Cultist Simulator

england

Every imaginable occupation and creature probably has a simulator at this point, not helped at all by Everything being literally a simulator of everything. Still, Cultist Simulator struck me as a bizarre inclusion and one that intrigued me. How can you really simulate the feeling of being a member of a secret, religious cult within the boundaries of game mechanics? Well, a cursory look at who made the game filled me with such confidence that I bought it on the spot.

Not-quite-fallen London

The game was written by the people that originally created the Fallen London setting, known best for the curious indie game Sunless Sea, but which I most fondly remember for Echo Bazaar. The same kind of writing is prevalent in Cultist Simulator, which manages to make every item description and every event sound full of mystique.

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The story goes that you pick between one of several starting points and, through a brief intro, come to learn that there exist forces beyond what everyday people observe. As you delve further into the mysteries of the world, you come to unravel old lore, meet fellow enthusiasts for the occult, and begin your own cult to start worshipping the strange and unknown. While the style of writing is effective at drawing you in, I did have some problems with how it is delivered. Every card has a description, every event has a description, and every resolution created with the two also has descriptions, and you got so much going on at any given moment, that it becomes hard for any of this well-written text to stick with you.

Story score: 9/10

What am I even doing?

Cultist Simulator is going to be unlike any other game you have probably ever played and for me, the first few rounds were definitely a case of screwing around and trying to figure out what was actually happening. Little did I know, that trying to figure things out is the entire point of the game.

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Gameplay involves these various cards that represent your assets, mental & physical state, as well as the people you know; these are your resources. You match these cards with the activity blocks, more of which appear suddenly as new mechanics become available to you. For example, there is a block representing the passage of time, which runs on a global timer and every time it passes, it’ll suck up one of your currency cards and consume it. If you don’t have currency available, then this block will continue to run and eventually create problems for you. You also have a work block, in which you can put cards representing your job to make money, or even give it a card representing your health in order to do backbreaking work.

You also get blocks for study, sleeping, discovering, talking, and sometimes new ones pop up to represent panic events, like your character becoming sick. Some of these start automatically and suck up the cards to complete them or require you to add a card within their time limit, others wait for you to start them and then begin running once you feed it an acceptable card. Either way, once their timer is over, you can then collect whatever cards your action has produced, yet you don’t know beforehand what those will be.

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It’s a complicated format and many of my earliest playthroughs were just experiments to figure out how I could consistently get things like health cards to prevent sickness. Because death is a common threat in the game, be it from illness, a result of your occult pursuits, or upholders of the law finding out about your activities. This can be a difficult issue to prevent, as this is a chaotic game to keep track off and when panic events appear, they often have timers that are too short to get the kind of card you need to counter them, even if you know how to do so.

Still, delving into this bizarre game and slowly uncovering how it works, what to watch out for, and how to stay healthy & sane is fun. It’s just that it takes a really long time before you actually start to feel like a proper cultist, as opposed to a bumbling idiot with a bunch of colorful books. It’s definitely not for everyone, however, and it remains frustrating whenever you finally get to do something fun, only to discover you don’t have some specific card for it. It’s tempting to then look it up on a wiki, but that would just spoil the entire game.

Gameplay score: 7/10

Shuffling decks

The presentation is simplistic, as the game is played exclusively on a board with various icons to represent functions and cards with neat, but small designs on them. If you were hoping for something with the same scope as Sunless Sea, this might come as a bit of disappointment, yet one that could be expected as this is made under Alexis Kennedy’s newly-formed Weather Factory instead of the old crew at Failbetter Games.

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An annoyance, however, is that none of the icons and cards have a set position on the board and, as far as I know, there is no function to order them in some way. There is an option to snap everything to the grid, but then you still have to move everything around manually to get it in a place that makes sense to you. And when you collect cards from a completed task, the game just kind of dumps them where it pleases, unless it can stack them on top of similar cards.  This is already a demanding game to play and not having the means to keep your tools ordered and maintain oversight doesn’t help.

Presentation score: 4.5/10

Verdict

The Good:

  • Fantastic writing that brings back fond memories of Echo Bazaar.
  • Figuring out the game’s convoluted systems is the actual point of the gameplay.
  • All the icons and cards have great art to them.
  • A world full of mystery that draws you in.

The Bad:

  • It takes a long time before you’ll be doing any of the “fun” cult stuff.
  • Cards and icons get dumped all over the screen, making gameplay chaotic.

69/100

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