Shovel Knight x Metroid
Cathedral, a new eShop game from rookie developer Decemberborn, is in a bit of a tough spot: the eShop is already filled to the brim with Metroid-like sidescrollers with retro graphics—in fact, Neal Ronaghan already did a video about some of the better ones, and I know for a fact that more are in the pipeline. The challenge for Cathedral is to provide a unique experience that will cause it to rise above its competitors. Does it succeed? Yes and no.
Cathedral is what would happen if Shovel Knight and Super Metroid had a baby. You take control of an unnamed knight who, based on his death animation, seems to be an empty vessel akin to Alphonse Elric. The knight begins the game traversing the titular Cathedral, but quickly finds himself in a much larger world with an open floor plan. His goal is to travel to each of the realms and find four magical orbs that will open a doorway to another dimension where a great evil lurks.
Metroid-likes live and die by their level design, and I’m happy to say that Cathedral nails this aspect of the genre, with interesting platforming segments, environmental puzzles, and rewarding re-traversal. Visiting old areas with new equipment almost always pays off with a hoard of treasure, a new piece of equipment, or both. Interestingly, Cathedral has something of a Shantae-like structure: each major overworld area has its own dungeon to conquer and boss to fight off. The knight will find several types of equipment in his travels: armor buffs, new swords, equipable items (which act like Zelda dungeon items), and magical scrolls.
The scrolls are, perhaps, Cathedral’s most obvious point of divergence from its Metroid-like brethren: although you’ll find a wealth of scrolls, only three can be equipped at a time, and they can only be swapped out at Soul Shrines, which are relatively rare. Sometimes the effect is fairly benign, like upping your damage at low health, while others seem more crucial, like applying a double-jump. It’s an interesting take on what, in other games of this ilk, would probably be persistent effects, and I’m not sure I liked it. The knight also has a ghost-like friend who can be summoned with a shoulder button and briefly controlled in order to activate switches or collect gold and ammo. Often, however, the implementation felt half-hearted, as though it was intended to be a more important gameplay mechanic that was de-emphasized during the course of development.
If this rose has any particularly sharp thorns, they mostly have to do with combat and overall difficulty. Combat is unending, which is exhausting, and each enemy has to be dealt with in a specific manner. Cathedral combines the combat fatigue of Metroid: Samus Returns with the required precision of something like Hollow Knight. The knight has precious few resources: a standing attack, a downward thrust, a shield, and a crossbow-like gauntlet. Starting around the third major overworld area, though, enemies start doing significantly more damage while your armaments largely remain static. Several of the knight’s upgrades don’t have a combat component, so it rarely feels like you’re actually becoming more powerful. Extra heart containers are rarely found. You’ll die all the time, and checkpoints don’t feel consistently placed, leading to some areas being fairly forgiving, death-wise, while others more punishing.
The map is vaguely helpful in that it shows doorways, checkpoint statues, and soul shrines. You can also mark specific points of interest, which helps cut back on fruitless re-traversal. I’m unclear on why so many Metroid-likes are unwilling to implement the system in Metroid: Zero Mission, with one icon to denote the presence of an item, and another to show that you found the item and don’t need to come back. Axiom Verge has this problem, too.
Apart from the combat/exploration imbalance, I’m a little disappointed that Cathedral looks as generic as it does. Maybe I’m just getting tired of the “indie sidescroller with retro graphics” aesthetic, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate interesting character designs or backgrounds and tilesets. This is something Hollow Knight has in spades, and one of the reasons I liked that game so much. Cathedral never really sets itself apart, although it’s clearly going for a Shovel Knight vibe. In that it succeeds, but Shovel Knight already exists. The music, similarly, sounds altogether too familiar and loops a bit too quickly. Cathedral is a game without a strong sense of identity.
Cathedral is a fine Metroid-like in terms of level design, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t hit the balance between exploration and combat—the latter so often gets in the way of simply enjoying the former. If you’re a big fan of the genre and are itching for a fresh take, Cathedral is a fine choice that, for the most part, gets it right. Just expect to get tired of fighting your way through every room.