Wot I Think: Cultist Simulator

cultist-simulator-review-1b

In my time with Cultist Simulator, I’ve browsed hidden book shops for arcane grimoires, sent loyal acolytes on doomed expeditions, and felled nosy investigators with poisoned tea. I’ve been reduced to begging in the street for opium money, and I’ve sacrificed followers with antique daggers in secret rites to restore my vitality. Weather Factory’s first outing is what I imagine playing solitaire with Necronomicon pages might feel like, if those pages then formed a map to the location of a much older, much more cryptic tome that made the Necronomicon look like The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Stripped down to its skeleton-patterned underwear, it’s a game of time and resource management, of crafting and experimentation. By combining cards with tiles that represent verbs like ‘explore’ ‘talk’ ‘work’ and ‘dream’, you’ll gradually uncover mysteries, gain arcane knowledge, and learn to effectively blend certain combinations to give you the results you’ll need to survive and progress.

One of your earliest tasks is to form your own cult. Some cards represent acquaintances, curious but unversed in the dark arts. Some are scraps of lore gleaned from tattered books. There are manifestations of your passion, and of your ability to reason. Begin to combine one or more of these with the verb tiles, and you’ll set timers into motion. When the timers run down, you’ll flip the tiles, and check the results. This sense of progress propels you. Timers tick and brew and search in the dark. They meld and meddle and unravel. They can tell stories in themselves, sometimes. Long, plodding work days in boredom haunted offices or hurried jaunts at secret clubs. Occasionally, they’ll turn up answers. Mostly, though, they’ll just produce ever more maddeningly fascinating questions.

cultist-simulator-review-6

The black expanse of Sunless Sea’s Unterzee (another realm given life by Cultist Sim’s writer Alexis Kennedy) is here traded out for cozy bohemian townhouses, opium tinctures and burlesque clubs, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a struggle to keep your head above the water. While Cultist Simulator initially keeps much of its hand hidden from you, goading you to parse out esoteric rules through frenzied alchemical experimentation, it does make a few things very clear from the outset. Chiefly, if you don’t have funds, then you will die.

So you’ll need a job, or ‘an arrangement to exchange one’s life for money’, as the game calls it. The physician begins with solid employment at the institute (‘Long hours, but good pay’) while the lowly aspirant scrapes by as a porter (‘Miserable, but it’s all you can find just now’). Some jobs are permanent —  providing a steady source of coinage for séance Doritos, tentacle wash and eldritch, unspeakable council tax —  and allow you turn up when you feel like it. Some are more precarious, requiring commitments of passion as well as time to keep demanding bosses off your pentagram-tattooed back.

cultist-simulator-review-5

There are also less traditional paths to fund your delphic ventures, if you’re so inclined. Which, let’s be honest, you definitely are, you cheeky dabbler of doom you.  Auctioning off ancient tomes or painting impossible paintings of unpaintable stuff are both reliable, if volatile, sacrificial cash cows. You may even convince a shadowy acquaintance to fork over a sizeable investment. Just make sure you’re prepared to make good on the debt when she returns.

There’s also a big, creamy, comforting bowl of creeping dread to contend with. To counter the inevitable hangover that comes with long evenings drinking deep from the chalice of forbidden knowledge, you’ll need to find a reliable source of ever-elusive contentment. Or, you could just use drugs. Delicious and obviously very cool, but also expensive, so watch out for that.

cultist-simulator-review-4

There’s hunters too, who tend to lurk around the edges of the table gobbling up evidence of your  occult miscreancy and spitting out ever-more damning cases. Like hungry hungry hippos with agendas and dreadful, piercing hippo eyes. Fortunately, hunters have their weaknesses. An acolyte attuned to the ‘moth’ aspect might be able to make the evidence vanish. Or one with the ‘edge’ aspect could try taking the hunter out for good. Or there’s poison, if you can find it. Poison works quite well.

