Cultist Simulator Review
Have you ever wondered if there was anything more out there? Just beyond the corner of your eye, in the hidden bookshops of your city, or tangled in the clotted hair of an old doll you’ve found. Or even there, glimmering under your skin if you peel it back a little. Cultist Simulator invites you in to sit down and play a game of cards for a while, and puzzle this out before your inevitable demise. A self-described “roguelike narrative card game”, Alexis Kennedy’s latest offering is a Lovecraftian one of solitaire, struggling to maintain the delicate balance of experimentation and a mysterious story with telling a coherent narrative and understandable gameplay.
Cultist Simulator opens by urging you to experiment and accept that you won’t always know what to do. True to its word, the game is without a tutorial. While I kept the experimentation factor in mind, after several hours in the game remains baffling as it leans heavily into being cryptic and mysterious. Whereas you can get the hang of the basics easily enough, the finer points of this complicated game are never explained. You have a set of five major Verb Tokens (Talk, Work, Dream, Study, and Explore), and combine them with cards to get new results. For example, with the Dream token, you can place the fund card there to gain contentment (explained in game as your character purchasing opium) or you can place a passion card there as the focus of your dreams, the results hinted to with a rather lovely bit of prose about a moonlit road. With the four other Tokens and dozens of cards, there are seemingly endless combinations and options for you to pursue. In another case, you can place an acquaintance and a topic to discuss (both represented by cards) into the Talk token. Depending on who it is, what you talk about, and how you go about it, you can throw an investigator off your tail, or gain a new follower for your cult, or have said new follower assassinate said investigator. You are to experiment with your cards and tokens, combining them and failing to combine them, all without guidance for a 20-40 hour campaign.
The lack of explanation was chosen to promote the game’s atmosphere of secrecy and exploration, of course, but it’s a difficult line to walk. The gameplay of Cultist Simulator is strategic resource management at its core, and it’s hard to play such a game without knowing the rules or what things mean or what consequences would come of your actions. The joy of finding a successful combination or uncovering a new secret is where the magic happens in this game, but the frustrations of groping around blind, a disorganized workspace, and the continuous failed combinations will grind down on you. The experimental nature of Cultist Simulator‘s gameplay would be forgivable if it were intuitive, but often it feels like it is being abstruse just to seem “mysterious”. It’s difficult to keep track of what previous combinations you have done or what new cards previous combinations had produced — there is no in-game chart to help you remember. You will find yourself often repeating old mistakes, or struggling to get the results you had previously obtained. Sometimes, combinations that had worked once before no longer do — the game just won’t go through with it, even if it is explicitly instructing you on what to do. Due to the game’s abstract nature, I cannot even tell if this is a bug or not. For example, I had combined two Vitality cards to create the Stronger Physique skill, but when I attempted to do this a second time a little later, the Start button would not become clickable for me to go through with it. I had wondered if something had changed in the time since I originally completed this combination, but the game was giving me the same instructions as the first attempt. This happened to me with a few other combinations as well and was never explained.
The controls and game mechanics often feel like a part of the experimentation factor of Cultist Simulator as well. It is very difficult to keep track of all your cards, as many come with their own individual timer on how long you have to use them. And when those timers run out, the cards disappear too quickly to see what you’re losing. You often don’t know what you have lost until you can’t find it when you need it. This makes organization a critical aspect of making your cultist experience one that won’t make you gouge your real-life eyes out. But Cultist Simulator makes even this difficult as new cards obtained from the combinations are scattered across your desk once you collect them, making sorting them a nightmare and an almost Sisyphean task.
X – Wheel of Fortune
However, Cultist Simulator is strangely addicting as it is a pausable, low-action game with continual timers — watch your own time and life melt away as you sink into this game. Despite the lack of explanations and the messy desk, you want to see what happens next and what your loading combinations will get you, even if you’re not entirely sure what is going on. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the shuffling of your cards, especially with the trial and error nature of dropping card combinations into Tokens. And it never feels monotonous as many of your attempts bring about randomly generated new cards for you to try out next. The loading times of the Tokens all run out separately from one another, so it’s tough to stop playing when you keep thinking to yourself — just one more combination. And once you do figure some things out, like how to recruit followers for your cult or how to navigate through your dreams, you feel some semblance of sinister control, even if that control is dragging and dropping your various malevolent-sounding options until the game allows you to proceed with the card combination — er— illicit rite. You are uncovering the seedy underbelly of the reality you live in and stripping back the mundane to see it. As you play, you wonder how the game will respond to this choice or this combination, if your minion will succeed or fail at killing the inquisitor on your tail, and how the story will unfold.
There are a number of paths you can pursue and cults you can found in Cultist Simulator, but it all starts with a mundane life that delves into forbidden knowledge. You are an ordinary but curious person, trying to uncover the secrets of the occult while avoiding the suspicions of the Suppression Bureau and dealing with annoying coworkers via assassination. You spend the game balancing the mundane parts of being a cultist (generating funds, keeping healthy, warding off depression) with summoning demons and organizing harrowing expeditions for your followers. Cultist Simulator actually gives you the option to live out your life humbly, working as a simple clerk, or you can choose to dive headlong into the black arts until you physically look less human due to what you have seen and done. Throughout the game, you collect acquaintances which you can convert into followers and explore the city via your fragmented memories and dreams. And while visiting your favorite bookshop on the occult, you can purchase new books to expand your knowledge, learn German and Sanskrit and Latin to translate them and dive even further into this hidden world.
The game’s writing is indisputably its strong suit, evocative as it hints at the secrets you are chasing, and sublime in the Romantic sense as it describes the otherworldly entities you encounter. While the game is often abstract in its narrative and gameplay, the descriptions of the cards and various items you pick up ground Cultist Simulator into something more concrete, preventing it all from just becoming vaguely spooky words attached to your virtual card combinations. The game is surprisingly devoid of graphics — you are simply sitting at a table in an empty room, staring at dozens of tiny cards. Its sound design lends well to this, however, as the cards click and lock into place, granting each their own heft as you shuffle them around the table. Expiring cards burn black and blow away as opportunities dry up with their timers, and a foreboding bell tolls as new developments warn you of danger or illness.
However, the quality of Cultist Simulator‘s writing and intriguing setting coupled with its arduous gameplay made me wish I was reading a surrealist novel rather than grasping at some sort of narrative with all these disparate cards. While I can appreciate the game’s own attempt at experimentation with its indefinite gameplay, tabletop format, and fragmented story, I could not find much enjoyment in constantly wondering what I was doing and asking myself why I was still playing.
**PC Key provided by the publisher**
- Sublime writing
- Addictive gameplay
- No explanations
- Cards are tedious to organize
- Lack of graphics