Posted on 14 Jul 2018 by Adison

Cultist Simulator

The Defence

Developer: Weather Factory
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Genre: Card, Indie
Platform: PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: No data.

The Prosecution

Minimum
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel 2 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia 1280x768 minimum resolution
AMD equivalent
RAM: 1 GB
HDD: 500 MB
DirectX: 9
Controller: None
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: Unknown

The Case

Cultist Simulator, a game developed by Weather Factory and published by Humble Bundle.

While this game appears to have a very basic theme, it’s actually quite complex. In fact, it’s so complex that it makes me wonder how exactly they even managed to make it work. Weather Factory was co-founded by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan, both having worked on Fallen London and a few other titles. The game is a card-based whirlwind of activity with random events mingling in with predictable outcomes in ways that make you wish it had a manual. The developers have adapted a Lovecraftian theme and went out of their way to make sure you know it.

The Trial

Cultist Simulator could best be described as a game of “What am I supposed to do?” the first time you launch it. The reason for this is because there’s absolutely no tutorial. I spent half the amount of time I played just learning the most basic mechanics and had to ask people for help. The game basically starts you out as a random person with a job of some variety based on your starting selection. A good example of this is a constable of the law. It then makes it so you have to work at this job over and over endlessly every so many second or you lose it. It’s actually pretty annoying to lose your job and be forced to meet timeframes constantly. It’s like life simulator as much as it is cultist simulator.

The next goal, beyond not dying from starvation or sickness, is to start a cult, recruit people, and research your object of focus. I believe the end goal of the game is to do whatever you must to reach immortality. The game is pretty harsh, and the system can be irritating on top of that. The difficulty level of the game is out of this world, and I find myself failing every single time I play. A lot of the cards you need have time limits on them and thus vanish after 120 or 180 seconds. The positive ones tend to fade faster than the negative ones for some reason. This is very frustrating as it makes the game seem like it’s geared to make your life miserable and make everything you do lean more towards your failure. Lore is not infinitely obtainable, which can make things frustrating if you’re subverting and accidentally run out.

Going crazy really sucks.

Speaking of failure; there are just far too many types of failure possible. You can get too obsessed, lose all your health, be caught by the authorities, or get too much dread and go insane. Funds get swallowed up rapidly, but you can manage that if you’re particularly diligent with work. Jobs consist of writing commissions about lore and auctioning the special coins, Constable, Clerical Work, Painting, Menial Labor, Physician, and even Begging if you’re suffering from decrepitude after being unable to heal or eat. Each starting choice also has a different starting format of cards, and sometimes you just end up failing due to its lack of some resources early on. There is a definite need for further balancing in Cultist Simulator. The game is some kind of fun because I found myself continuing to play it as the hours passed without really wanting to stop.

I have a couple major complaints with the game, but they don’t seem to stop me from playing. To start with there is absolutely no tutorial for the game; they throw you onto a board and don’t explain a lick of what to do. I agree that there are a lot of games that don’t really need a tutorial. However, when you’re going to have a game that’s pretty much based around being overly complex you really need to explain at least the basics. I found myself being hit with pangs of agitation every time a new element would show up to make my day full of sadness and failure. Then I lose in some new and creatively annoying way while gritting my teeth and wishing I knew how to stop it.

Stop giving me cards, AHH!

There is a system in which they tell you what cards can be used where by highlighting or making the cards sparkle. This doesn’t actually help all that much, because you still don’t always know what they will do. Even then, some of the sparkles that say I can use this card here, are lies. You’ll slot the card and go to click “Start” and it will still be grayed out and nothing will happen. This is even more infuriating due to the fact that the game itself just said it could go there and work. A good nine times out of ten it can be used there, but only if you’ve slotted another card which then uses that card you’re clicking on.

Another huge complaint I have is that the cards don’t stay put where I want them to be. They’ll get jumped around all over the board without me wanting them to a good fifty percent of the time. It’s a bit on the ridiculous side to be perfectly frank. They did recently add a grid snap to the game, but it’s not defined by anything, it just snaps cards around the table. I would be happier if they added the option for a line mesh over things as well so I could manually slot the cards a bit easier. Glitches in these card stacking and locking mechanics that are already in place in the game are definitely frustrating, especially after they’ve had time to fix it.

I won! Wait.. this is all I get? Damn you!