You’re not immortal either — at least, not yet anyway — so falling ill is always a possibility. As with other dangers, overcoming your own fallible flesh prison is a case of experimenting with the cards and verb tiles available to you. It turns out there’s a fairly robust character progression system lurking behind the curtains. Cultist Simulator’s genius is its ability to weave these more traditional trappings into a layered, shifting narrative. The game has an internal logic that resembles an adventure game, transposed into a tactile tabletop format. Simply moving cards here feels satisfyingly ritualistic and esoteric in a way that most Lovecraftian homages fail to capture.

cultist-simulator-review-3

It helps greatly that it doesn’t confine itself to what Kennedy has called Lovecraft’s “cosmic nihilism”. There’s a deep streak of romanticism in the writing here, more reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Lord Dunsany-inspired dream cycle than the doom-drenched Cthulhu mythos. But where Lovecraft tends to lampshade unknowable horrors with frustrating vagueness, Cult Sim’s twitter-sized vignettes meet them head on, transporting the player with sparkling prose. The game knows that Faustian bargains need to offer beauty as well as horror, otherwise, why bother? In doing so, it steers clear of goofy be-tentacled pastiche while never losing its sardonic playfulness.

It’s difficult to go into too much depth without spoiling the sense of discovery and surprise that makes it so intoxicating. Be prepared for longer play sessions than you might be expecting. The single-save feature and pleasingly rhythmic pace might lull you into a false sense of brevity, but there’s a great deal to uncover here. It’s also the first game in probably a decade that’s made me draw a map. Or, more accurately, scribbled notes detailing the results of various concoctions.  Not that it isn’t intuitive, just so vast that it’s almost overwhelming at first.

cultist-simulator-review-2

It’s often tempting, when a game hijacks our attention, to use terms like addictive, or compulsive. Cultist Simulator is something else. It’s seductive. It captures the looming threat of utter annihilation played against the transcendent bliss of unravelling mysteries wrapped in enigmas wrapped in other really, really weird shit. It’s excellent, put simply. The cosmic horror and occult subject matter isn’t just set dressing here – it’s expertly woven into the core of play, and the result is completely absorbing. Oh, and the music’s really good, too. I couldn’t find anywhere else to mention that so I’m putting it here, which conveniently saves me having to come up with a clever joke to end the review.

So, two Shoggoths walk into an opticians…

Cultist Simulator will be out later today on Steam, GOG, Humble and itch.io for £14.99/$19.99/€19.99.

32 Comments

  1. eric_the_zookeeper says:

    Here’s a link to the steam page link to store.steampowered.com and it says it’ll be available in 5 hours.

    This sounds like a pretty awesome game. Can I presume that this is in need of one of those handy little ‘recommended’ badges?

  2. Faldrath says:

    Ok, today is “fund Alexis Kennedy’s cult day”. I’m fine with that!

  3. anHorse says:

    When I was younger I used to remember being hyped for stuff like Fallout 3 i.e. games with big expensive advertising campaigns and promises of gameplay that let you do anything.

    Now I find myself most excited for indie games which focus almost entirely on narrative gameplay. It’s a weird switch but one I’m glad has happened

  4. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Your review makes this sound strongly recommended – did RPS just forget to apply the Recommend image?

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      Dunno what you’re talking about. It’s right there. Eyes must be playing eldritch tricks on you.

      • Armillary says:

        It appears that a secret society might also have hidden the usual “wot i think” and “RPS Recommended” tags that I use to find good games. Not sure what their motives were, however.

    • Archonsod says:

      Might be a bit too niche to earn the recommended badge as such. It’s one of those games that relies on you as the player to buy into it to really work, so for some it will indeed be an amazing source of weird and wonderful tales. To others it’ll just be that game where you flip tiles onto cards and occasionally get new tiles or cards for your efforts.
      The review also kind of glosses over some factors that might be off putting to people too. For example the game runs in real time with card timers et al ticking down. This can become an issue when the table gets particularly busy since it can devolve into something of a plate spinning exercise (some of those timers can be quite unforgiving); you’ll end up chucking cards and tiles at each other rapidly in order to keep your head above water. You can see what they’re trying to do with it, and it kind of makes sense, but there’s likely to be a fair amount of people who’d prefer to be able to savour the story moments or just examine each tile and card before they act that will find it frustrating.

