What does it mean to be a "good" cult leader? That's a question I find myself asking as I stare at my flock in Cult of the Lamb, setting out doctrines for them that will define the way they live their lives in my little commune - aka the Church and Sheeple. I want to rule with benevolence - teach them to respect their elders, take holy days, make friends, take care of themselves. But money is tight, days are hard, and my crusades can be long, so things start to slip.
While I've never sacrificed a follower at the Church and Sheeple, I have brainwashed them all with magic mushrooms. I've also taught them to appreciate a bowl of grassy gruel - a horrific-sounding meal that is sometimes all I have to offer as cult leader / head chef / builder / overall provider. They've also spent time in the stocks for spreading dissent, or occasionally at the behest of another follower over a silly spat. Once in a while a follower has even been deliberately fed a literal bowl of poop.
Things could have gone a lot differently. Murder, intimidation, ritual sacrifice, and other far less pleasant doctrines and practices could have happened in this little corner of the world, but that depends on what kind of cult leader you want to be. But regardless of whether you rule with fear or friendship, there are rituals to be performed, sermons to be given, and other interactions to be had with your followers - maybe even a marriage or two.
All worship and no play
Cult of the Lamb asks you to manage the health, hunger, and faith of your cult members. Health is just a case of trying to feed them proper meals, cleaning up poop and sick when you see them, and offering them rest or time in the healing tent. Hunger is down to you providing adequate - or at least enough - food to keep them from starving.
Faith though requires a little more maintenance and is also affected by any dramas that may happen in terms of health and hunger. To keep your faith levels high - and thus your cult members working and worshipping - you'll need to deliver daily sermons, unlock rituals to perform (like feasts, funerals, and ascensions), and also speak to them on a daily basis. I chose to go the 'inspire' route to eek out more loyalty from my followers, but equally you could threaten and intimidate them. They may also ask you to do small tasks for them, and ticking those off helps make sure your followers really are following you.
Worshipping is important too, as you harvest their prayers and turn them into upgrades for your settlement, from missionary stations and farms, to outhouses and better sleeping arrangements. Let the faith fall too low and you'll start losing followers or having the disgruntled start to spread dissent to your more loyal members, which really causes some damage to your organization. It's a lot to manage, but it's also incredibly moreish, particularly when you start to really build up your flock and need to find jobs for them all to do.
It's easy to forget that cult management is just one half of the game, the side that will appeal to sim lovers, lapsed Animal Crossing players, and even a Stardew Valley fan or two. The other side of Cult of the Lamb is a roguelike, where you must go on crusades to gather resources, recruit new followers, and eventually take down the four heretics that are behind the order to kill all lambs and stop a prophecy from being fulfilled.
You'll work your way through procedurally placed rooms, defeating enemies and collecting various resources as you go. How else are you going to gather the bones of your enemies to pull off those rituals? You'll get a random weapon and special ability at the start of each run, with options to switch and trade depending on the path you take on each crusade. Later you can unlock different capes for your lamb that change the modifiers, like increasing the damage multiplier on each uninterrupted chained attack while simultaneously taking double the damage each time you're hit. It's not quite as involved or complex as Hades, but it's a fantastic roguelike in its own right, and the fact it's tied to cult management adds extra incentives to go on another run. If you've played Moonlighter previously and loved it, it's that same kind of interlinked loop of combat and management that works so brilliantly.
Obviously, it all helps that Cult of the Lamb wraps its gameplay with a graphical wrapper that also sets itself apart from its contemporaries. It's somehow simultaneously cute and horrific, with monsters barfing acid and pulsating with warps and other grossness, compared to your cult folk that are tiny giraffes, unicorns, hedgehogs, cats, and other adorable critters. It's bright and colorful, but also dark and mysterious in equal measure. It's quite the feat to be honest, and utter screenshot fodder.
There's a reason Cult of the Lamb is getting a lot of attention. The way it blends its two unique gameplay styles with those graphics makes it one you won't want to miss. After all, do you really want to anger a god and answer to a cult?
Cult of the Lamb is out now on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and Nintendo Switch.