What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any actual story. I think the idea was supposed to be that you built your own story, but that just means you also have to find your own motivation to keep going. I lost that motivation after several hours filled with failure and constant annoyance at the timers and the never-ending rise of problems. Such as clicking and dragging on a card and then it’s somehow released before I place it, but not put down. Then it’s stuck there until you move another card, which allows you to click that one again. Or the table getting stuck and being unable to be navigated, and thus having to save and quit and return to the game. Small things, but they seem to occur often enough that I want to slap the game. There are some minor bugs still in the game as well, and it’s confusing as to how they squeaked through. A decent amount of playtesting should have popped them up.

The Verdict

The game has a nice style and decent content, as in what it’s based on, but the game itself suffers dramatically from its own system not being streamlined. The game isn’t outright bad, and might even be good if they could fix some things. They legitimately could not go wrong with adding a basics tutorial, even if some of the cards say what to do, not everyone is going to want to do all the reading right off the bat. I will admit I think the timers on some things need adjusting as well, the pace of the game would be more tolerable. Even being able to pause the game doesn’t help very much until you realize you can pretty much cheat with it. I will admit that it’s one of those games where you just have to look up what you’re supposed to do before it starts to become really fun. The more I played, the more I knew how to play it, the more fun it became. I have won a game using the enlightenment path. It’s not easy, and I’ll say the “victory” is not nearly worth the effort of getting it. I know it probably seems like a high score for so many complaints, but I have to admit one more thing; the game got me coming back over and over and spending hours on it despite how mad I was getting with it. Even now I kind of want to go play a game. I think it’s a love-hate relationship.

Case Review

  • Stylish: Looks nice, works okay. Little fussing with the text and UI, until you figure it out.

  • Lovecraft: A good topic that needs more attention, even more than it already gets.

  • The Basics: Many people have agreed that they could at least teach the basics first.

  • Time’s up!: Yeah, I hate timers and think they should be banned from all games. They’re almost as bad as poorly done quick-time events.

  • Deep end: The lack of a tutorial and being chucked right in to flail around in the water, which also happens to be full of starving sharks.

3.5 Score: 3.5/5
Needs more tentacles.

Evidence

  • Graphics: Basic stuff before launch, control resolution and quality in a simplified spectrum.
  • Audio: Music and SFX options.
  • Extra: UI scaling, autosave interval, info window durations. A toggle to select Worm or Bird, which has no impact on anything in the game.

Appeal

3 Score: 3/5

Cultist Simulator is a harsh mistress. With zero direction on how to play you’re thrown in at the deep end with a giant mystery laid out before you. Rather appropriate for a Lovecraftian game. That doesn’t excuse just how frustrating the first several hours with the game actually are, it took me several tries to realise I had to keep doing my job in order to keep it, instead of just doing it when I wanted money. The mystery pervades through every new mechanic that’s introduced – positive and negative effects, lore, going insane and losing; you’ll constantly be asking yourself “why did this happen? What caused it? How can I stop it?”

Once you spend some time on the internet, doing a bit of research and learning how to play, there’s an enjoyable enough card game underneath that unfortunate layer of obfuscation. It’s basically Lovecraftian solitaire; you’re attempting to reach your goal and juggling resources, investigations, people, etcetera. This all gets rather overwhelming when you’ve got three dozen cards and tiles laid out on the table but the game managed to organise them well enough that you can usually find what you want relatively quickly once you get in the groove. Uniquely, it’s a real-time card game rather than turn based, but you can pause and that’s a feature you’ll be reaching for constantly because it feels like the only way to properly manage your table once things are in full-swing, I can’t help but feel that the game would have benefited greatly from having a set turn time to play out in chunks rather than a constantly running clock.

Make no mistake, Cultist Simulator is as cult of a card game as you’re going to get. Overly complex mechanics, no instruction, and a difficulty curve that reaches Saturn practically ensure that most players will be turned off almost immediately. Those hardcore few that stick with it will find it a rewarding game with enough hours sunk into it but that’s a terrible caveat to have to give for a positive score. Instead, I’ll say this: if you like reading every little bit of minutiae on hundreds of cards and don’t mind failing dozens of times before you even understand a game’s mechanics then Cultist Simulator might be something you’ll enjoy eventually but it’ll probably cause you to lose a portion of your sanity first.

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