Review: Cultist Simulator

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Review copy provided by developer

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The magic of gaming is that it allows us to abstract any event or action into anything we want. Kingdoms can rise and fall from matching blocks, monsters can fall to menu selections, and the very worth of a person can be reduced to numbers on a worksheet. But the truly unique abstractions are few and far between, which makes the card shuffling and token trading of Cultist Simulator all the more special. There are hundreds of ways to simulate starting and growing a cult, after all, but with a deck of cards is perhaps the least likely. And it’s just about as odd to follow as it is to conceive of, so be ready for plenty of struggle and experimentation to get the most out of this hand.

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Congratulations, you’re starting a cult! The unseen things settled into the cracks of the world have whispered to you, and mundane life can no longer satisfy the hunger in your soul. Starting from a chance encounter at your normal job, you begin to follow the trail into the inner workings of the cosmos. This might mean studying obscure texts from a bookstore, it might mean proselytizing your discoveries on the streets, or it might mean performing arcane rituals on those who have crossed your dark path. No matter how you pursue the infinite secrets, you’ll still need to keep yourself flush with cash and healthy, and brushing up on your conventional studies won’t hurt either. But take your discoveries too far, and you might attract the wrong kind of attention, or push your own psyche past the breaking point.

What all that means in practice is that you’re going to be dealt a whole lotta cards, and you gotta manage them. Cultist Simulator sets you down at a table with a few basic cards, representing your job, your passion, you health, your funds, and so on, and a few tokens that process those cards. So, in the case of your health, you can stick that card in the work token to perform manual labor, or you can stick it in the study token to train your body, or stick it in the exploration token to walk the streets in search of oddities. Processing cards takes time, and some of the cards you get back decay over time. Similarly, temporary tokens will appear at random, representing new opportunities like inspiration or dangers like investigations or illness, and producing even more esoteric cards like Fleeting Memories and Mystique.

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We’ll get to the interesting part of that in a minute, but first I want to cover how that translates into challenge. You can die in Cultist Simulator, and as I’m sure you’ll discover it can happen very suddenly. While you’re busy turning Passion into Glimmerings there’s a token eating your funds at regular intervals, to represent the need to support yourself. Occasionally this kicks out new tokens like one that produces Restlessness from your particular inspiration, or one that eats Dread produced from decayed Restlessness. The end state of these processes is essentially a countdown to madness or inescapable despair, and you must understand these processes in order to interrupt them. But you won’t, not until you try combining cards in tokens or produce special timed cards at just the right times to see how they interact, and that’s going to lead to more than a few frustrating deaths.

But hopefully that will inspire you to suss out the mechanics at work, because once you get those plates spinning there’s a whole ocean of dark machinations to play with. Starting a cult is easy, based on one of the many Aspects you’ll uncover from your studies, and from there you can recruit and promote followers, kidnap or kill troublesome investigators, and perform rites that do all kinds of weird stuff. Again, you’re not going to know HOW to do any of this at first, but a healthy amount of experimentation will reveal the systems in time. And really that’s what you need to be here for, because that’s the heart of the game. All these strangely-named cards and interlocking systems form a giant puzzle separating you from the secrets of the cosmos. There’s some neat writing to be found on the cards (as one would expect from the Fallen London folks) and some neater concepts represented by the systems, you’ve just got to find them.

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If you have the inquisitive mind to plug away at Cultist Simulator until it makes sense, you’ll eventually solve the puzzle and that will essentially be that. The threats you face can be dispelled with the processes you uncover, and while there are many Aspects to found a cult under they all require a wide spread of secrets and rites to function properly. The meat of the gameplay here is solving the mystery of its systems, and once it’s solved you’ll have seen it all save for some even more esoteric achievements. But the road there is a fun and challenging one, and the whole game oozes style with its evocative icons and rich sound design. This isn’t how I ever expected to found a cult, but it’s also more fun than I ever expected and I’m glad I went the card route with it.

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