality, the story is repetitive, and none of the extra abilities have a cool factor. It's the kind of game where things feel familiar, and you know you'll enjoy what's here, but you can't pin down exactly why you'd choose to play this over another Metroidvania.

Like a good number of retro-inspired titles, the game aims for something akin to a NES game but lands near a TurboGrafx-16 instead. The sprite designs for the characters look quite nice, but the abundance of color would have been too much for a NES to get away with. The animations look quite smooth, and the backgrounds try their best to look authentic, despite the large amount of parallax scrolling. Again, none of this is bad, and fans of sprites will appreciate what they see, but don't be fooled into thinking that this is close to the 8-bit era level of graphics that players grew up with. From a sound perspective, the tracks do lean closer to that 8-bit sound, with plenty of tunes that fit well with the action and atmosphere. The only complaint is that the tracks seem rather short, so the looping point becomes more obvious even if you aren't actively look for it.

Cathedral's real sin is that there's not much to make it distinct from other Metroidvanias on the system. It nails the retro look and the need for exploration. The lack of handholding is refreshing, and the combat is rather good, especially for the boss fights. It doesn't have anything else to pull in players, aside from the fact that the world you traverse is absolutely huge. If you're a genre fan who wants something new yet familiar to work with, Cathedral is the right game.

Score: 7.0/10

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