Cultist Simulator Review
Release Date: May 31 2018
Developer: Weather Factory
There are few game writers whose work I enjoy as much as Alexis Kennedy’s. I’ve been playing his games since I discovered the text-based browser RPG Fallen London just after high school. It isn’t surprising then that I was incredibly excited to review his latest game, Cultist Simulator. The prospect of exploring an original world of his outside the Fallen London universe where his previous work was set was particularly thrilling. But did Cultist Simulator live up to my incredibly high expectations?
The answer is more complex than I’d like it to be.
Cultist Simulator has its main character creating a cult in the 1920s by placing cards in action spaces, often on some sort of timer. Players must negotiate the limited options given by these cards while deciding what to base their cult around, who to recruit and what rituals to perform. Not only that, the main character is constantly trying to fend off madness, starvation and the Ministry of Suppression. Running a cult definitely isn’t as easy as it seems.
Making matters more difficult is the game’s lack of any form of tutorial. While this does add an interesting puzzle aspect to Cultist Simulator, I mostly found it annoying. In fact, as I struggled to work out how not to die in the first couple of hours of the game, I felt more like I was doing a timed sudoku than playing a video game. The next few hours were spent trying different ways to gather the resources to advance the story, made all the more difficult by the fact that often it isn’t immediately obvious which action led to the positive or negative effects I got. For those first hours, I was so busy trying to work out how to actually play Cultist Simulator that I barely had time to engage with the story at all.
After about five hours of gameplay, and a much-needed break from sheer frustration, I did start to get the hang of the game. There were still quite a few puzzles to solve, but I finally had enough mental space to be able to start reading the story accompanying the cards. It was everything I had hoped it would be. As in his previous efforts, Kennedy’s writing continues to be highly thematic and evocative. His audience can’t help feeling the rush of adrenaline as one of their cultist’s brings down a hunter or a prickle of fear as their opium-based dreams become nightmares. Each location explored has its own distinct feeling from the proper-but-stuffy auction house to the surreal yet enticing Ecdysis Club to the moonlit streets of the city. It’s somewhat unfortunate that all of this amazing writing very much takes a backseat to the puzzle of how to play.
In fact, the puzzle at the core of Cultist Simulator seems to push every other aspect of the game aside, which is a real shame as so much of it is brilliant. The art is beautiful and filled with symbolism, but I didn’t get the chance to fully appreciate it as my brain struggled to unlock the next bit of the game. The score was interesting, but I only really listened to it while the game paused. I spent so much time trying to actually play the game that I barely got the chance to enjoy it.
The joy of Cultist Simulator seems to be forging your own path forward entirely yourself and I do have to admit I did feel a huge sense of satisfaction every time I managed to work out a new mechanic. But the focus being so heavily on this meant that it was extremely difficult to appreciate any other part of the game. I often found myself distracted from the story and world by having to concentrate so hard on the puzzle. As a result, I would recommend Cultist Simulator for fans of puzzles or Alexis Kennedy’s other work, but it’s definitely not for those who, like me, play games to relax. It’s a shame because I would really like to see my cult develop, but for the moment, it’s just too much work.
- Fascinating story with thematic writing
- Symbolic and interesting art style
- Often highly confusing due to lack of tutorial