It turns out running a cult is not just séances in the forest at midnight, and some potentially poisoned sugary drinks. Instead, it’s an intricate web of recruitment, exploration, research, lore, all while still going to your own day job. This at least is the premise behind Cultist Simulator, a card based, roguelike with some heavy experimental tones. So, will playing this game cause you to ascend, or will you find yourself running for the hills after a moment of clarity?
It’s the 1920s, and you’ve just found yourself desiring to build up your very own personal cult. Where to begin though, one might ask? Cultist Simulator kicks off your journey with asking you to select your legacy from a generated pool. Are you a Medium who is on the path to being a prophet? Maybe a Detective in search of what humans are capable of to each other? Selecting your legacy will determine a few of your starting cards, but I found these to not be terribly influential to the gameplay, but more unique to the narrative side the game.
Cultist Simulator, at its heart, is an experimentation-based card game that also aligns itself with roguelike mechanics and perma-deaths. You’ll be presented with a board, and as your game progresses you’ll unlock active timer-based slots for things like your dream state, your job, your fund expenditure, and many more. The goal is to experiment by slotting in cards you earn and essentially see what happens. As I mentioned, since the game is time-based, when a timer says your dream state comes up, you’ll be rewarded with new cards. If you so happen to have another eligible card to use, you’re welcomed to slot it back in and see what happens next. The basic mechanics of this game are just that easy; slot cards, wait, think a little, earn more cards back, or run into trouble, slot more cards back in, and repeat.
The complexity with this title really relies deeply on the experimentation aspect, and is a testament to absolute frustration in my opinion. You see, Cultist Simulator does not include a tutorial or gameplay manual of any real qualitative sorts. And for many, including me to a point, this will be a monumental turn off. Cards will be dealt to you, and you’ll certainly earn new ones, however beyond a small narrative paragraph that attempts to detail out what they may mean, you’ll typically be forced to learn on your own what symbols represent, and how each thing will play out. I’m afraid to say that even after nearly two hours of gameplay, I was still completely unaware of what many of the possible solution symbols meant for any particular action I was taking.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good experimentation board or card game, and I’ve spent plenty of time on mobile titles like The Sandbox Evolution, but I strongly feel that without that initial guidance of the basic mechanics and structure of a game, you’re regrettably left floundering. Instead of focusing on experimentation, it’s more accidental and interpretation. This game doesn’t shy away from the fact that it doesn’t want to hold your hand, but I really feel that this is a strongly missed opportunity to aid players in the start of their cultist journey.
As you do chug along slotting cards and watching the active timers dismiss, you’ll start to piece together some of the actions and reactions that will happen, and Cultist Simulator will start to unveil how deep this rabbit hole can go. Recruitment of followers and exploration of libraries or other facilities, as well as dreaming sweet dreams of money (which will generally not end so well) all come to life to create a rather fast-paced card swapping and managing game experience.
Thankfully, there is also a pause button so you can take a breath and really think through your experimental actions and also take a moment to read the highly engaging and well written lore and narrative driving points. In fact, this title aces the whole look and feel in creating a simplistic, classy, but mysterious art style, narrative, and general theme to pair with running a time-piece cult. Now there’s still some slight grievances I have here in terms of presentation on the Switch platform. Mainly, some of the text and iconography nears sub-pixel, and there’s a lot of subtle menu items that — given the game has no tutorial — will be hidden, but sadly also critical for deeper gameplay.
As with most roguelike games, death is still fairly frequent, and by multiple methods. However, I found that in the majority of my cases, my end of being a cultist leader was abrupt and without confirmed knowledge of why, until I’d realize that I had a ticking down timer on another menu screen and a card requirement I had no idea how to fulfill. I wanted to avoid these certain death routes, but even experimenting I still felt as though I should go online to a Wiki to help aid my way in ascending the game’s inner workings.
Cultist Simulator brings a lot of flavor to the table, and I have no doubt in my mind that the game mechanics are certainly rich. Even with my time spent with the title, it’s more than clear there is a ton of depth into the content and variables that can be seen and discovered. I wish the onboarding was more user friendly because I do see the fun in exploring the reactions of how the various cards can work. But with absolutely no context, it’s been nothing but a pain point for me. Still, there’s that mysterious allure to becoming said cult leader, and so I expect many people will still enjoy this route for playing a roguelike of this nature. For me though, I won’t be sticking around long enough for any sugary drinks that may be offered my way.
Cultist Simulator Review
- Graphics - 6/106/10
- Sound - 7/107/10
- Gameplay - 5.5/105.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 6.5/106.5/10
Final Thoughts: WORTH CONSIDERING
Cultist Simulator brings a card-based roguelike to the table, with a great thematic setting and deep lore. The core game mechanics are simple to interact with, however the game struggles deeply to gain traction because of an intentional design decision to avoid any tutorials or context to what’s happening on screen, leaving me mostly stabbing at the dark to play the game. Some will enjoy the variable experimentation, but not all will drink the Kool-Aid.
Alex has been actively gaming since the release of the Nintendo. Turning passion into profession, he’s spent just over a decade in game development, and is currently the Creative Director at a studio.