Yet another pixelated ‘Metroidvania’ game on the eShop. Can ‘Cathedral’ explore new ground, or is it backtracking over a path well-trodden.
Developed by Decemberborn
Published by Elden Pixels
Released in 2021
You can't help but feel a little sorry for Eric Lavesson. "I wrote the first lines of code for 'Cathedral' at 2 AM on Dec. 8, 2014" he tweeted. The world was different then, and a faithful tribute to the games of his youth may have felt then like a novel idea. "I've always been interested in writing my own games" says Lavesson. Starting out at 9 years old, he created crude text adventures on an Atari 600XL. Initially programming in BASIC, Lavesson progressed to C++, through to assembly in DOS, OpenGL and DirectX after a few years. "Long story short; all of this drove me towards a career in software development, and even though I ended up specializing in rendering and visualization in my dayjob, I never actually released a game until ' Cathedral'". It was a pure passion project created from a desire to simply build a game from scratch. However, From even glancing at a few screens shots you know exactly what kind of game it is. "'Cathedral' is ultimately an NES-styled adventure game, inspired a lot by ‘Metroid’ and similar games (so a Metroidvania, if you will)" says Lavesson. "There’s inspiration from a ton of NES games such as 'Wizard & Warriors', ' Zelda II', 'Metroid', 'Simon’s Quest' [...] but also from various games on other platforms such as the "Wonder Boy' series." As the project grew Lavesson needed support to turn his experimental project into something more marketable. "I was working on this myself to start with. I’m not an artist, and I realised I would need help from both a musician as well as a pixel artist at some point". Aron Kramer joined as a musician and the pixel art replicating the inspirational games was created by Victor Leão.
Decemberborn Interactive's desire to create a pixilated 'Metroid' style game may have felt original in 2014 but a lot can change in 6 years. In the same year that Lavesson started , 'Shovel Knight' was released. Yacht Club's phenomenally popular game also borrow game mechanics and visuals from NES era ‘Metroidvania’ style games. 'Shovel Knight' received critical acclaim, won various awards and once was even considered one of the best video games of all time by Game Informer readers. Its commercial success led to a slew of imitators, and six years after its release there are now literally hundreds of ‘Metroidvania’ games with retro inspired artwork crowding digital platforms. "2D pixel art is now so commonplace it is an everyday part of the gaming landscape - a conventional aesthetic, rather than a daring deviation that raises an eyebrow" says video game historian Will Freeman. "Pixel artistry that revisits the 8-bit and 16-bit console eras is particularly popular - [...] demonstrating that nostalgia is a key driver behind the rise and rise of contemporary pixel art". All this means that while 'Cathedral' may have felt like an original idea in 2014, now it sadly feels somewhat stale, predictable and far too familiar. It might be a tribute to what has been, but with so many other games doing exactly that, 'Cathedral' ironically feels inferior when compared to the best of its contemporary peers.
Like the NES inspiration, the game opens with no explanation of what’s going on, what you have to do and where you should be going. You play as a mute knight in red armour who seems to be lost in a mysterious cathedral for no explained reason. After some aimless wondering, a few light puzzles, a bit of upgrading and a couple of boss fight, our plucky nameless protagonist happens upon a little ghost who shows you a door in the heart of the cathedral with five little notches in it. In a show but don’t tell way, the ghost conveniently has a gem which just so happens to fit into one of the notches. Only then will it dawn on you, what you’re meant to be doing. Your quest in ‘Cathedral’ revolves around exploring the titular cathedral and adjoining buildings to reclaim the other gems. Maybe after that you’ll actually find out why the Red Knight is doing all this.
‘Cathedral’ is at its core a ‘Metroidvania’, so most of your time is spent navigating from one area on the large world map to the next. True to the genre you pick up lots of collectables and upgrades. You then have to revisit every previous area in search of new paths and secrets that you can now access with your newly acquired abilities. Yes it was novel and fun in ‘Metroid’ and ‘Castlevania’ (and perfected in ‘Super Metroid, and ‘Super Castlevania’ ) but now it feels like I’ve played games like this hundreds of times. It is hard to muster up the enthusiasm for one more, especially when ‘Cathedral’ adds so little to the formula. Naturally its difficult and the level design is interesting, but every new mechanic just reminds you of something you’ve seen in something else. As such it almost plays like a NES greatest hits game, as you fondly recall ‘Duck Tales’, ’Ghosts and Goblins’, ‘Little Samson’, ‘Mega Man’ and ‘Kid Icarus’. Like those games there’s no hand holding in ‘Cathedral’ and the feeling of discovery will be appealing or bewildering depending on your taste. You’re given hints to where you should go next, but objectives are rarely explicitly pointed out for you. The game encourages you to explore as and where you like, but the barriers that prevent you from getting access to later areas too early aren’t unscalable. I’m reasonably sure I had powers that I shouldn’t have had at an early stage in the game, as some of the creative and original bosses actually posed no threat at all. I struggled with the first more than the third. Maybe I had learnt the mechanics of the game, but it felt like I was suddenly playing a ‘Mega Man’ game and my default weapon had become one that every boss seemed to be hilariously weak to. In a game where there’s a focus on exploration, I always have a niggling uncomfortable feeling when playing. I never know if I can’t pass a section because I am not supposed to be able to at that point, or if I can’t pass it due to incompetence. As ‘Cathedral’ is so vague in its sign posting this feeling of unease felt magnified. The map does conveniently show which doors you haven’t been through yet though, so if, like me, you feel stuck on a section its perhaps best to leave it to last to see if there’s a much easier path you could be following.
