Review: Cultist Simulator, or “confusion as a gameplay mecanism”

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

A few months ago, driven by reviews describing Cultist Simulator as a game with incredibly innovative gameplay, and although I’m usually not into computer card games, I gave it a try. It was on sale and it really intrigued me.

It was really hard to get into it. The game seems really undecipherable at first glance. Nothing is explained but a laconic “try stuffs, see how it turns out” (I’m paraphrasing). All we know is that we’re supposed to create a cult, get followers, discover the arcane mysteries, avoid investigation and authorities, and basically not die. We’ll come back to that last one later.

So, I get some boxes, in which I have to put cards to get an effect, and when I combine different cards in those boxes, I get various effects or, more often than not, not much effect. So I try different combinations, the game is nice enough to highlight the cards that can be combined with the boxes, I try to make a bit of money, I read a mysterious description, and oops, I just died. What happened? I died of hunger apparently. So I must attend work every day to get money to buy food. Geez, is this the real life?

I try again. Different career. This one is rich (yup, that’s a career), so I guess I can hold on longer with my money. I try looking into the library, I may find books that tell me about the arcane and WHAT? I DIED AGAIN? Of hunger again. Apparently, even when you’re rich, you have to do something to not run out of money. Who am I to know, I’ve never been rich.

And I start again. You see the pattern here? Because yes, if you plan on playing Cultist Simulator, you are going to die. A lot. There is no workaround, and somehow that’s the whole point of the game. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve been drawn to after 22 hours of playing (not straight, I’m not crazy, but maybe you need to be crazy to play it). See, the developers didn’t provide a tutorial with the game, and made it very confusing, like you would probably be if you were thrown into a world you knew nothing about (here the occult). So you have to decipher the information you get, order it in a way it makes sense, and then you can see a glimpse of how the gameplay works and how you can beat the game.

Haha. Just kidding. There is no beating the game. It’s so hard to beat it that people are actually bragging about it. But I don’t really think beating it is as rewarding as it’s time consuming. The problem being a pretty boring middle ground, after you understood the ropes and when you just spend time scrounging for lore and trying not to get caught by police for being a cultist (which is game over if you get prosecuted). The investigators provide a bit of welcomed stress in an overall repetitive task. But even investigators are easy to get rid off when you’re surrounded by the right people.

Yup! That’s my current game. And it’s carefully ordered so it makes sense (to me).

In my opinion, even if the struggle to win is real, the interest lies more in getting to the safe zone after the start of the game, which is actually pretty hard depending on the career, than actually going all the way. I have the same feeling when I play Civilization. I love the start when the party is burgeoning and vulnerable, but at some point, it becomes farming and keeping the status quo with the rest of the game until there is an opportunity to win. And in Civilization, I never felt rewarded to win, just relieved, and I feel that Cultist Simulator is the same, but I don’t want to just die after spending hours on a party and then losing everything to start over.

Actually, I won the game once. I won the police career. Meaning I got promoted in the rank to become the most powerful person in there with a stable job. Never touched the occult. Long story short, it didn’t feel like a win, and it’s not supposed too, either. The game draws you into the forbidden world of the occult, to be scared to get caught, but tempted to look further. And it wants you to DIE! Again and again. To be fair, it’s described as “Lovecraftian” ⁽¹⁾, I guess I should have seen this coming.

So I think the fun of the game was mostly to work around the confusion of the start and make my own organisation in this messy pile of card. But after I got the hang of it, it’s mostly about raking up hours trying to find obscure combinations that will open doors to go further, and maybe one day finish it. But I’m really wondering: will it be worth?

(1) The developers made Sunless Seas, and soon-to-be-release Sunless Skies, so there is a pretty coherent theme there I might say