Obsession – ‘an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind’
‘Am I obsessed?’ I ask myself as I click the restart for the 17th time. I’d just finished a 4 hour game where I’d given in to my ‘Dread’ and even though I was at breaking point, I started again in the hope I could reach the top of the Mansus.
Cultist Simulator had me.
You may have not heard of Weather Factory before but you will have heard of Alexis Kennedy; the brain that brought you Fallen London and Sunless Sea. With that in mind, you can already tell this is not going to be your average game.
For Weather Factory’s first project they have brought a uniquely described ‘narrative crafting digital card game’ to the table (excuse the pun). You start the game as Joe Nobody and set about your day, attending your menial Job as a Hospital Porter, going through the motions, earning your pay and going home. Before long you are fired and with no income, you are left wondering how you are going to survive this bleak existence. All of a sudden you receive a bequest from a dying patient and with nothing else to do and funds slowly running dry, what else do you have to lose.
From here you discover that there is a world you never knew about, teeming with notions of a higher power and the allure of a new kind of destiny that awaits. You can spend time exploring the surroundings, locating shops that contain books with lore on the Occult. The more books you study, the more knowledge you gain and in doing so, enables you to talk about these matters in public, eventually attracting the attention of others. You will start to make acquaintances with people who share your passion and once you have your first, it’s all you need to establish your cult. From here, you choose a lore for your founding principles, choose your first recruit and away you go.
Your aim here is to garner more followers, study more lore and build up a collection of summoning rites and implements which will eventually enable you to bring cosmic entities into this world, bringing you closer to your ultimate goal.
All this takes place on a small table in a darkened room, with each element being represented by a picture or ‘Verb’ as they are more commonly known and cards that can be played on these Verbs, advancing the game and having one of many outcomes. Your main card resource comes in the form of Health, Reason, Passion and Funds, of which you get one each at the start of the game depending on which role you choose to play. You initially only get one option but upon death, will have three more stories to choose from. As you get further into the game, you can gain more of these cards which are required for more of the complex tasks later on. For instance, if you play a Reason card on the Work verb (represented by a hand with an eye in the middle), you will initially search for work and come across a placement at Glover and Glover, another card which you play on the Work verb to earn more funds. Most of the time though, working at Glover & Glover will require more Reason as the owner demands overtime, echoing real life in a meta shattering fashion. You see how this works…
Everything is run on a timer so you can use a Heart card on the Explore Verb to walk until you cannot walk any more, hopefully finding something interesting along the way. You can also use the Passion card on the Dream verb to explore your subconscious, maybe finding your way into the Mensus, a place beyond reality where good cards can be earned to progress the game. These activities take 60 seconds to complete and once done, can be used again with the same or a different combination of cards.
This all good and well but being a video game there are of course ways to lose. Firstly, as you go about your daily business of exploring the Occult, you will eventually attract the attention of Hunters. These troublesome cards will appear if you have Notoriety or Mystique cards hanging around (gained from doing Occult business) and will be a thorn in your side for most of the game. The more infamy you get, the more evidence can be collected against you, eventually leading to yourself or one of your followers being thrown in prison. This is of course easy to manage as there are many ways to throw a Hunter of your trail. The hardest part early game however is overcoming Dread. Just like real life, dread can pop in from time to time and drive you to dark places. It’s represented very accurately here, forcing a game over if you get too many on your table. On the flip side, you can even drive yourself mad with delusions of grandeur, which incidentally can be cured with a little dread. There’s nothing quite like being brought back down to earth after your fascinations take over.
Cultist Simulator is surprisingly meta, drawing you in and making you actually think about real life. After the 30th time of attending Glover and Glover, I really started to resent the place and Mr Alden who constantly badgered me to work overtime. All I really cared about, was exploring my passions (in this case starting a deranged cult) and seeking enlightenment, something which deep down rings true for all of us (not the occult part). It looks simple but there’s something quite powerful about having darkness behind you. You’re never too sure who is watching you from the shadows and that is exactly what you get when you play. A dark room, your machinations, your desires and the potential for greatness all to the backdrop of a sinister soundtrack, designed to drawn you in further.
That being said, this game will not be for everyone. It’s a hard sell being a ‘narrative driven card game’ but, it’s also very difficult to learn. I found myself at the beginning, very confused about what I was actually doing with little to no explanation to what I was supposed to do next. I had to experiment to find out what went where and how to progress in this crazy world. I of course don’t mind the experimenting aspect here but for those looking at something quick to get into, this is not for you. Cultist Simulator takes time to get a good result, and even then you will probably not have scratched the surface of what’s to offer. The average game can take hours to run through and it’s even more frustrating when out of nowhere, Dread takes you and that’s all your progress in the bin.
Like the popular Dark Souls series, Cultist Simulator leaves you to work things out on your own, rewarding you for your creativity and ingenuity. Being a card game however, it’s not as instinctive as Souls games and really does need some form of in game tutorial or at least a reference guide whenever you discover something new. Otherwise you are just throwing darts, experimenting until you get something right. Even then, you could be left clueless as to what’s happened. One of the other similarities comes in the form of the amount of text based lore on offer. Many interesting stories are conjured depending on the types of cards you combine with Verbs, leading to your own narrative being crafted, adding to the unique experience of each run.
Lack of tutorial aside, what you have is an addictive experience, a minimalist design and a beautiful soundtrack which culminate to create a truly unique experience. Cultist Simulator is a deep, dark exploration into into the other-worldly, laden with Occult and Lovecraftian overtones, designed to draw you in and push your mind to the limits as you try to ascend to greatness. If you have even the slightest interest in any of the subject matter, this is well worth your time. You may even find a new purpose.
Just don’t join any cults.
Cultist Simulator was reviewed on PC and is available now!