I can’t tell if I love Cultist Simulator or loathe it. In some respects, it’s a remarkable game: a wholly unique mix of card game, text adventure, and resource management. Its fragmented narratives unfold in a mesmerising way through the cards played, inviting you into a grim, fascinating world of occult and Lovecraftian ideas. But it’s also a game with learning curve that’s deliberately impenetrable, ostensibly in service to the themes at play, but taken to such extremes that it undermines what Cultist Simulator does best.
The basic concept, if I can do it the injustice of trying to summarise it, revolves around time and resource management. You have a set of actions–Work, Sleep, Study, etc.–and a set of cards you can assign to those actions. One you pin a card to an action, a timer starts; when it’s complete, you get another card (or cards) corresponding to the combination of card and action you chose. Work will usually get you money cards, but depending on the nature of the work you chose, you may get an injury, some new skill, and so on.
The catch is that both the actions available to you and the cards you obtain aren’t set in stone. As you play, new actions gradually open up, as do a wider and wider variety of cards covering just about anything you can imagine: jobs, objects, moods, character traits, people, places, ailments, occult theories, stats, spirits, ideas … the list goes on. While not every card is compatible with every action, most have multiple possible uses, and many cards will need additional cards placed alongside them.
All these things collide in a staggering array of different possibilities, with layers upon layers of complexity that only grow more complex as a game goes on. And in the middle of all that is you, trying to figure out how to do what you need to do–in the short term, to survive, and in the long term, to try establish your cult. Cultist Simulator is a labyrinth of little cause-and-effect puzzles that’s nigh impossible to truly map. Most of the game lies in simply trying to figure out how to work your way through complexities of these deliberately opaque synergies to try, hopefully, get where you want to go.
You’ll die, most of the time. Hunger, illness, injury, demonic encounters, aliens, and the harsh punishment of a world that would really rather you keep your shady cultist activities to a minimum are all things that can, and may likely will, bring your journey to an end. But more so than many other roguelikes, Cultist Simulator is a game that’s much more about the journey than the destination, and death simply means to start over with a new starting “class”, for lack of a better term.
As you muddle your way through all these murky systems and recurring deaths, a story slowly comes together. Each time you play a card, you get a little snippet of narrative: a plot detail for one of the many overlapping tales that weave through the deck, your character’s thoughts, some scene-setting prose, that sort of thing. It’s all fragmented, designed to be pieced together in an ad-hoc way more than to regale you with a prescribed sequence of events.
In keeping with the rest of the game’s theme, it’s murky, opaque, and deliberately convoluted. But that feeds a weird, fascinating world: eerie, mysterious, hellish, intriguing, a place where modern life collides with Lovecraftian horrors and occult magic, brought vividly to life through some truly compelling writing.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Cultist Simulator is a game that goes out of its way to be as deliberately obtuse as possible, leaving even its most basic, fundamental systems for players to figure out. Ostensibly, this is all in service to the game’s central themes: of exploring unknowns, learning through experimentation and failure, and navigating a world in which questions are plentiful but answers don’t come easy.
When it works, it’s great. Experimenting with card combinations, seeing how different outcomes can help or hinder you, and trying to make sense of an increasingly unwieldy assortment of resources, stats, story threads, and little details—none of which is especially clear to begin with—is satisfying, and that whole fumbling in the dark element is part of what makes it so. But Cultist Simulator goes beyond that, making a point of burying crucial information about how to simply interact with the game, let alone understand it. Its systems of actions and card combos and the various stats that come with both aren’t at all intuitive, but this game expects you to intuit them anyway. To make a point of comparison that’s probably already out of date, it’s a bean dad approach: it expects you to teach yourself how it works, but doesn’t actually give you the tools to do so.
Initiate Edition, to its credit, at least tries to throw you a bone. There’s a “beginner’s guide” that goes over things like common card combinations, basic early-game strategies, and the broad goals of the game. But even this feels like it skips a step, assuming an understanding of the functional core of the game that it never actually shares with you—referring to elements of the game field by names you never otherwise encounter, and assuming you know how they work.
In some ways, Initiate Edition actually introduces new problems, too, thanks to the switch from a mouse-based interface to a controller-based one. Most key functions have button assignments, but there are a few crucial tools—like mousing over little status icons that let you predict the outcome of an action—that can only be accessed through an toggleable on-screen cursor that the game never tells you is there.
Even with the added “help” features that Initiate Edition introduces, Cultist Simulator demands a willingness to fumble around in the dark–not only to see the best of what the game has to offer, but even just to come to grips with its basic fundamentals. If you’ve got the time and patience to meet its demands, Cultist Simulator can be a fascinating game, but an overcommitment to being deliberately obtuse robs the game of impact in what should be its strongest moments.
Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition is developed by Weather Factory and published by Playdigious. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed). The original Cultist Simulator is available for PC and mobile.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.