Review: Cultist Simulator (PC)
Do you wanna build a cult, man?
|Release Date||May 31, 2018|
Developer: Weather Factory
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Genre: Tabletop, Rogue-like
Cultist Simulator is a tabletop simulation game from Alexis Kennedy, who also created Fallen London and Sunless Sea. You play as a citizen in a H.P. Lovecraft-inspired 1920’s setting, searching for answers and enlightenment. As you progress through Cultist Simulator, you gain new cards and open up new options for using them, in a unique drafting mechanic. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s catalog will recognize that while the trip will be entertaining and full of good writing, it won’t necessarily end well for the player character.
Players start out as normal citizens going about their lives, but by some occurrence, they come into strange or otherworldly content. The game encourages players to follow these leads, no matter the cost or outcome. As options open up you come into contact with stranger things: rituals, ancient beings, evil dreams, human sacrifice, and demons. These are all explored or investigated by the player character in a bid to establish or grow your cult.
One of the temporary cards is evidence against you which can be gathered by an investigator. Should it be upgraded it can become “D**ning Evidence.”
In order to alleviate some of your woes you can spend money to purchase a small amount of opium. This does have a small possibility of consequences in-game, but it’s presentation makes it seem as if it’s a small price to pay for the comfort.
The worlds imagined and inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing have long been subject matter for both video and tabletop games. Noir detectives, disowned heirs, tough heroes and heroines are often thrown into these stories as they go up against men and monsters, as well as facing their own mortality and madness. One of the common enemies is the Cultist, a human foe that has been corrupted by the dark arts and serves an evil or otherworldly purpose. Cultist Simulator turns the usual formula on its head, casting the player’s character as an average citizen who, through research and trial and error, finds themselves looking for answers and trying to start their own cult.
Gameplay is managed through cards and different nodes that you can place them on. Cultist Simulator has a helpful mechanic where if you click and hold on a given card, any node you can place it on and use it will be highlighted. You start with just 2-3 cards, depending on your background. Different backgrounds are available based on how your last game ended. If your character died, one of your three options might be doctor, or if you were incarcerated, one of your options might be policeman. As you progress some interactions are obvious—place your job on the “Work” node to go to work, and get “Funds.” Later in the game, a node will unlock (The passage of time) that will automatically take Funds from you to represent the daily cost of living. Should you have no further Funds for this node your character may fall ill or die.
After some trial and error and a little experimenting, you’ll be able to unlock new nodes and cards which will add to your options. The game intuitively draws you in, getting you to try new things. Before you know it your humble doctor is recruiting associates and going to strange bookstores to research new and dangerous texts and dreaming of a forbidden wood filled with creatures that would make Guillermo del Toro have nightmares. How easy it felt to have the character do these actions and not have it feel jarring speaks to the good game design; it also felt like the developers were showing how easy it could be to get drawn into these dark worlds.
Since none of the cards or nodes are animated, the only movement onscreen is when temporary effects wear off and the card disappears, or the time ticking down on nodes where something is happening. Because of this, players must be the type to enjoy reading the flavor text for each item, or the game just becomes a click-and-drag game where you watch timers. Not only will reading the cards draw you into the game more, each one will often give hints as to your next move. For instance, after using the “Dream” node several times on the same card, reading the outcome literally told me that I could glean no more information from dreaming on it; I would have to work to learn more. This also highlights another mechanic where you must decide which nodes to use, and how best to juggle them. Some jobs will demote or fire you if they aren’t paid attention to often, but you must also use the “Work” node to further your cult’s goals sometimes. This push and pull makes the game feel more strategic, and made me glad for the pause button. Players can pause time, run it at normal speed, or double speed if things aren’t progressing fast enough.
It takes a little time to get a handle on, but players who dive in will find a lot to enjoy in Cultist Simulator. The large amount of reading and subject matter will turn away a small percentage of gamers, but for someone like me who enjoys flavor text, tabletop games, and Lovecraftian worlds, Cultist Simulator is a lot of fun. Losing your progress can be disheartening, but the game is good at drawing you back in with different choices each time and using your player character’s names in the early cards. My favorite was when Doc Brown was pouring over his notes for a deceased patient, trying to discover the cause of Tommy Vercetti‘s madness. If you’ve enjoyed games like Call of Cthulhu or Eldritch Horror, and might be interested in seeing how the bad guys think, I would recommend checking out Cultist Simulator.
Review copy generously provided by Weather Factoryand Humble Bundle.
The Bottom Line
An well-done simulation of a tabletop card-drafting game, Cultist Simulator can draw you in, and without realizing it, minutes or hours will have gone by. Its subject matter and large amount of reading will be a downside for some, but if you enjoy games set in H.P. Lovecraft-ian worlds, you will enjoy this game a lot.