A strange and alluring combination of solitaire and storytelling, Cultist Simulator is akin to playing a Bop-It with H.P. Lovecraft. Pull some levers, push on some buttons, and wait for the creeping dread of inevitable entropy to fall upon your flesh and leave you a sullen husk of the person you once were.
Geeze. I don’t remember Bop-It being that … foreboding?
Cultist Simulator is by the team at Weather Factory and also stands as a perfect example of how indie games can get away with being weird as they try new things. The independent game space is multi-layered, and while games like Cuphead are great exposure, the Cultist Simulators of the world are getting down into the real niche genre work that makes indie gaming fantastic.
System: PC, OSX
No. Players: 1
Published by: Humble Bundle
Developed by: Weather Factory
Genre: Indie, RPG, Simulation
ESRB Rating: N/A
Grades: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Outstanding; ★ ★ ★ ★ Very Good; ★ ★ ★ Good; ★ ★ Fair; ★ Poor
You’d never see something like Cultist Simulator from Activision or Electronic Arts – at least not without having already proven itself as a seller, and that’s fine. I don’t say that as a way to detract from the big name, AAA developers. It’s too obtuse and weird of a game for mainstream audiences.
The combination of genres at work in Cultist Simulator is a mix of board game elements, narrative tabletop systems such as Fiasco, and a sense of randomness that is most seen at work in Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac. There’s also a high learning curve that involves jumping into a pool devoid of any light and hoping you can figure out how to swim.
The setup is simple: You start a fresh run assigned a narrative identity, a few cards representing currency and health, and an option to find work. Identities unlocked later may come with a job to start, but the basic idea is the same: Start this character down the path of enlightenment or destruction.
Steeped in the tone and tomes of 1920’s gothic horror writing, you’ll guide your chosen identity by plugging cards into various actions, which in turn create ingredients in the form of more cards, which open up additional ways to plug in more cards. In many ways, Cultist Simulator feels like standing in front of a switchboard covered with knobs and levers and trying to do the job of the person who last sat at your new desk.
Which is to say that there’s a great deal of trial and error. Cultist Simulator doesn’t spell out how cards interact or the “proper” way of being used, short of highlighting what action they can be plugged into at a given time. You’re also working with and against a clock, as each action taken requires a certain amount of time to pass.
The first few rounds will feel overwhelming as you begin plugging obtuse cards such as “reason” and “enlightenment” into the various actions, all while the dread of losing precious seconds creeps around the periphery. The goal in all this is to expand the story and walk the proverbial dark hallway, opening doors and seeing if horrors or wonder sleep inside.
It’s mostly a lot of horrors. Similar to rogue-likes such as the aforementioned Nuclear Throne, trial and error-style play means you’re going to play a lot of cards purely for the sake of seeing what happens. A pause and fast-forward button help in the decision-making process, but some timers – such as catching an illness or being unable to shake your sense of dread – will just be unshakable without the right card at the right time.
Make no mistakes, this game will frustrate people who think in terms of winning and losing. Even in death, Cultist Simulator progresses forward and unlocks more narrative identities that all tell different stories and changes what you know about the cards and how they’re used. Similar to dreaming, the best approach is to wander and see where you end up.
I loved the open-ended nature of Cultist Simulator, but it may just be too off-beat for those looking for a more linear, direct approach to games. That said, if you’re looking to take a chance and try something new, Cultist Simulator will lead you down some fascinating paths.
Just don’t be shocked if you go mad in the process. This is, after all, a simulation.
Cultist Simulator is available on Steam.
E3 show schedule
The season of game reveals is upon us yet again, with this year’s E3 kicking off Saturday and running through June 14. As usual, the big publishers will show their goods in the form of video presentations and stage shows, so here’s a rundown of when you can catch them online on Twitch. All times are for eastern time zone.
Saturday, June 9: Electronic Arts — 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 10: Microsoft — 4p.m.; Bethesda — 9:30 p.m.; Monday, June 11: Square Enix — 1 p.m.; Ubisoft — 4 p.m.; PC Gaming — 6 p.m.; Sony — 9 p.m.; Tuesday, June 12: Nintendo — 12 p.m.
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