Review: Cathedral (Nintendo Switch)

6 mins read
Review by Matt S.

Ever play a game that’s perfectly competent, well-designed and a faithful student of the genre it belongs to, but also overwhelmingly dull? Cathedral is one such game. It’s one of those indie Metroidvanias, with old-school aesthetics and a heavy dose of nostalgia. If Cathedral had have come out a few years ago, when this kind of thing wasn’t done so often, it would have been something interesting for its scope and stuff challenge. However, a metaphoric tonne of Metroidvanias have arrived in the past decade, and Cathedral has done nothing that helps it stand out.

You’re going to be doing everything in Cathedral that you’d expect to for the genre – wandering left and right, up and down, finding currently inaccessible areas and making note of their locations so you can come back later on once you’ve got the requisite special ability. Of course, earlier games of the genre did this to help extend their length out, but Cathedral will run you 15-odd hours, and at that length, constant backtracking becomes an exhausting and mundane process. It also doesn’t help that the developer seemed to decide that this was a game where you would be encouraged to “explore” around the place, and that meant that they didn’t need to provide much by way of guidance. Okay, fine… except if you’re going to do that then there better be some real rewards for making discoveries, like Dark Souls would gift you with bits of lore and items of antiquity. Unfortunately, Cathedral’s rewards are purely utilitarian, add nothing to the “universe”, and it doesn’t make for a satisfying loop.

What might hook players in is the combination of challenging gameplay and the variety of challenges on offer. Cathedral will test all of your dexterity skills, from precision platforming to agile combat, and it’s more than happy to punish players that aren’t up to the task. There are inevitably some that will find this kind of challenge invigorating and it’ll tap into the tenacious side of them… but with so little context giving me a reason to play on I found my (admittedly frequent) periods where I felt like I couldn’t make progress to be exhausting. That issue with progress was assuredly on me – the knight protagonist controls fine – but there was a definite lack of satisfaction when I was able to clear the hurdle.

Likewise, Cathedral is workmanlike with the level design and boss battles didn’t do much to add to the conversation. Again, none of it was bad, and the developer should be commended on the precision with which they’ve learned from their peers. Any great artist starts out faithfully imitating those that they have the greatest respect for. You should see Salvador Dali’s early works – they’re derivative and certainly nothing like what we saw emerge from his surrealist period onwards. And yet they have a quality and a promise that can’t be ignored. You get the sense, as you navigate through the hundreds of rooms of Cathedral, that we could be witnessing something similar here; the talent is there, even if the original creativity isn’t yet.

Aesthetically the game is pleasant to look at, but again, lacks the distinctive charm of a Shovel Knight or Shantae. There’s always a risk, when you put a character into a full-body suit of armour, that they may lack for personality, and that’s certainly the truth with Cathedral. Enemy designs are similarly uninspired – they’re what you’d expect, and get the job done, but there’s nothing that’s going to wow you with its newness.

Now with all that said, there is a restraint and maturity about Cathedral that comes across in a very appealing way. Nothing about the game hits a sour note, there’s no effort to stretch beyond the design doc, and the developer clearly reminded focused on what they could do well, rather than taking big creative risks and potentially ending up with something unmanageable. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not – being competent and understanding the limits of what you’re trying to do is actually difficult, and by focusing on what the developer could deliver well, they’ve created a game the genre fans will find easy to enjoy. It’ll never be seen as a masterpiece, but it’ll never be seen as a misfire, either.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Metroidvania before, then you’ll probably enjoy Cathedral. The fewer of the genre that you’ve played the better, however, as the lack of original creativity will wash over you easier with less experience and fewer points of comparison among Cathedral’s peers. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly competent example of the genre. It’s just a pity that the Metroidvania genre, in particular, is so over-saturated that we just didn’t need more of it.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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