Regardless of what route you take, the world contains varied level design that continually tests your dexterity and keeps things fresh. The varying level gimmicks, often mirror the new environments and by the end of the adventure you’ll have explored outside the gothic Cathedral and seen beaches and forests. Victor Leão’s artwork throughout is a fair approximation of our memory of what NES games looked like without actually being a true reflection. “’Cathedral’ is a homage to games of the past, built using modern technology” claims the game’s eShop listing. Unlike the games of 30 years ago though, ‘Cathedral’ is presented in glorious wide screen with none of the sprite flickering that was so familiar to NES players back in the day. In some respects ‘Cathedral’ feels like playing an emulated and enhanced older game. “Basically, we ended up using the NES palette and decided to not have any hard rules or restrictions when it came to the colour count” remembers Lavesson. “We started out saying max 4 colours per sprite or something, and then relaxed the rules as we went along. I think we ended up with something like "as few colours [as] we can get away with, but if it looks cool and fits the style, add more colours"
The difficulty remains true to the era, although not quite “Nintendo-hard” and not inducing the amount of player pain provided by the likes of ‘Hollow Knight’ or ‘Super Meatboy’. “When we started out, all spikes in the game were insta-death, and there were A LOT more of them.” says Lavesson. “We removed a lot of stuff like that and added health boosts and various upgrades so you could balance things out a bit if it got too hard.” Often you’ll have to take a few attempts before properly mastering a boss or challenging set piece (presuming of course you are doing what you’re meant to be doing when you’re meant to be doing it). Thankfully while death is undesirable in ‘Cathedral’ its never so catastrophic as to induce rage. When you lose a life, Red Knight gets sent back to the last checkpoint with ten percent of his gold taken in the form of a death tax. It’s a neat way of managing things; you’ll still strive to do things on a first attempt but the consequences of failure isn’t so great the game becomes a thankless slog.
Money can be better spent elsewhere; on helpful upgrades and consumables that provide a useful leg up in tougher parts of the game. True to the genre though, the best and most useful upgrades still come from killing bosses and exploring every corner of the map. Thankfully unlike equivalent NES games, Decemberborn have introduced a large number of quality of life improvements, modern players will have come to expect in a game . “You always re-spawn at checkpoints, but saving is always implicit (as in, you never have to manually save anywhere). Actions such as picking up coins, items, upgrades are saved on the spot. So if you say, pick up an upgrade and die before you reach a checkpoint, you don't have to pick it up again”. Other helpful features like a map annotation function and a fast travel system minimise the backtracking that typically blight these sorts of games. Yes, it makes it less authentic to the era, but it also makes ‘Cathedral far more palatable, especially to players who have less disposable time than they had in the mid-eighties.
According to the developers “there is almost 700 rooms” in ‘Cathedral’ so it will last you between fifteen and twenty hours. Tragically, there is a danger you’ll be bored before you reach the end. Had this been released when Lavesson first started, it may have been considered a great (if still inferior) companion to ‘Shovel Knight’, but now it feels like a game that’s chasing its competitors. The publishers Elden Pixels own ‘Alwa’s Awakening’ and ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ even exceeds it, and the sad reality is that the eShop is overwhelmed with ‘Metroidvanias’ and 8-bit style platformers by this point.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with 'Cathedral', but playing it feels like so many other titles you would have either played 40 years ago, or last week, depending on if you prefer "retro" or "retro inspired" games. Fingers crossed the clearly very talented Lavesson can turn his next dream into a final game slightly quicker, so he can enjoy the success he so clearly deserves.
A copy of this game was provided for free. Neither the publisher or developer have seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication