So. Those of you who pay attention to this space (a number somewhere between two and ‘several thousand people’) may have seen that I posted something this time last week, wherein I claimed to be delayed by E3 and promised that I would, and I quote, “try to have something up for you as soon as I can manage”. And then a week of stone cold silence ensued. What happened?
Cultist Simulator is what happened, as anyone who follows me on any kind of social media might have spotted. Weather Factory‘s magnum opus grabbed my brain by the folds and refused to let go: I started playing somewhere late Sunday last week, and eight days later I have a little over 50 played hours clocked. Hell, that Sunday itself I only intended to take a quick look, and ended up playing until 3 AM or so.
This is not going to be a traditional Indie Wonderland review. For one, Cultist Simulator doesn’t really lend itself well to my review style. If I took you through the first play session blow-by-blow, my mechanical spoiler counter at the start would have to read for the love of god, don’t read this review. Moreover, for two, Cultist Simulator is a… particular game. Not niche, per se, but… challenging to grasp. I don’t know if I have the confidence to try and pull apart what parts ‘do work’ and ‘don’t work’, either ‘as intended’ or ‘in general’. Hell, I’m not even sure still why it is that I like it so much as I do. I do, obviously, just…
So, I’m doing something different. Instead of reviewing Cultist Simulator in this space, I’m going to be talking about Cultist Simulator. I’ll explain why (I think) it appeals to me, and what that says about the larger game. I might try to drag some points of praise or criticism out of the whole affair, if such points seem to present themselves. It’s going to read slightly more like the ramblings of a madman than usual, but then again, I feel that might be appropriate this time around.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, as low as I could manage. Mechanical, ditto.)
(Game source: Backed it on Kickstarter.)
Cultist Simulator, Or: Down I Go…
For me, Cultist Simulator is a game of four appeals. Or four Appeals, if we want to keep in the spirit. I’ll talk these appeals in no particular order, except it’s the rising order of how important I found them to the overall experience: Tactile appeal, narrative appeal, challenge appeal, and discovery appeal.
The first appeal, the tactile appeal, becomes apparent as soon as you start an actual game of Cultist Simulator. Your play space is a table, in the void. With one or two small cards on it, and a strange cube with a colourful icon. That’s strange, and unexpected, and kind of cool for a cold open. But it’s also relatively easy to grasp, in part. Using cards in games goes all the way back to Solitaire: You click on in, and then hold the button down, and drag it.
When you drag the card around, you might notice that the cube lights up. Or maybe you click on the cube first, and it unfolds into a pop-up window, with text and a small card-shaped slot. Either way, the affordance is fairly direct: Cards go into cubes. And then…
One cube and one card, so far. Things are about to get more complicated.
Cultist Simulator‘s gameplay shares roots with certain older adventure games. Not the very oldest ones, the text-parser ones that required you to type every command. But the generation that iterated on that idea, and handed you particular ‘verb’ buttons to click on the environment with. LOOK AT [X], TALK TO [Y]. UNZIP YOUR PANTS IN THE GENERAL DIRECTION OF [Z], if you were playing a Leisure Suit Larry game.
Cultist Simulator works like this, but inverted. The cubes are the verbs and the cards are the world, or at least, those parts of the world that matter to you. Dragging the ‘your menial job’ card to the Work verb means: Work at your menial job. Dragging the ‘health’ card to Work means: Do hard physical labor. Dragging ‘health’ to the Study verb means: Be mindful of your health, by working out and eating well. And so on, and so forth. On some level, it shares DNA not just with text adventure games but also with Doodle God and offspring: Combine things with things, and see what happens.
Getting back to the actual stated appeal, the tactile pleasure of dragging little cards around on a table shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s just… nice. It looks real neat, too: The artwork on the cards is really good, and you zoom in fairly close to get a good view…
…or zoom out far to see your whole table, which starts out nice and simple before inevitably becoming a sprawling mess of colourful cards.
As you unlock more verbs and cards during play, Cultist Simulator‘s narrative appeal increasingly comes into focus. This is a very well-written game, you guys. It’s primarily the brainchild of Alexis Kennedy, whom you might know from Failbetter Games‘ Fallen London and Sunless Sea (which I reviewed), as well as some of the weirder story arcs in Stellaris. If you’re familiar with any of these, you might have an idea of what to expect.
It’s not that Cultist Simulator is all weird all the time, though. Its narrative strength is very much that it isn’t. Any new game ‘run’ starts in perfectly mundane circumstances. Maybe you’re a day laborer, working a crummy job in the halls of a dank hospital and sharing your outlandish dreams with one particularly strange patient. Maybe you’re a doctor in that same hospital instead, going over a different patient’s case files and feeling a strange urge to keep reading. And, quick aside here: You can name your character at any time in the lower left corner of the screen, and you should absolutely do so. It’ll be cool.
Your initial worries are equally mundane. You have to work, repeatedly, to pay rent and buy food. You should get enough rest and exercise. Buy some nice books, if you have the cash. Talk to interesting people. Try to figure out those strange dreams that you keep having. Hey, they’re exactly the same dreams that that other person had, before they went mad. But… that’s probably nothing to worry about, right?
The element of weirdness is introduced quickly, but still gradually. It generally starts with you reading occult books, the sorts of banned books you get from out-of-the-way bookstores of mysterious auction houses. This book talks about dreams shared by all kinds of artisans. That one mentions a wood that grows around a house with no walls. This book right here argues that there are five concurrent histories, and that only one is the right one. And so on. At first it’s intriguing, but background-weirdness while you get your life in order. But over time, the snippets of mysterious lore (both those from the texts that you read with your actual human eyes, and the in-game items representing your character’s growing knowledge) gradually accumulate into a demi-coherent mythos: The Mansus, the Hours, the Doors, the Glory…
At this point in the game, your play will have shifted beyond the mundane as well. You might still be working a day job, because an income’s an income, though it might not be the job you started with. But you might also be writing academic commissions on the elements of the unseen world for a trio of scholars, or regularly exhibit paintings. You might dream over and over of the house with no walls, almost on command. You might frequent an exotic club when dancers shed their clothes and their skin. You might have started a cult! You’ll probably have started a cult, in fact: That is sort of the game’s core conceit.
It’s never just the books, though. Storytelling permeates every aspect of Cultist Simulator. The success and failure states of many actions tell you more about the shape of the world. The items you find, too, the ones that you keep and the ones that you lose. And the actions that happen out of your control, the verbs that pop up without you actively engaging them, particularly spice things up. Every so often, things will happen to you: You’ll sink into a temporary despair, or lose yourself in fascinating visions. Or you’ll receive word that an agent from the Suppression Bureau has taken an interest in your case, or is building evidence against you. Or some important cards you were keeping around decay into nothingness when their timers hit zero, fluttering off into irretrievable ashes. Or maybe you’ll just get sick! It all adds a certain… flavor to the world, bringing into sharper focus that what’s represented here is not just ‘a table of cool cards’, but a representation of a particular person living a particular life (in a particularly interesting way). I won’t claim I super noticed this until Alexis Kennedy tweeted about it, but Cultist Simulator is entirely written in the first-person perspectives — I do this, I’ll make this attempt, I’m slowly going mad. It’s an extra cool touch that drives home how all these cards and verb boxes and timers are representations of the persona that is you, the player.
Oh, also, at this point in time you might have died. Several times.
This is Cultist Simulator‘s third appeal: The appeal of challenge. This game is hard. Not twitch-reflexes hard, not blink-and-you-miss-it hard, but understanding-hard, comprehension-hard. The tactile nature means it’s fairly easy to play Cultist Simulator (though I’ve seen people talk about how much of an RSI hazard the clicking and dragging is), and the initial onboarding is… acceptable, I’ll say, it can certainly get you going. But for my money, it’s one of the most challenging games to beat that I’ve played in a while.
