Cathedral casts you into a vast world of decaying ruins, vicious monsters, and secret places on the Switch. With its upbeat soundtrack and playful pixel art, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a lighthearted journey. However, these elements hide a ruthlessness that runs through the entire work. It is ready to lead you astray. There is a desire to kill careless players who aren’t prepared for the path they’ve chosen.
The game isn’t shy about being inspired by older games. A few seconds on the Cathedral Switch store page will show you that. It’s a game that refuses to show you where to go or tell you what to do. Even if you are going in the “right” direction, it’s still willing to kill you in a handful of hits, creating a powerful tension as you explore. As a result, it feels like a great homage to the original Metroid, capturing much of what it felt like to be lost and afraid on Zebes. Well, minus the sci-fi setting.
Cathedral is a game of few words (most of the time). You’re thrown into the first dungeon without any explanation, leaving you to figure out everything on your own. It can be disorienting if you were expecting some help, yet it was quite refreshing to start slashing monsters and leaping around in seconds. You just get right into the action, learning the game’s mechanics as you go. And it defines itself as a playful adventure right from the start, too. The game’s visual style reminds me of many of the NES’ horror and action games, with giant skulls strewn about everywhere. It draws from macabre imagery, but it’s full of the kind of lighthearted skeletons you’d find in a kids’ coloring book. Likewise, its upbeat chiptune soundtrack practically demands you leap to your feet and head out on an exciting adventure.
For these reasons, Cathedral feels largely like an action game with a map for a little while, until you manage to get yourself lost. Not lost as in not knowing where you are, but in not being sure what to do next. It’s a feeling that permeates the original Metroid too, where you’d wander a seemingly-endless series of halls searching for the item or secret door you needed to keep moving. I found myself gleefully exploring one second, then poring over the environments to figure out what I’d missed. So, I have to go back and explore. It’s not so bad, as enemies drop treasure you can use to buy handy upgrades. At least someone is always progressing, even while lost.
So, you may find yourself exploring the same halls and dungeons multiple times in Cathedral. This could cause players to get careless, as you might start to focus less on the monsters and more on looking for secrets. You can take a few bumps at first, but soon you’ll die from only a hit or two from what appear to be regular enemies. It feels like the old Dragon Quest method of telling you “maybe you shouldn’t be here yet” by quickly killing you. It wasn’t long before most areas seemed prone to killing someone quickly. Checkpoints are (usually) frequent, and a player can carry some small healing potions that refill for free, but death still awaits. Despite its cute look and cheerful sounds, the game becomes quite tense as its difficulty rapidly increases.
That tension and sense of being lost were core elements of the Metroid experience. You could be doing so well exploring Zebes, only to make a mistake at a bad time and get torn to pieces or die in a pit of acid. Death always felt very close as you played that game. One screw-up could cost you hours of play time, and you felt that each time you had to shoot at a few dozen walls to find the hidden path that would let you progress. Cathedral may seem nothing like that at a glance, but it possesses that same sense of tension. It allows the player to go where they want to, but they’ll need to always be checking for new mechanisms and paths to find the way forward. They’ll need to fight with care, as they could die from only a handful of hits if they’re careless. There are elements to make that more palatable for a modern player, like healing and checkpoints, but there’s still that undeniable pressure.
Even so, when that music starts, it’s hard not to get carried away by that sense of adventure. It was that pressure that made exploring Metroid so satisfying, and is what’s making Cathedral so hard to put down. Mixing a stirring sense of excitement and adventure builds atmosphere and encourages players. It’s a real delight on the Switch and a welcome entry in the genre.
Cathedral is available now on the Nintendo Switch and PCs.