Alexis Kennedy, one of the minds behind the famed browser title Fallen London, has a new card up his sleeve with his latest work Cultist Simulator, out now for PC on Steam, Humble Bundle, GoG, and Itch.io. Today we’ll see if it stacks up and makes the cut.
First off, I won’t be reviewing this in my usual style. Cultist Simulator is an unconventional video game that defies a lot of standard conventions, and were I to go at it with my standard neutral approach and lack of spoilers, this review would be woefully short.
That said, let’s start with one of the few things I can approach that way before I dive headlong into a deep look: the music and art. Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot to talk about with the music simply because there isn’t a lot of it: There aren’t a host of different levels, so a lot of what you’ll hear are the same few mood setting tracks playing one after another, with a few small interrupting tracks for when you enter the Mansus or have a potentially game ending situation crop up.
It probably speaks to the quality of the music however, that in the many hours I spent with it the tracks didn’t get on my nerves. They’re a blend of calm and unsettling, something you can relax to while remaining melancholy.
As for the art direction, I’m a big fan of the monochrome. Most of the art is placed on the various cards you interact with and has one or two colors associated with it.
This helps the cards stand out from each other, and can also help tie them together: a big part of the game are the nine aspects, each of which has a given color for their lore, tools, influences, ingredients… Which does make it all the more upsetting that, for whatever reason, your cultists defy this. Regardless of whether they’re associated with Knock, Forge, Lantern, or whatever else, their color and aspect have no correlation. A small frustration, but one nonetheless.
Poverty is the Real Monster
Cultist Simulator begins with you playing the role of a lowly aspirant. You’ve just been fired from your lowly job wheeling gurneys in a hospital, though one of the patients that took an interest in you decided to bequeath a few mysterious items and scraps of knowledge. Using these you delve deeper into the true mysteries surrounding the world, of the Hours and the Mansus, and a grand temptation to pursue.
Much of the early game is spent learning how the game works, dragging cards that represent your possessions and qualities to various verbs to do certain things. It deliberately borders on obtuse, and experimenting to figure out how the world works is a very intended part of the game. There are a few guidelines to help you, clicking on a card will tell you what aspects it has (as well as give lore), while clicking an empty spot in a verb will show what aspects a card needs to go there, and similarly holding down the button on either will highlight their matching pairs. Even with this help it’s often unclear what exactly a given course of action will do. The verb will update to tell you what this will do (such as going to bed early, letting your mind wander, or dreaming of the moonlit path for dragging Health, Reason, or Passion onto the Dream verb respectively), but the consequences of your actions is something you will have to discover for yourself.
Losing is to be expected in this early stage, but it’s not too difficult to get into the flow of things, and all too soon you’ll be flinging cards around with nary a thought. That all said, I personally felt the start is perhaps a little too difficult, at least for the default aspirant, and it all boils down to the true eldritch horror of this game: Money.
The very first verb you have access to is Work, and there are three options available: Hard labor that barely pays the bills, painting which has a host of mechanics related to it that can result in wasting time for no pay or flooding yourself with game ending Fascination if you’re not careful, or selling your soul to a local office job to make ends meet in exchange for never having the free time to use Work for more cult-related activities later on.
Every minute of game-time, one Fund is removed from you, and this ticking clock means you’re constantly scrambling for income until you learn to acquire significantly more than this. There are methods, sure, but they’re far from immediately obvious. This creates a feeling of trying to tread water, of feeling too close to ruin to really try experimenting much. It felt like simulating a cultist was less about learning to summon demons and perform ritual sacrifice, and more about how to find time to pursue a hobby while keeping the bills paid.
Dream a Dream
Once you’ve learned a fair bit about how the game works and nail down a source of income, we hit the meat and potatoes of the game as you delve deeper into the dreamworld of the Mansus and pursue forbidden tomes through illicit bookshops, auctions, and raiding people’s private property to pillage their libraries. It’s at this point that we start experiencing the more esoteric lore, perhaps the game’s strongest point.
As with most things about this game, it takes a decidedly different approach to storytelling. Rather than clearly lay out what you’ve done, you get a paragraph that may be a summary of the book, a snippet from a dream, a conversation with a confidante. Little detail is given to what came before or after this paragraph, and more importantly there are often terms and names thrown about such as the Velvet or the Glory, which it doesn’t bother to explain any further than the immediate context. It assumes you already know this.
This is, of course, done intentionally. As with most things in the game, discovery and exploration are key themes. Your first time across a term you may know little outside of how it sounds significant, but as you explore further and find the term repeated, you can piece together its meaning and how it fits into the grand tapestry of things. While I understand some gamers may not be a fan, I personally enjoyed piecing together cryptic clues, snippets of novels and half-remembered dreams to come to a realization.
More Than Meets the Eye
In the last part of the game, it boils down to your temptation and cultist rites, summoning terrible demons to assist where your cultists cannot as you search for the tomes, implements, and influences to finally conduct the ritual at the peak of your temptation, to ascend from your mortal husk and grasp the obsession you chose so long ago.
There is a fair bit more than the path to victory however, and there’s a good deal of replay value to be had in poking around in all the game’s corners. For starters, our Aspirant is but one of several legacies to pick from the beginning, with a random assortment available each time you try again. Each alters the start of the game in some fundamental way, such as the physician that begins with a decent job with no strings attached, but begins with absolutely no passion making exploring the mansus difficult, or the detective who begins with a case to track down a troublemaker and may either launch from that into standard cultist behavior or simply catch their quarry and achieve an alternate ending. Each legacy also has a small detail I found amusing: Your previous character will be named as the individual that helped bring you into this mystery, one way or another.
There’s also a mountain of lore to dig through. It’s not required to explore every ruin, read every book, pursue the deepest reaches of the Mansus, or summon all the most horrible things to beat the game. Doing so, however, provides more clues and fragments to piece together. Take notes and have fun piecing them all together if you wish!
Lastly, this is a game that’s still being worked on. As of the time of this writing there are three more updates definitively planned, with more to follow.
An Esoteric Route
As mentioned at the start, this is an unconventional game. It’s a narrative game, but it tells a story through incomplete fragments that must be ordered and pieced together. It’s a resource management sim, albeit simplified and purposely without documentation. At the end of the day, the one thing I can definitively say is that it is a game that I enjoyed, but also one where I can very well understand if others dislike it.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy and screenshots provided by Weather Factory for PC on Steam.