Explore. Take risks. You won’t always know what to do next. Keep experimenting and you’ll master it.
It would seem that my 4 or so hour investment in developing this cult is about to come to end. My experimenting in improving the loyalty of one of my indoctrinated followers – by locking them in a cupboard after luring them in for a chat – has somewhat backfired and left me the proud owner of a freshly decaying corpse. The timing couldn’t be worse, as my recent endeavours to develop The Order of the Bloody Cup has over exposed me publicly and attracted the attention of Detective Wakefield, whose ongoing investigation is now focused on developing a case solid enough for conviction. I can see he is busy working the case, working away to convert the dubious evidence that he has collected so far into something a lot more conclusive. To this point, I’ve been laying somewhat low trying not to generate anymore notoriety in the hope that the investigation will eventually fizzle out. But at the worst possible moment I now have a corpse I need to dispose of, something which I’ve yet to work out how to do. After some further experimentation, I send one of my disciples to dispose of the decomposing body, albeit not promptly enough to prevent the evidence from transitioning from tentative to conclusive. With things looking serious, I pause the game for a minute, a chance to take stock of my options and decide what to do before the case comes to bare. Do I try and instruct another follower to destroy the evidence? Worth a try, although the game warns me that neither of my disciples is skilled in the way of the Moth, and as such are unlikely to succeed. Perhaps I could send one of them to assassinate the detective, but that won’t destroy the evidence and somebody else will eventually pick up the case. In the end, I decide to approach the detective directly, a rash move perhaps. But it affords me the chance to throw one of my loyal subjects under the bus allowing me to continue to develop the cult further, well at least for now.
This sums up Cultist Simulator somewhat well, a refreshingly unique simulation experience played out as a real time card game come deck builder. The objective is to found and develop a cult, although I’m still not entirely sure even after around 12 hours and 5 or 6 attempts what is required to actually complete the game. This mystique is actually a core element of the game, summed up perfectly by the opening text of this review which adorns the game’s loading screen. The game does next to nothing to help you, instead preferring to be a puzzle that you the player must playfully explore. Things start relatively simple, with only a couple of cards in your hand. One of these represents your day job, which when ‘worked’ will generate income in the form of funds. Working is one of the many ‘verbs’ in the game – best thought of as actions – which can consume or generate new cards depending on what cards you seed them with. Seeding the ‘Work’ verb with your job card triggers a 60 sec countdown, at the end of which you should earn some income. Another verb, ‘Time Passes’, represents your need to spend money to survive, and as such consumes 1 fund card every 60 seconds. Run out of money, and you’ll soon find yourself hungry and sick, which manifests on the board as special verbs which must be dealt with before their timeout expires, otherwise it’s game over and you’ll be forced to start again.
Progress and understanding in the game is the reward of experimentation, placing one or more cards in one of the available verbs and then waiting to see what happens. Studying health generates vitality, which can then be studied to reward you with additional health. Passion and vitality work much the same, and alongside funds having multiples of these cards becomes more important later in the game as the more you have the more complex tasks you can conduct in parallel. Cards themselves come in various types and flavors, although it is far from clear what you need to do with some. Clicking a card lets you view some flavor text which sometimes can yield a subtle hint on what one might do with it, for example indicting that working or dreaming with this card might yield some benefits. Clicking a slot on any of the game’s verbs also highlights cards which can be inserted into that slot, although even that is no guarantee that you can actually use the cards. My trusty notebook that has served me so well through many a puzzle title is adorned with various scribbles denoting both successful and less successful recipes, an essential record to refer to when various negative effects sweep in and threaten to derail your progress.
Soon, experimentation will lead you towards your goal of founding a cult. And after a couple of hours I finally manage to found and recruit my first associate. But it’ll be another few hours before I understand what I need to do next to progress and this is one of the aspects of the game that some might find off-putting, as breakthroughs are often followed by long periods of stagnation. As mentioned above, the game does nothing really to nudge you forwards, instead you’ll need to find your own motivation to press on. I find myself more attracted to its mystery, my desire to understand its inner workings holding my interest much more that the snippets of lore and narrative that accompany each card, verb and action. And soon I the hours passed like minutes, as I found myself positively lost inside this cult creation fantasy, a genuine sign that Cultist Simulator represents something truly special.
Overall, the game represents one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve had from a simulation. Being a fan of deck building card games probably puts me in a position of bias, but I’ve not really come across a game like this before. It’s well presented, with a delicate art style befitting of its ‘Lovecraftian’ inspiration, and the audio although simplistic captures the tempo of the moment, making it easy to distinguish between calm and crunch. My investment in this game so far has failed to yield a victory, but that just frames the value you get for what on paper reads as nothing more than a card game. But it would be impossible to create anything like this game for the table top, and as such it’s a superb example of just how the medium of video games can build upon existing ideas for the better.
To conclude, Cultist Simulator is like nothing I’ve played before, an unexpected delight that’s both well polished and a pleasure to play. It won’t be for everyone, but for those who take pleasure in unraveling a good puzzle then this is certainly worthy of your cash.
Cultist Simulator was provided to us by Weather Factory for PC.