Very rarely do I encounter a game that’s actually difficult to describe, but Cultist Simulator is a game that defies conventional description. Released in May of 2018 and published by Humble Bundle, it describes itself as a “digital board game” and was developed by a company named Weather Factory, founded by the former founder of Failbetter Games, the developers of Fallen London and Sunless Sea – something which shows in its execution. Those games had their fair share of weirdness, and hoo, boy is Cultist Simulator a rabbit hole.
The game takes place on a board upon which various cards are laid out. These cards represent the life of your character – their reason, their health, their wealth, their connections, their passion, etc, and what you have to start with is defined by the background you pick for your character – a 9-to-5 worker might start with a menial job, a private investigator might start with a lead that may lead to a cult, a Bright Young Thing might start with a nice pot of cash to keep them going for a while. Your job is to manage all of these things – go to work, investigate the occult in your spare time, stave off hunger and sickness, fulfil your cravings, explore the city to find Lore and many more, with many different end goals that can be pursued, including founding a Cult and achieving Enlightenment or simply by settling down with a nice family, for instance – though getting there is a long and ardous road, and as a matter of fact all of the games I’ve started have ended in my character dying!. There’s no real story per se, other than the little snippets that you can deduce as you go about your life. As I’m writing this review I am having genuine difficulties finding anything to compare this game to gameplay-wise, the sort of card game/roleplaying fusion is unique and it can sucker you in with ease, expecially with the promise of more to be seen later on. The game’s overall style is also a thing of much intrigue. It shows in the art, the music and the overall feel of the game that it was dreamed up by the same guys as Fallen London. It has the same suspense, the same darkness and the same little tiny injection of wit and eccentricity that made Fallen London so interesting.
In one particular degree, the game is also paradoxical. It falls into two of my personal pet gaming peeves – those being not giving you a tutorial and not giving you any indication of what’s going on. This naturally can make it a tad frustrating when you first start and I was about to mark it down for that in this review, but the paradoxical part is that this actually ends up making it MORE interesting and, I may even say, immersive. The game actually openly admits that it’s designed to be learned through experience and experimentation rather than taught to you via tutorials, and it actively encourages you to get help from other players or even from the developers themselves. And almost to compensate for the lack of training or help, the learning curve isn’t too steep either, though it still does require a degree of patience and the playstyle is a bit of an acquired taste. You won’t get everything right the first time, you will make mistakes, and you’ll die a lot, and that’s completely OK, because the knowledge you gained from your previous playthroughs will help you in the next. Some may find this trial-by-fire approach to be perhaps a bit too frustrating and daunting, but to those who stick through the annoyances, the quirks and the confusion, the game subsists almost on its mystique and intrigue alone. Something about it makes you want to have just one more go, work out what does what, what goes where, what works with what, to find the answers to everything you’re wondering about it.
This game is, to be quite frank, an enigma. At first it’s confusing. It makes no sense. It will irritate you to no end. And yet you’ll still want to keep playing, to find out just how far you can go, what you can do and what secrets lie buried within, and when you do, you won’t realise you’ve been suckered in until you look at your playtime. And on that note, the name Cultist Simulator is far more apt than one may first expect.