Why is that? Just what makes Cultist Simulator so difficult? Well, for one, there are several hard fail-states. I won’t get into too much detail, for reasons we’ll get to in a bit, but there’s a handful of ways the game can just slam the door shut in your face. These ways are all out of your control, all game-controlled actions on strict timers, and they’re generally visible and predictable… if you know what you’re looking for. If you know what is and isn’t important. If you know how to reply to any given danger.
It’s not quite Do-It-Again-Stupid challenge. Every danger tells you fairly clearly what’s going on, if you take the time to click on and read them. Most of them even suggest ways to counteract themselves. Whether or not you’re able to do that in time is a different matter, but in theory it’s totally possible to play Cultist Simulator with no foreknowledge, and win. I won’t say it’s very likely, but with careful-enough play, you could pull it off.
That said, simply learning the rote dangers doesn’t end them. This game gets complicated fast as you play, both in terms of cards and verbs filling up your table and in terms of things you’re trying to achieve. It gets noisy. More often than not, you’ll have three, four, five timers ticking down at once. You might be focused on a study process, where you’re trying to combine two bits of esoteric lore. And in another corner of the table you might have an expedition running, which requires you to put in new funds and followers on a regular schedule. And then there’s your job! Glover & Glover’s not going to oversee itself. In that light, who can blame you for not seeing that one of the rotating dangerous temp-verbs appeared on your table somewhere? Or that it already automatically grabbed a dangerous card, which maybe you were planning to get rid of later? And maybe you don’t even know yet that this other card, this unfamiliar timed card that’s about to run out and decay, doesn’t just disappear, but turns into… Early-play loss states are often characterized as ‘dang, I didn’t know that was something I should be looking out for‘. Later-play loss states are more often ‘oh damnit, I was doing so well, and then I didn’t pay attention to the thing‘.
In other writing, I’ve seen criticism of Cultist Simulator‘s visual end-game noise. This is totally fair, to be honest, it does get very busy. Particularly when you have to manually sort all your cards, all of which are very touchy about touching literally any other card they don’t stack with. The grid-snap mode introduced shortly after release probably helps with that, though I haven’t tested it yet… At any rate, it’s fair to criticize that late-game Cultist Simulator starts looking like a Magic the Gathering booster box stepped on a landmine. But I actually kind of like it. It feels like this increasing possibility mess represents your wannabe-cult-leader’s increasing split focus: You have to keep track of work, and dreams, and socializing, and exploration, and the authorities, and lore, and artifacts, and, and… In that light, hecking up one of them and landing behind bars feels, well, appropriate.
And none of this even goes into the fact that Cultist Simulator doesn’t shy away from soft fail-states either. I can’t go too much into this without rolling over into spoiler-town, but let me just say this: If you ever find yourself with ‘only’ two similar cultists, cherish them. You never appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
It’s definitely possible to get good at Cultist Simulator, which is to say, to gain the experience and the eye needed to predict and spot what’s coming and what’s happening (and how to react). Since nothing is strictly unfair, everything stays in the realm of management. Once you get to this point, the challenges do lose some of their fang. They become… still dangerous, but in a more distant way, like looking both ways before crossing the street. You have to do it, or you might die instantly, but that doesn’t mean it’s super interesting every time. There’s no denying that some of the excitement of Cultist Simulator fades once you realize you have a near-perfect handle on things… but do keep in mind that it took me like, thirty hours of play to even get that far. And keep in your other mind that ‘losing some shine’ didn’t stop me from playing it for twenty hours more.
Even after the novelty of the tactile faded, and my mind was inoculated with narrative and lore, and I’d reduced the deadly challenges to a dull background hum, what kept me playing Cultist Simulator for so many more hours — and what’ll probably mean I’ll more after this review is up — is the fourth appeal: The appeal of discovery. Cultist Simulator is a game about discovering things: About piecing things together, about working things out on your own, about experimentation, about trying something weird because you had an inkling and seeing that, hah, that totally works! It even says so literally right on the loading splash:
The appeal of discovery permeates Cultist Simulator in every layer. Narratively, there’s a whole mythos to put together, books to read and lores to parse and clues to glean from expeditions and artifacts and snippets. The game almost never explicitly comes forward to say ‘this is how this particular thing is for real’, but there’s more than enough interrelated writing to build on. I’ve been talking to one particular friend about Cultist Simulator for the last week, and we both know what we’re talking about — even if I think we might have slightly different interpretations of events. I don’t think the Sun-In-Splendour was shattered into the Hours, to give you an obvious example. That this combination of certainty-from-suggestion and shared-uncertainty is possible is incredible, and I hold it as a testament to Cultist Simulator‘s incredible writing — not just the stories themselves, but the way they’re presented, scattered and piecemeal, ready to be put back together.
