Cultist Simulator is the newest release from Weather Factory, an indie studio formed back in 2017 with a penchant for the unique. This game is no different. Combining a witty Lovecraftian-style story with a roguelike, almost incremental card-based style akin to those seen in popular mobile games, CS takes you on an intriguing journey into establishing a brainwashing cult! And then performing the most immoral and unholy activities within it..
Put simply, the game is formed on the basis of story cards – these comprise of actions or lore. These start off mundane enough, work a dreary night shift at the local hospital for example, whilst every successful action enables the unlocking of more activities – working the shift unlocks the ability to use cards to be able to ‘dream’. Dreaming might unlock cards that provide a health boost (for being well-rested) or unlock more potential actions – such as looking for libraries or occult shops.
All this happens around a clock, in that most if not all actions require you to complete them within a time frame. Not sure what to do? It can be confusing at first, but it’s fairly easy to get to grips with. Some actions give you plenty of time to establish what you’d like to do or the place you’d like to go to next. Lose your job? That gives you more time to read creepy demonic books in the local library, or research spooky spells. Forget to live in the real world however, and you won’t survive long. Working provides funds, and without funds your aspiring cultist will become ill and less efficient. Continue down this path too long and you’ll die, before you get to make your mark on the world. It’s a great gameplay mechanic if a little daunting – but thankfully you can alter the in-game speed of the card actions. Finding it too easy? Double speed is for you, whereas I found myself slowing it down to half or even pausing occasionally whilst I figured out what to do next.
It doesn’t take long before you’re combining cards like a pro and establishing your own morbid narrative – gaining followers, being followed by the police, engaging in various and sundry dark arts… And if you do find yourself struggling with the pace, that’s fine too, one would say it’s actively encouraged in parts! If you succumb to the hunger of not paying attention (something I found myself doing more often than I’d care to admit) and actually game over/die, then you can get right back into the action quickly. You are given a selection of different personas to try instead – sure you can continue as the meek willed menial worker with aspirations of being a cultist demagogue, or perhaps you can try being the police officer that was always on your tail to begin with, with different cards and different paths forward. I like this mechanic. It’s demonstrative of a foresight to how this game would be approached by various different gamers and styles and fits with the Gothic theme the developers have sought to pay tribute to. Dying can be rewarded? Sure! Why not? I particularly liked the succinct way the game shows you where you went wrong, and then tries to advise you how not to repeat the same mistake again.
It’s an enjoyable game, but I did find a lot of actions to end up being repetitive. The further I got into the game, the longer it would take to balance off the time required to do the actions against a) keeping myself alive and b) actually furthering my personal story. As someone who doesn’t play these games very often, I found it hard going early on – I would die frequently, and the lack of an in-game tutorial often compounded my failures. I’ll admit, I took several restarts before I really felt like I knew what was going on, and this lack of progress really gave me a poor first impression of it. The really basic interface seems at odds with the complexity of the game mechanics too, leading me to believe the game was much more simplistic than it is. I would say that it would be hard for someone to just pick up and play immediately. As far as the music goes, the in-game soundtrack is largely what you would expect – light ambient music that plays softly in the background. Nothing special, nothing fancy. Geared in mind to ensure no real detraction from the story, with only minor changes during events such as the players’ death. It fits with the aesthetic, but it plays a little too softly for my liking – however this is a minor criticism.
Cultist Simulator was a heavily backed Kickstarter project, and it didn’t take me long playing it to realise that those whom have paid have supported what will be a greatly successful project. The lead writer, Alexis Kennedy was the creative director of the award-winning Sunless Sea, and his talents are fully on show for this title. I was really impressed with the level of detail in the card synopses, and you just get the feeling whilst playing through that this (having been in development for some time) has been a labour of love for the studio. It is not the sort of card game I usually play, and I feel it will take me still a number of playthroughs to get the most out of the storylines, but the writing alone has intrigued me enough that I actively want to get better at it. I want to become a member of all the cults. And eventually I want to lead them all!
I would rate Cultist Simulator 8/10.
The game released on May 31st on Steam, GOG, Humble and itch.io, and will retail at £14.99/$19.99/ €19.99.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided a key for this review.