Review: Cultist Simulator10 Apr 2019 3
Review: Cultist Simulator
Released 02 Apr 2019
Many a videogame has promised horror and darkness, some calling forth these more than others, but as whole the tone and genre has become practically anodyne. Familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, nuclear wastelands. Compared to these, Cultist Simulator is a breed apart, the horror genre reforged. It takes the familiar and human and making it secret, alien, cruel. Within the game the player could found the titular cult, gain forbidden knowledge, lose parts of body and soul, and eventually ascend to a higher, stranger plane of existence.
This is just the prosaic, reductive, ‘gamified’ run-down of what ‘happens’ in the game, for those who simply want a cheat-sheet for the experience of play. Any such summary, mine or others, is bound to give short shrift, though, for the writing in the game is sublime and dense, full of cross-references and slow-building lore.
Similarly, the game is an exercise in small actions building to grand consequences. While managing the main ‘verbs’ of the game (dream, explore, study, work) to gain resources and more esoteric scraps of knowledge, the aspirant navigates past histories and accounts of fellow occultists while dreaming of powerful entities.
The path for ascension is simply known as the House, and these entities (who are born, deposed, transformed) are known as the Hours. Each little interaction within the game offers a glimpse of what these hidden truths look like. The Hours have Aspects, you see, which are zones of existence, modes of action. Lantern, Grail, Forge, Knock, Moth, Heart, Edge, Winter. No, that’s not quite right. In this dim occultist’s estimation, it’s rather that fabric of reality, the nature of things themselves which bear the influence of these primary Aspects, and the Hours rule over them. Oh, and there are alternate histories, future timeline marked and erased like battlefronts on a map.
So that’s the theme, roughly, and it’s heady nature is so potent that it is distilled in every snippet of text. Ornamentation is instruction, the occult is hidden in the open, and a canny player will learn to love the lore for its guiding principles as much as its rich mythos. But what of everyday life for our humble aspirant? Well, it’s shockingly full of toil and drudgery. Money is paramount, of course, but so are the three qualities of Health, Passion, and Reason, which are useful in work but can also be sacrificed to the ravages of disease or arcane rituals. To say nothing of lore fragments, gained at first locally from rare and unusual books, then later from far-flung tomes retrieved on perilous expeditions.
That’s the roadmap, and by dragging resources and items to their requisite tiles, the timer starts and the game moves forward. Because of its real-time nature, the game often feels like nothing so much as spinning plates, skilfully and with expert knowledge and vision, of course, but mechanically demanding, nonetheless. Fortunately there is a pause button, which is practically a must to plan properly and absorb the game’s rich atmosphere.
Certain phrases stick out, some for their piquancy (‘pavane grace’), others as recurrent motifs (‘the skin of the world’). The game’s rhythm and constant upkeep is almost hypnotic, or better yet, hypnagogic. It is in this suggestible, wearied state that the player begins to learn, to see the cosmic underbelly of Cultist Simulator and reckon with its eldritch dream-logic. So there is a seamless synthesis between form and function, or as game reviewers like to say, gameplay and theme.
They aren’t twins here (Sister-and-Witch and Witch-and-Sister say cheers) so much as one entity which we split to make the whole more comprehensible. And this is why the game grabs new players and sucks them in, brainwashes them into thinking they are founders and leaders of cults when in truth all are dupes, all dance to the same tuneful mystery.
‘Mystery’ in the grandest sense of wonder, but also the diminutive, driving potboiler sense. Figuring out how to stay alive and make ends meet is as much a struggle as occult concerns, to say nothing of Despair (the ‘wolf that devours’) or Fascination, which have ended many a run. Here the game is a little coy about its permadeath, one life, one run philosophy. Yes, game over is permanent. I miss the option to manually backup saves because on a cold-hearted practical note, the game is long and difficult, which makes permadeath losses especially stinging. Just a minor drawback.
In conclusion: yes, yes, a million hollow moons yes, Cultist Simulator is a good game, the kind which will haunt your waking moments with its patterns and intricacies. The app is so easy to use, making the repetition of the game dreamlike rather than simply dull, and though I’ve beaten it twice and wasn’t sure I could tackle another go-around, it seems like I’m a born again cultist. I’ll remember my fleshsack days fondly, looking back from the seat of the Glory upon those quotidian beginnings. But first I have to finish this last bit of research...