      • GeoX says:

        Don’t think that’s how the “recommended” badge works.

      • Noka says:

        It’s impressive how incorrect this comment block is.

        If you’d like to be experiencing this all slowly, you can hit Space to pause at anytime.

      • Aris says:

        Not only you can pause the game anytime, you can also move and use cards while the game is paused (so it works like the old “real-time with pause” combat of old RPG’s).

        So you can (and are encouraged to) pause the game to savour the story and examine all cards.

  5. teije says:

    Nice writeup and glad to hear it’s out. Backed it with pleasure last year, love his writing style and sense of “humour” if I can put it that way.

  6. EasyStar says:

    Nice to see this getting a recommended badge. I’ve been playing all through the early access period and loving it.

  7. anHorse says:

    Okay played a bit and it’s very good but I keep having to check I’ve actually read the text on the events.

    Think I’m going to restart as it’s actually very easy to miss some of it.

  8. mymorningcoffee says:

    Man, this one just bounced right off of me, which is a bummer. Weird UI choices were a big part of it, from the shadowy top half of the screen to the cards and verbs having aspects (the mechanic that allows a card and a verb to work together) that you can only see once you’ve clicked on them.

    An hour of play and I was still not entirely certain why some things were working and some things were not. For example, I had a card that lit up as useful for a ceremony. But the ceremony never had the option to start.

    That said, it’s really intriguing and I wish I’d connected with it like Nic did, and hopefully others will too.

    • iucounu says:

      There’s usually a clue as to the main Aspect from the colour of the card background – Lore, pawns (though not named followers, for some reason), influences, tools and ingredients are all colour-coded. So if you are using that stuff as ingredients in rites, for example, you should be able to spot what you need – and indeed your workspace should be nicely organised, as this is basically as much Occult Windows Desktop Simulator as anything else. There’s always a sense that you need to put a little work in to the problem of dealing with all the various resources and timers, and now and again you might well forget about a dangerous or useful card because you were sloppy about filing it.

      The cards where you don’t get a clear steer on the Aspects tend to be the ones which are useful later in the game, even though they show up early. So Dread, Restlessness and Fascination can all be consumed in Rites, and the fact that I didn’t realise this until a couple of dozen playthroughs had gone by meant that it felt like I’d actually learned some esoteric lore.

      (If you can’t start a Rite, it’ll be because you don’t have enough ingredients. If all the slots are filled, then one or more of the ingredients aren’t strong enough – you need higher numbers. If not all the slots are filled, you’ll need things to fill them. If you’re close to a recipe that will work the game should hint at you a bit.)

  9. Juan Carlo says:

    Is there a celebrity sex cult mod?

  10. Lars Westergren says:

    There are at least two RPS regulars with cameos in the game.

  11. LogicalDash says:

    How’s the game’s treatment of disability? I get a weird vibe from the use of “hollow-eyed invalids” in the screenshot, and the whole Lovecraft genre has a habit of using mental illness only as a symbol for the horror of the unknown, which could make it uncomfortable to play this game if you actually live with such an illness.

    • Premium User Badge

      iris79 says:

      with the caveat of everyone is different. I find lovecraft gross but love Alexis Kennedy games. I am a peer worker in the youth mental health biz so have a pretty high sensitivity to offensive MH depictions and avoid almost all horror for its ugliness in that dept.
      You get a creeping sense of dread and paranoia like in Sunless sea but joy/humour/passion helps. So far no caricature. It’s my favourite game for ages and if it looks at all interesting to you I would give it a go

    • Dave Mongoose says:

      I think in this context, ‘invalid’ is being used in the sense of hospital patient (due to injury) rather than to mean someone suffering from physical or mental disability.

      The game does have a failure state where your character succumbs to ‘visions’ if they build up too much ‘fascination’, and failing to treat a health condition will give you ‘decrepitude’… but these are probably handled as sensitively as they could be given the setting and genre.

  12. croucrouic says:

    Great review, great game. I was sad when I finished it for the last time.

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>