Platforms: PC (reviewed)
At first glance, you might not recognize the game developer known as Weather Factory, but if you enjoy playing games with a Victorian and/or occult theme, there’s a good chance you’re already well-versed in its previous work. The studio is helmed by two alumni of Failbetter, the game company behind the Fallen London universe and the accompanying browser game (along with spinoff games like Sunless Seas) it spawned.
Weather Factory’s newest game, a digital single-player card game called Cultist Simulator, allows players to once again delve into the occult-driven world of 1920’s London, only this time they take on the role of an otherwise ordinary individual standing on the cusp of embracing their darker nature. However, as engaging as Cultist Simulator can be under the right circumstances, it also forces newer players to dive straight in with next to no helping hands offered, a premise that can quickly frustrate those who are used to a more gradual introductory experience.
A Dark Rebirth
The ‘story’ behind Cultist Simulator is told entirely through text written on digital cards that can be slotted into various action tiles (Work, Study, Explore, Dream, etc.) to trigger certain effects. When you begin your first game, the only action you can take is picking up your one available card, ‘Menial Employment,’ and slotting it into the Work tile. When an action tile is triggered (usually by slotting a card into it), a timer counts down until the action is resolved, and in most cases a resolved action allows you to collect new cards to work with.
These new cards include resources (Health, Funds, etc.) that have to be managed, characters who can serve as friends, followers, or foes, and even more obscure card types that allow you to slowly venture further and further into the dark dreamscape that simmers just below the reality most ordinary people know, ultimately leading you to your true goal of founding your own cult.
Chances are also good that your first game of Cultist Simulator won’t last long before some misfortune befalls you and leads to a game over. You might become so ill that you die of sickness, or maybe you’ll run out of money and slowly succumb to starvation, or perhaps you’ll become so filled with dread and worry that you’ll give in to despair and let the darkness consume you. No matter how your initial game ends, you’ll quickly discover that, in Cultist Simulator, death is far from the end.
When you start up a second game, you’ll be presented with a selection of different starting ‘Legacies’ that can alter the game’s opening conditions. The default ‘Aspirant’ legacy is always available to you, and you’ll also be able to choose from a small number of other legacies that rotate in and out for each new game you play. For example, you might be able to begin the game as a physician whose penchant for study allows them to quickly build up lore-based resources, or a meandering debutante who starts out flush with cash but doesn’t have a reliable method for keeping the funds flowing once their inheritance dries up. The legacy scenarios allow players to explore new story threads and utilize new early-game bonuses as they work towards the same ultimate goals, but each legacy can also come with its own unique pitfalls that may not show up until you least expect them.
As you progress further and further into a single game, you’ll unlock a large plethora of different card and action tile types. Because some action tiles require constant maintenance (you can lose your job if you don’t consistently slot it into the Work tile, for example), this means that you’ll eventually reach a point where you have to constantly maintain several different tiles and their associated timers at once.
You can freely drag and drop cards and tiles on the game board to help with visual management, and you can also pause the game at any time if you need a moment to re-focus. You also don’t have to play an entire game of Cultist Simulator in one sitting, which is good since, once you get the hang of things, a typical game can sometimes stretch on for multiple hours.
Of course, “getting the hang of things” in Cultist Simulator requires a great deal of effort all on its own, and that’s certainly a facet of the game’s initial presentation which players will either appreciate or loathe. Basic text instructions and symbol-based markers can provide hints and clues on how to proceed, but for the most part the player is left to their own devices. The game’s opening disclaimer even says that the player should feel free to experiment and explore since it’s never made explicitly clear how they should proceed or how they can go about performing specific actions.
Learning how to perform basic tasks like working a job for funds or studying to unlock new lore materials doesn’t take too much effort, but figuring out how to unlock a specific action tile or gain a certain resource often requires a lot of guesswork. That guesswork only keeps compounding itself as new systems and mechanics such as founding your cult’s doctrine, recruiting followers, sending those followers out on tasks, and dealing with hostile NPC’s are gradually layered on top of each other. Suffice it to say, you’ll have to pour many, many hours into Cultist Simulator and fail many, many times before you obtain your first victory.
Guided By Voices
It’s clear that Cultist Simulator was designed to appeal to a very specific subset of strategy game fans, i.e. ones who prefer to learn by doing. There are no new player tutorials to be found, no hint systems that can help to guide players along, no easy or “simplified” mode to turn to if the default game proves to be too obtuse for your liking. Also, no matter how far into a game you make it, if you lose and get a game over for whatever reason, you have to start entirely from scratch for the next game.
Other than being able to pick a new legacy, there’s nothing tangible that carries over from each game to the next, though you can at least use the lessons you learned to better prepare yourself for the next game’s challenges. For example, if a previous encounter with a vital NPC went south because you lacked a key resource, you’ll at least know what to have on hand should you encounter said NPC in a later game, though having that knowledge is a cold comfort when you have to start over entirely anew after pouring eight or more hours into your previous game.
Cultist Simulator certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a strategy fan who enjoys being immersed in dark Lovecraftian-style lore while having to carefully manage an obtuse gameplay system that isn’t afraid to toss you into the proverbial deep end, there’s also a lot of potential for players who relish a good challenge. In much the same way as similarly structured games like Sunless Seas or even the board game Arkham Horror, players who don’t mind failing repeatedly and who appreciate the merits of learning from those failures will thrive in Cultist Simulator’s minimal yet highly replayable dark fantasy format.