**Free review copy provided by developer**
While it might not look like it at first glance, Cultist Simulator reminds me of grand strategy games such as Civilisation or Crusader Kings. In addition to that addictive “just one more turn” mentality, you focus on creating your own path and making your own stories in a world you manage more than you play in. There’s also a long-term win condition to work towards, however you’ll probably fail more often than a typical strategy game, giving Cultist Simulator an almost rogue-lite vibe at times.
One of the reasons I don’t play grand strategy games all that often is I tend to get hooked and keep playing beyond the point I’m actually having fun. That almost happens with Cultist Simulator as well although the slow unraveling of its vague story kept me intrigued enough that I played out of desire more than addiction. I think.
Screenshots and videos don’t do a great job of explaining what the hell Cultist Simulator is, so I’ll talk through the early game in some detail. The large boxes you see in the pictures are verbs. There are six permanent ones plus a couple of others that appear randomly. You have four main stat cards: health, reason, passion, and funds. Other cards pop up as you play and are either connected to the story or emotional states. You use the cards to interact with verbs.
At a basic level, you use the employment card with the work verb to attend your job. You always get fired at the start of each run. After that, you can choose to do manual labor by using a health card to do work, get another job by using reason, or become an artist by using passion. All of these jobs provide funds although they all come with their own inherent advantages and disadvantages. Manual labor is a reliable way to earn a low amount of funds and you can do it whenever you like, however you risk injury on the job. Painting can net you big money, but the rewards are random and you can end up attracting unwanted attention. Office jobs also offer decent rewards but you have to attend regularly or you’ll be fired or demoted.
Early on in a playthrough, you get a bequest from a distant relative. You can use the study verb to learn more about the bequest which reveals the location of a bookshop. Using the travel verb, you can go to the bookshop with funds to buy books which you then study to learn about the eight different cults. Once you’ve decided which cult you want to form, you gain followers by using the talk verb and then carry out cult business by conducting rites to summon the undead or going on treasure hunts.
The early game is spent gaining extra levels for your main stats (e.g. acquiring more health by studying vitality) and buying books to build up your knowledge of cult lore. After this, you focus on developing your cult, exploring exotic locations, and entering the weird dreamlike world of the Mansus.
You “win” a run by satisfying your main desire, but that is little more than a minor distraction compared to the joy of sending your cult members on the hunt for treasure or solving riddles to progress in the Mansus. You do, however, need to keep an eye on certain conditions that can end a run, such as an excess amount of despair or being found guilty at a trial after a hunter gathers evidence on you.
There’s no concrete narrative in Cultist Simulator. It’s all vague Lovecraftian symbology fitting the 1920s London setting. While I’m not usually a fan of lore serving as storytelling, it is appropriate for Cultist Simulator. After all, you’re moving cards around a table and dreaming of mysterious locations beyond our own realm. You’re not likely to get concrete answers in that setting. I like to imagine I’m not playing as the character who goes to work every day, but rather as a guy at a table using the cards to manipulate someone else’s life. I’m controlling the cult leader from afar.
Each run feels distinct. You have eight different cults to experiment with and you’ll end up performing vastly different rites depending on your needs and knowledge of the lore. Some rites are as simple as converting passion to reason while others will summon ghosts or undead minions to do your bidding. My cult leader’s career as a painter brought him a lot of unwanted attention which meant I had to assassinate hunters on a regular basis, occasionally losing cult members in the process. As an office worker, I had to deal with a boss who consumed a ridiculous amount of my time and energy until I decided to have him killed. One time, a woman approached me and offered me money in exchange for a sacrifice. It was either me or a cult member: not a difficult decision.
If you die, you get the chance to play with different characters such as a doctor, inspector, or rich playboy/girl. These characters often reference the cult leader from your previous playthrough and while they offer an interesting new way to play, I never found the gameplay loop as compelling.
Cultist Simulator revels in its obscurity. Developers Weather Factory deliberately omitted a tutorial and on balance that was probably for the best. Discovering how the various cards interact with the verbs is satisfying… about 90% of the time. There are plenty of frustrating moments though. If a hunter is on your trail it makes perfect sense to try and assassinate that hunter. However, if your character is feeling restless, you may not know you can get rid of it by using restlessness as inspiration for a painting. Most cards used as inspiration don’t disappear after use, but for some reason restlessness does. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to know that other than pure trial and error.
Even when you do figure out what you’re supposed to do, Cultist Simulator can be a little too slow for my tastes. Leveling up your main stats at the beginning takes ages, and you have to constantly repeat the same tasks like going to work every minute. There’s also a fair chunk of luck involved. For example, you might need glimmering and erudition to understand a certain book. You won’t know this before you start studying the book and both glimmering and erudition disappear after a couple of minutes. This leaves you pre-emptively trying to guess what cards you might need and even if you get it right, they might time out before they are used up.
Cultist Simulator is one of the most interesting games I’ve played in years. It can be too slow at times but the hours disappear while playing. There’s always the desire to study one more book, go on one more expedition, or take one more trip to the Mansus. You never know what you might find.