And mechanically, the game of Cultist Simulator is almost entirely about learning to play Cultist Simulator. I mentioned a brief onboarding process, which serves to teach you the basics of ‘this is how you interact with things’ and ‘this is how you can try to get better at things’. Calling that ‘teaching’ is a stretch, even: The game gives you little hints to push you forward. But after that? You’re on your own.
Okay, you’re not entirely on your own. I’ll give you one paired-hint that might have been the one thing I’d have chosen to teach explicitly: If you click and hold a card, it’ll highlight all the verb boxes it can currently land in. And if you click in an empty verb box, it’ll briefly sparkle all the cards that can go into it. If you’re ever confused about what your options are, that could help. Maybe, sometimes. Could be you’re trying to find a topic of discussion with the cop you invited for tea and the game suggests that every single card is possible; it just doesn’t tell you that most of them don’t do anything. But still.
Ten hours into Cultist Simulator, I didn’t know how to win Cultist Simulator. Fifteen hours into Cultist Simulator, I knew what was probably a path to victory, but I didn’t know how to walk it or what I needed. Twenty hours into Cultist Simulator, I knew what to do and I knew what I needed. Twenty-three hours into Cultist Simulator, I won for the first time. The game outright told me nothing of this: It gave me hints, and trusted that I’d be able to piece them together on my own… or that I would die trying. Which, in fairness, happened a lot.
I think that, more than anything else, the above is a litmus test for how much you’ll enjoy Cultist Simulator. This is a game about occult mysteries and slow-burn world-building, with a high level of challenge and unforgiving-but-manageable fail states, that not just allows you but relies on you to figure everything out for yourself. Everything. Figuring things out isn’t just part of the game, it is the game. And there is so much to figure out! How do you get a better job? How do you steer your dreams? What can you use to promote cultists? Why is Lord Bancroft so relatable? How do rites work? What is your final goal, and how do you change it? How do you learn to speak Fucine? How do you deal with an adversary that cannot be killed? How do you paint exceptional paintings? How do you get rid of Mr. Alden? How do you get rid of Mr. Alden?
Do you think that sounds like a fun puzzle to crack, a fun world to inhabit, a fun howling madhouse to throw the weight of your mind against? Then… listen, I’m not going to pretend I have a position of Objective Game Assessment here. Yes, Cultist Simulator has its drawbacks, and points of improvement, and flaws. Were I in the mindset, I could talk for some length about how cards stack incorrectly, how the text occasionally doesn’t display, how the predictable nature of dangers in the later game defangs the sense of urgency, how some summons feel unbalanced, how grinding expeditions isn’t an incredibly interesting way of getting necessary items, and so on, and so forth. But that’s not the mindset I’m in. The mindset I’m in is that I want to go back in and see if I can get all the things in my current game. I think… I might have nearly read every book that there is?
So yes, Cultist Simulator is definitely a niche game. An incredibly-written, well-produced, super interesting niche game that threads unknowable ground. So if you do think the above sounds like a fun puzzle to crack, etcetera, etcetera, I highly recommend you take a look at this game. It’s currently twenty bucks on Steam, Itch, and Humble, and if it grabs your brain in any way like it did mine it is so, so worth it.
Just send me first-dibs invites on any real-life cults you end up forming.
Jarenth wants to say he’d be Lantern-aspect, or maybe Knock, but he’s honestly probably more Grail than anything. Speculate about what that means on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?