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Review of 'Cultist Simulator' - Andy Plays Indies; Andy Reviews Management Card Game: Cultist Simulator
Topic Started: Jul 4 2018, 08:26 AM (66 Views)
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Link to video review: https://youtu.be/jIM4eUlGabQ

You know, it's good to get out of your comfort zone from time to time. I'm an action game guy for the most part, with occasional jaunts into strategy and racing, and I don't like card games, roguelikes, or management sims. So of course when it was announced that Alexis Kennedy, the developer behind Fallen London and Sunless Sea, was releasing a card-based, rogue-like management sim, entitled Cultist Simulator, I went right out and bought it.

I'll save you all another long winded complaint about unimaginative game titles, since I think this one is actually a little bit clever, but we'll get into that later. Cultist Simulator is, as previously hinted, a card-based management RPG based on the premise of.......being a cultist. The game is developed by Weather Factory, which appears to consist of Alexis Kennedy and his wife, but since his name is all over the marketing press, I'm going to assume that Alexis is the driving force behind it.

In line with Mr. Kennedy's previous work, this game leans heavily on gothic and Lovecraftian themes, and is set in an alternate history 1920s. You start off as a nobody, and are set the task of building your eldritch cult from the ground up, dodging the law, and trying to uncover as many occult secrets as you can, without going broke or getting devoured by otherworldly horrors along the way.

Like most card games, Cultist Simulator plays out like a Dungeons and Dragons game with a punchcard computer for a Dungeon Master. You get cards to represent your assets, employees, information and so on. Combine these cards into action pools like your job, research, or exploration, and after a little time elapses, you get some more cards back for your trouble. In fact, Cultist Simulator leans more towards RPG than management sim. Your resources aren't limited to money and personnel, but include your personal traits, such as health, passion, and knowledge. As you use those up, the game gives you a real sense of spending yourself on this project.

And this is where it gets clever. Cultist Simulator is almost like a parallel universe Ghostbusters, a supernatural framework for what is essentially a story about starting a small business. This is more of a life simulator, than anything else, and for a procedurally generated game, Cultist Simulator has some strong story-telling chops. The minimalist visuals mean that you'll have to use your imagination, but if you meet the game halfway, you can really get sucked into the plight of your every day shlub protagonist. That's why the title is actually a little clever. This isn't "running a cult simulator", as much as it is "being a cultist simulator".

The slice of life problems will ring true to anyone who's ever tried to keep a side project afloat, as you spend much of the early game trying to make it to the occult bookstore on your lunch break and dreaming about the day you can finally quit your day job and become a full time evil guru. The use of your character traits as finite resources will make sense to anyone who has had to show up to work already exhausted from moonlighting. And the game works very well at creating the kind of dilemma where you have to meet with the Brotherhood of the Ebon Night at seven, but Mr. Henderson wants the TPS reports on his desk first thing in the morning. Will you devote yourself to your passion, or play it safe and lean towards keeping your career afloat? Can you make enough time to rest and relax, or are you going to let your dreams drive you on to death or glory? To make significant progress, you'll have to do a little bit of everything, but I like the fact that the game includes optional endings for if you just decide to make black magic a hobby, and focus on your health and career instead.

The true-to-life philosophy carries on into the game play, and like a kid fresh out of college, it's advisable to start your nefarious career by just putting yourself out there. Try as many things as you can, expect some failures, and hope that you learn enough to make a better go of your next opportunity. The staggering complexity of the elements at play means that also like life, it's going to take while before you have your feet under you enough to make any kind of a coherent plan. In the early game, you just have to put your head down and bull forward, which I find refreshing.... in a Zen kind of way.

I also want to take a moment to pause and commend how incredibly literate this game is. We aren't just dealing with a Lovecraft knock off, here. The flavor text on the cards is influenced by everyone from Lao Tzu to William Blake, and one of the first achievements I got was a direct reference to the opening lines of the Divine Comedy. This isn't just a treat for those of a more literary bent in the audience, it's a nice way of being true to a less-appreciated aspect of Lovecraft-era pulp fiction, which is that it assumed quite a broad education on the part of its readership. Instead of just referencing Lovecraft, Kennedy's gone out of his way to reference the kind of things that Lovecraft would have referenced.

And on the flip side, some considerable effort has gone into making sure that the game's own occult lore has a unique flavor. The developer has cooked up original titles for dozens of rites, monsters, books, and cults, all within a generally coherent mystical framework, and if it's a clear rip-off of anything pre-established, they picked lore that was too obscure for me to know about it.

Not that I don't have my complaints with the game. The insane volume of card types and combinations means that figuring out what you can do with each card takes longer than I would like. And there's also a few too many actions that require multiples of cards, which very quickly time out if they aren't used. In a way, I might say this game is actually a little overdeveloped. There's probably a half dozen card types, but a lot of actions which actually grant you any progress require four or more specific cards, and on top of that, a large number of cards have to be upgraded before they're very useful, and that process involves yet another combination of difficult to get cards.

An attempt is made to compensate for the cards having timers on them, by making it so that very few cards are permanently expended with use. But I think I'd rather have it the other way. If more of the cards were single use, but didn't have timers on them, that would allow a more strategic process of building up combinations over time. As it is, the game often feels like you're just sitting around hoping to luck into getting all the right cards at the same time.

None of these are deal-breakers, but you should expect to invest a lot of time experimenting, before you can put together the card combinations that allow for major breakthroughs. Despite how much I enjoy the everyday life aspect of the storytelling, it takes a bit too long for the inexperienced player to get to any of the fun occult stuff. Personally, the biggest challenge to my immersion with this game was the sheer length of time it takes to make progress.

There's a small, but significant paradox here, that Cultist Simulator has the ability to really immerse you in its emergent story, but it's also the kind of game you'll want to play while you catch up on all your favorite podcasts. I'm sure you could read a couple of guides and learn how to min/max your way to early success, but even more than most games, this is one where you're cheating yourself out of the true experience, if you don't come in blind.

So this game comes away with a very specific recommendation. You have to be prepared to invest your time and imagination into it, and you'll have to expect that the big dramatic moments are going to be few and far between. I hit a very definite wall at about eight hours in, when I couldn't make progress, and the randomization was starting to try my patience. But for lovers of complexity and emergent storytelling, this is probably going to be a worthwhile experience.

The game is $20.00 on Steam at time of writing, but if you're the right kind of person for it, you should get dozens of hours of playtime for your money. Personally, it's worth the cost to me, to support the developer's goal of advancing the cause of interactive storytelling. If you think this game is for you, it probably is.
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