Few games have managed to capture dread as effectively as Failbetter Games' Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Both titles were darlings within the independent gaming scene, and brought about a level of creeping fear far beyond some of their AAA peers, telling vibrant yet horrifying stories with ease. Although Cultist Simulator may not be a Failbetter title proper, it does comes from alumni of the studio at two-person developer Weather Factory.
It's easy to see similarities between the games, too, with Cultist Simulator containing a similar kind of intoxicating narrative from creator Alexis Kennedy, who also spearheaded Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Set in an otherworldly version of the 1920s, there are some heavy Lovecraftian overtones as the player attempts to uncover and decipher the mysteries of the world around them and create a monstrous cult of their own. It might not be a straightforward method of storytelling, but it's definitely one that sticks in the memory.
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Part of why the story works so well is in part down to the left-field choice of gameplay mode. Cultist Simulator is, at its purest form, a card game. The player is placed into a mundane situation at first, be it as a menial clerical job or a police inspector, before things begin to unravel through overturned cards with secrets of their own. It's then up to the player to build upon the discovery of lost, arcane texts and strange dreams to start something Enoch Bowen would be proud of.
This blend of card game and cosmic horror could quite easily have failed to land, but in fact it's what makes Cultist Simulator stand out from its peers. The way that card pickups tie into a larger plot that the player cannot quite see the breadth of is perhaps the crowning achievement here, as the would-be cult leader attempts to stick to the strict timeframes required within gameplay loops.
The best way to describe the mechanics of Cult Simulator is that it revolves around a variety of needs, a series of cavernous maws into which cards are pumped. In order to uncover more secrets, explore more areas, and unfurl more of the narrative itself, the player must place their hard-earned cards into different slots, stacking up where appropriate to gain more from each choice, all the while hoping that the gamble of card selection pays off in the face of other, unsuspected challenges.
It's this piecemeal arrangement that really makes the player feel like they could be involved in a Lovecraftian horror story. Whichever Legacy is chosen in the game, be it a 'normal' person or someone from a more important hereditary status, there's a sense that not everything is going to be uncovered, not every secret made apparent. Indeed, playing through the game multiple times with different Legacies is kind of a given, as it's undoubtedly the best way to experience as much as possible within the game world, and also play the game in different ways. Whether it's pushing forward with the forging of a strange new cult or simply trying to focus on solving mysterious crimes while plagued with a malaise of dark dreams, there's a wealth of tales to be found here.
On top of this, players need to remain afloat in terms of health and money, maintaining physical upkeep and keeping up with some kind of work, be it something arbitrary or channeling those strange desires into artistic endeavors. Unfortunately, this doesn't truly work to the game's advantage, as although this mundanity may work from a thematic perspective, it chains the player to at times sticking to a more cautious approach.
Overall this adds to the non-linear feel of Cultist Simulator from a plot perspective, but perhaps diminishes it as a game. It also leads to a bit of an issue where farming takes precedence, running through similar loops to reach those targeted cards to solve the next bit of the puzzle, while maintaining the semblance of a normal life through paying the rent and remaining in good physical condition. Although there are some ways around this issue, they are not always apparent and it can get a little repetitive.
Even so, Cultist Simulator is still a very fun experience, and the way that it slowly builds into something horrible is quite impressive. It's always going to be something of a niche experience, based on its setting and its gameplay, but for those interested in unique methods of storytelling it's a must have. Something to play in short busts, but which causes dark memories long into the night.
Cultist Simulator is available now on PC and Mac. Screen Rant was provided with a PC code for the purposes of this review.