"Hauntingly rapturous to play and replay, Cultist Simulator won't let you be the next Jim Jones, but it might just make you the next Torgo. With sassier hair, naturally."
Night falls over the city. I gaze out the window of my dingy, one-room apartment and watch the headlights of commuters cut through the darkness on their way home. From my vantage point they appear no larger than lightning bugs. I draw the curtains and light a candle. Little do they know I stand on the precipice of greatness.
This... is a pitch-perfect description of my time at art school, but it's also the setup to Cultist Simulator, the debut of Weather Factory, a new studio formed by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan, both previously of Failbetter Games (Sunless Sea). In tone with Kennedy and Bevan's prior oeuvre, Cultist Simulator is a blackly comic RPG of Lovecraftian discovery and wonder. Whereas Sunless Sea realised a similar motif through the shape of a nautical cartography roguelite, Cultist Simulator takes the more minimalist form of a card game; something akin to an Unholy Trinity of tarot, deck-building, and speed solitaire, while also being unlike anything else. A sandbox game at heart, Cultist Simulator does not have a singular goal: as one may guess from its title, the aim is to establish your own secret society dedicated to esotericism, but how you do this — as well as the very nature of your cult — can articulate in many, many different ways. And when I say "sandbox," I really mean it. Cultist Simulator gives you myriad cards representing objects, locations, people, rituals, beliefs, along with card-holders representing verbs to work with, then sets you loose to combine them as you see fit with the scantest of hand-holding.
You have four main stat resources: Funds, Health, Passion, and Reason. Time, marching ever forward, must consume one unit of funds every sixty seconds. You can stay up late poring over grimoires, but doing so won't pay the rent. Without Funds, you can't eat, which causes the Illness verb to appear on your table and begin consumption of your Health. If left unaddressed, you die in obscurity. You must work, but working temporarily dulls your Passion or Reason. Still, you must work every day or risk losing your job.
Each fresh game begins in the same way: your table is barren, save for an Employment card and a Work verb. You are an Aspirant, a low-level hospital employee with dreams of something greater. A chance encounter with an elderly patient begins a series of haunting dreams, which eventually distracts you enough to result in your dismissal. Soon, a package arrives at your door; the elderly patient has passed on, and as if tied by fate, has named you the sole beneficiary of his will. Now with a tidy sum of Funds and a strange bequest at your disposal, the Time and Study verbs take their place on your table and the game begins in earnest.
Each verb can only contain a single action at a time, but all verbs can be used concurrently. For example, while you're working, you can study lore fragments, explore locations, or carry out rituals, as long as you have the resources to do so. It's a game of spinning plates that sounds like a lot to manage (and it is) but the game can be paused at any time as you stop to think, make decisions, and even queue up actions. Experimentation is encouraged, as certain cards come with an expiration timer. Use them or lose them, or in certain cases, see them transform into something most detrimental. In the words of Blake, whom Cultist Simulator fittingly quotes, "He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence."
What you do from here is largely up to you — more than one playthrough has seen me cultivate an obsession with the Borges-esque Morland's Bookshop, a font (or perhaps more appropriately, an abyss) of forbidden knowledge — but the establishment of any successful cult requires warm bodies and tantalising lore fragments with which to attract them. The cult you found derives its identity from the category of lore you use as its core tenet, and while it is recommended to perform actions restricted to a single category, experimentation is often rewarded with unexpected or surprising results.
Cultist Simulator's free-form approach to play is undoubtedly intimidating — its near complete lack of guidance can frequently be frustrating — but is also its greatest strength. My early hours with the game saw me scratching my head in confusion, until my trial and error began to pay off when I pieced together enough information to determine I had the ability to raise the dead...and how to obtain a steady supply of corpses to experiment on. It was a ghoulish, yet fun decision on my part: one that is by no means a necessity for players who'd prefer not to devote themselves to murder and necromancy. And then there's the Mansus, a collective unconscious that is essentially another entire game lurking beneath the surface. But that's a secret best uncovered first-hand.
I did not uncover the most bizarre systems during my first playthrough, or even my second. Failure is not the end; your ideas persist even after your body perishes, and with each game that ends prematurely, Cultist Simulator presents you with three possible choices for a successor, depending on the trajectory your last playthrough took. An early run saw me attract a sizeable amount of unwanted attention from the authorities, though my cult leader succumbed to despair before the police could mount an ironclad case against me. This allowed me to choose as my heir a detective of the very unit that had been hunting me, at which point the script was flipped: I could stay true to my newfound occupation and suppress the allies of my predecessor, or
I could burn the most damning evidence, twisting the resources at my disposal as a means to become the most powerful cult leader of all. Later, I had a very successful run as a Physician who treated patients by day, only to stalk the streets for prey by night. Conversely, the Bright Young Thing, a Gatsby-esque socialite, began with a large amount of Funds but very little experience in the dark arts, which made progressing difficult despite the monetary safety net. These scenarios vary tremendously from each other, each comes with their own unique cards and writing, and each gently pushes the player in a different direction. Fail enough times and you're sure to find one you'll gel with, though do be aware that there's only one save slot, which begins with the Aspirant every time.
I admit I had some reservations going into a game set across a single virtual table, but these soon fell away as I fell in love with Cultist Simulator's graphic design. Each card boasts a unique, elegant design that effectively combines the jazz age with goth (totally my jam) while care has been taken to ensure they all look like they came out of the same pack. The music is equally lovely, languidly existing someplace between creepy and relaxing. This detached, almost mechanical minimalism on all fronts is incredibly suitable to Cultist Simulator's themes.
Robust, lovingly presented, and expertly written, Cultist Simulator is an elegant metaphor for existence as a starving artist under capitalism...only your art may have world-ending repercussions. Hauntingly rapturous to play and replay, it won't let you be the next Jim Jones, but it might just make you the next Torgo. With sassier hair, naturally.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.