We’ve been there before, haven’t we? Either coupled up in the front room feeling bored or outside in a nice idyllic spot in the country. Feeling the sunshine on your face and that sublime light breeze running through your hair and thinking. “What would it be like being a praised and worshipped leader of a community of obsessed and utterly devoted members all striving for instruction and the path to enlightenment? All adorned in white gowns and willing to hang out at airport terminals giving out flowers and pamphlets, to spread your message to a wider and unsuspecting new audience.”
The answer is probably no, but if anything tweaks your curiosity and interest along those lines, then take a look at Cultist Simulator. A unique and often mystifying twist on a card game.Where players are taken from the humdrum of normal and often banal positions in life, and actively encouraged to seek out new paths along the lines of the occult and mystic. Discover the teachings of the numerous hidden cults in the game, seek followers, and create a strong group capable and durable enough to withstand the many hidden dangers and unwanted attention from the outside world.
Experiment, Die, Ascend is the game’s motto here. Without any real help or guidance given to players as they start from the off, you are actively encouraged to experiment as you try and work things out, but boy do you die! In fact, you die an awful lot!
Cultist Simulator is a tough, tough game. A kind of Illuminati take on the card game solitaire, fused with the often dark and unsettling flavour of HP Lovecraft type text descriptions and experiences, and moulded with the “one mistake and die” mechanics of games like super meat boy and dark souls. Yes, from the outside and on looks, this game may seem harmless enough as a bright, curious and inviting looking card game. What it soon reveals is an experience akin to the puzzle box in Hellraiser. You know you’re going to die but curiosity wants you to have a go again and try and reveal more of its inner mysteries and secrets. Like the martial arts learner standing in front of his master.No matter how hard the beating, you get back up having learned your lesson through bruised eyes.The whole gaming experience playing out more Marilyn Manson than Charles Manson!
The card basics are not that hard, once you settle and learn the controls and the layout. You pick a certain story character thread. A physician in a hospital, and out of work initiate, a moderately wealthy individual, a spiritual medium or even a police inspector. Each carries certain starter cards relating to the story and in every case, you fuse cards to produce certain outcomes and gain further cards based on those outcomes.
Players eventually start to build up verb /action cards like Work, Dream, Talk, Explore, Study, that becomes permanently locked and tools for the duration of that life. By adding other cards onto those areas, you then initiate an activation over a short-timer and a result. For example, putting a company card onto work will get you working for that duration of time. A character card on talk for conversation, a shop card on explore to visit that shop or a book or pamphlet on study in order to read it. Pretty straightforward so far and you soon start collecting cards based on those actions and naturally progressing the story.
What’s quickly apparent is that certain attributes are essential to progression and need constant attention. Health, Funds, Passion and Wisdom.
Health is pretty self-explanatory. Lack of health and you get sick and can die if left untreated. Funds are needed to buy provisions, books, artefacts, relics or to enter buildings of interest like clubs or auction rooms, or simply medicines if you get sick.
Passion and Wisdom are the more complex and intricate traits that are needed and can be added in a multitude of ways to aid and enhance progress in lots of areas. For example, working with passion and wisdom may get you noticed by your boss at work and gain you a promotion. It can enhance study and bring about hidden talents or be used to work out and understand the writings and teachings from textbooks you collect. Aid you in understanding the many visions and dreams in sleep state, or be used in conversation to influence and attract followers.
It’s only when you start experimenting with cards and various timers are running as you fuse cards, that the complexity of the situation gets a bigger beast to control. Whilst experimentation is the only way of learning and discovery, it’s also as short-lived as you would like with death around every conceivable corner. Depleted health causes sickness and death. Lack of funds causes deprivation, starvation and death. A push down a certain mystic pathway of discovery and understanding can bring despair, fear, dread and eventual death. Death is encouraged by the game makers as a means of learning but that doesn’t mean it’s welcoming or any less frustrating.
Still, in a typical roguelike trait, death will lead you to multiple options of choosing one of three new paths and restarting again in what becomes one big cultist gameplay loop, in what I understand is possibly the game’s ascend aspect.
This particular version, Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition for the Nintendo Switch, carries some welcoming and pleasing additions from its PC/Mobile versions.
Buying the mobile version on iOS, allowed me to see and play the game from a different perspective and gives me a wider scope for opinion.
Firstly, the switch version comes complete with the three portions of DLC that were released from the game’s release since 2018. The Dancer, The Priest, The Ghoul carrying new gameplay aspects, characters and story that can be either started as a new game or selected if they appear after death as one of your three continuation options.
Secondly, out of the two versions, the new Switch version succeeds as regards the card layout and general control system, which is the easiest out of the two.
The mobile/PC versions have a layout that is generally a large circle of cards with the verb/action cards mixed with the collected cards as you play. This means it can get a little confusing on mobile, with having to touch screen the right card in a growing mass of cards and pulling the right cards to activate the action.
The Nintendo Switch is more a solid layout with action/ verb cards automatically placed at the bottom of the screen away from the other cards, with controls perfectly set out to use A to activate, X to read cards and the triggers, L to pause the game, R to fast forward and LR, ZR to cycle through the verb cards. It’s just simpler, cleaner and easier to manage and with the timer constantly counting down, it’s more efficient.
Overall, Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition is a game that demands your time, lots of patience and experimentation. There’s a gorgeous hidden tip booklet on the help section in the options menu, that demonstrates just how much time and effort the developers have put into this game and the new switch layout showing the rework and improvements they have made to get it running just right.
Combined with a great running synth soundtrack and a host of hidden surprises in its amazingly deep gameplay. The core game will indeed split opinion depending on how interested you are in its source material and how patient you are willing to be and how curious.
In my many hours, I found this game so intriguing and engaging in that through its many sudden death frustrations, I was still willing to persevere and try and discover more.
If you like it, I would heartily recommend purchasing The Exile DLC as an added extra. This brings new gameplay, new characters and a new experience as a character escaping dark forces through 33 different countries. Just don’t expect it to be any easier!
Thanks to Weather Factory/Playdigious for the game code.