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Cultist Simulator Review

So, how to describe Cultist Simulator? It’s a video game that’s a board game, that’s played by collecting and placing cards that do different things in different contexts. It’s a narrative-driven roguelike that kept giving me unexpected results whenever I thought I understood what was going on. It’s extremely unique, completely original, fascinating, frustrating, and something that really needs to be experienced to understand how brilliant it is at times.

The Basics

First of all, do you like the 1920s occult scene? Okay, then let’s continue.

The basic flow of the game goes something this: on your first game ever, you’ll start as an Aspirant. You have no money, and your only option is to go to work at your job mopping the floors of a hospital. You do this by dragging your job card (Menial Employment) onto the work tile. Once you do that, you get your first countdown timer. Don’t worry, this one isn’t scary or stressful — those come later. Once the timer counts down, you lose your job, earn some Health and Funds, and get your next tile: Dream. Dream will count down, and once that is done you get the first tile you need to worry about, Time Passes. Every 60 seconds, this will suck up funds. Funds in the game, like in real life, are the key to survival. If you have no money you can’t eat, if you can’t eat you get weak and sick, and if you get sick and can’t cure it, you die.  

It’s hard to get into more detail than that without turning this into a novel. You’ll eventually unlock more tiles like Study, Talk, and Explore, plus a whole lot of new cards to discover and experiment with. Most cards have different uses and effects depending on what tile they’re used with. Work your Passion card to become a painter, or study it to gain Glimmering (which will disappear if not used within the given time — more on that in a bit). Use Talk to gain followers to start your cult, then use Talk again to send them out on tasks or perform rituals.

Timing Matters

Some cards come with a timer that either counts down until they can be used again, or until they’re gone forever and wasted. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when you find your notoriety stacking up, but if you don’t pay attention to the remaining times you might not have enough cards available for tasks like gaining more Passion from studying Glimmering. Other cards you might come across are Books and Lore, which you can obtain by going to certain locations (which are also cards you can discover by exploring), and these unlock skills which can be used to understand or translate other Books and Lore, which can be used in rituals…

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of information to process. Really, the only way to understand what you’re doing is to play and fail a few times. Read everything that pops up on your screen, and eventually the flow of everything will start to make sense. If you click and hold on a card, the tiles that you can place it in will light up, and if you click on an empty slot in a tile, any cards that can be placed there will glitter. That doesn’t always guarantee that they will work in those spots, but it’s a good start to understanding how things work.

Show, Don’t Tell

Since so many things can go so different for every playthrough, and the game can be as hard to explain as it is to play, I’m going to describe my experience with it.

My first game ended pretty quickly. Not having any real idea of what to do, I ran out of funds and died of starvation. Then I discovered death wasn’t a true end, just a new beginning. I was offered the chance to choose from three legacies — Bright Young Thing, Physician, or Detective. I chose Detective, which didn’t go much better.

I didn’t realize there was a counter on my Job card and failed to go back to work, becoming disgraced.  Then I did go back to work, but used the Sealed Bureau File card (which is a cool little touch, because this file was about my previous dead character — your past legacies are referenced in your next games). Using the file burned it, and burning it got me fired for good. I then used my Reason to get a nice office job at Glover and Glover. This gave me steady funds as long as I worked every day, but that’s all I did. Eventually I worked myself to death, never even getting the Dream, Explore, and Study tiles on the board.

Next round I picked Bright Young Thing, and it seemed like things were going well. I really felt like a bored rich kid with nothing better to do than study the occult. I spent my money buying books at the bookstore and auction house, started a cult, and made my first contact, Poppy. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to recruit anyone else before Poppy came back to perform a ritual, and I ended up being the sacrifice, ending the game just when it was getting started.

Consuming

How much you enjoy Cultist Simulator depends on how much effort you’re willing to put into it. This isn’t a casual game, though it can be enjoyed in short bursts if you only have a few minutes at a time. It takes a few games of trying and failing to get the feel of how everything works, but when you do it will suck you into its world just like your character gets pulled into the world of the occult.

If you’re willing to read, and read between the lines, Cultist Simulator has seemingly endless stories to tell. It’s a unique way of storytelling through gameplay, and can almost be described as an “open-world board game.” Every story is your story, with massive replayability — to a point. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’ve seen and done it all, but that’s a long way down the road.

7

The Verdict: Great

Cultist Simulator is the kind of game where “Just one more turn,” easily becomes “Four hours later…” It’s addicting even when it’s difficult and frustrating, and extremely satisfying when things finally start going right for you. If you’re even slightly interested in it, the price is right to try something that’s completely original and unlike anything else out right now.

Brad Huffmanparent
Written by
June 12, 2018
Published in Strategy

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Brad has loved gaming since he first picked up an Atari joystick in the late 70s, a fact that makes him feel really old right now.   He recently graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a BS in Game Design and Development /Interactive Storytelling.  He’s the co-founder / editor / writer of an indie comic studio, and is also working as a writer on an upcoming indie MMORPG. It’s probably easier to list the types of games he doesn’t play (RTS and sports) rather than the ones he does, although he wouldn’t turn away any game that you put in front of him.  He likes to think that even the worst games have some redeeming quality, and finds it a challenge to dig in and discover what aspect the developers thought would be fun and try to figure out what went wrong.

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