Cultist Simulator made me feel like I survived a decade in the cult of Scientology. I was initially beguiled by the potential secrets the strange rituals had to offer. After what seemed like years of investment, it felt that much of the time I had put in would not bear the fruits that were promised to me. In fact, I was being abused and just didn’t know it. I’m glad to say I’m free at last.
Where’s the beef?
I must say that the time spent over the two hour Steam return line went by in a flash. The game is extremely effective at building intrigue and drawing in the unsuspecting. It unceremoniously plops you down over a table and shoves cards and weird buttons in your face without explanation. The buttons are actions like exploring, working and dreaming. You feed them cards, which are usually things like people or mental currency like passion or reason. This elicits a timed response and spits out another card for you to guess what to do with it.
It starts with a normal person routine, with a few cards to manage. Soon it is a complex machine, with a whole deck flying to and fro like some futuristic mail room. There you are in the middle of it all, waiting for timers and slotting cards in their respective holes like a feeding robot.
That’s pretty much it in the gameplay department. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but hey there are thousands of people worshipping Xenu as I write this. Cultist Simulator is truly unique in that sense, for I was entranced, and even excited for a pretty embarrassing amount of time. And this is coming from someone who played No Man’s Sky for only about 2.5 hours before realizing that I had bought into a scam. There are no visual gimmicks or noticable flair, a pretty basic soundtrack. Still, reviews on this game have been almost entirely positive, some scores reaching into the 90’s.
Bait and bait again
So how does a game that boasts a pittance of gameplay for the player manage to be so captivating? My theory is twofold. First, is the promise of mysteries unsolved and hidden secrets down the road in a very similar manner to it’s family member, Sunless Sea. The plot has numerous events, trinkets and obtuse messages which expertly build tension and the expectation of drama to come. You study arcane texts and build your attributes up as a charismatic and insightful leader, ready to lead an army of devotees. This feeling that you’re in the dark and pursing some great and terrible aspirations against the mainstream is intoxicating.
The second element is that the game always keeps you busy. There is literally no time or room to take a breath. What seemed like an innocent half-hour game break in actuality took hours. You embark on a micro managerial trance and time melts away. New layers of tasks and mechanics are introduced at a quick clip so the pace always feels breakneck. For the first few hours you are very often left in a state of confusion and exploration, unaware of all the hot air keeping you afloat.
What tangled webs we weave
As mentioned, the game is intentionally opaque so you end up spending a lot of time trying out random combinations of cards to see what they yield. But the most significant time sink is how you are ceaselessly bombarded by cards.The great card consumption machine should be working at all times. This means managing up to dozens of timers at once. A well oiled rig requires some pretty tight deadlines that you always have to say on top of.
For instance, the restlessness card that you just processed will probably produce glimmering. That glimmering can be used to upgrade your art skill but the other components are on a timer as well so you only have a few second window to combine everything. You also have game ending statuses like depression or sickness to keep track of. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings so make sure you’ve got eye drops near the screen.
More like Farming Simulator
But let’s being honest here, I hate Cultist Simulator. After the first few runthroughs, when all the early game surprises have more or less dried up, the truth of the actual mechanics really started to hit me. You furiously click for hours on end and suffer at the hands of RNG. All you’re given is higher level cards and more empty promises of eventual enlightenment.
Even on fast speed, the timers and the feedings begin to feel endless. One death is all it takes to boot you back to square one. Yet my concentration began to wane time and time again and things started slipping through the cracks. Mistakes can really ruin a playthrough quickly but just watching the timers for hours at a time broke me down mentally.
Progressing through the “storyline” is 95% mindless farming of higher level cards and 5% randomly plugging cards in to see what happens. There is no sense of accomplishment in anything you do since figuring something out is really just luck. As you move on, the game starts to slow down dramatically. When the rate of new systems begins to crawl, you end up having these big loops where you’re just hoping something good happens.
Expeditions are a prime example of this. They are the lifeblood of your little organization, where you send out your minions to fetch items. Along the way they encounter problems, which you have to send the appropriately skilled minions to solve. Too few skill points means members can die, which usually is a death knell to the whole operation. However, amassing a reasonable number of minions with similar skills is extremely time consuming and mostly luck based. You need to find the right pieces but it’s random when you do. So either you roll the dice or wait for a strong enough squad, but ultimately it doesn’t matter since both mean substantial time in farm simulator. This is all in service of random intermediate items that will hopefully be in the flavors you need. If you wanted chocolate and got vanilla, you have to turn the wheel all over again.
This sense of choices that end up with the same results pervades the whole game. You choose what desires or secrets to pursue but they all require the same farming cycles to get where you need to go, the same prayers to RNG that you don’t have to repeat another turn at the slave wheel, the same tasks over and over again. You’re free to put any card wherever it fits, free to pursue whatever menial jobs to finance your cult, free to use exotic paints, but they all just turns on knobs that maybe lurch the big stupid machine of yours slowly forward.
The flakey grid system used to organize the cards is littered with minor inconveniences that really dial up the frustration. Cards snap to an invisible grid but occasionally align improperly. Buttons also tend to pop in and displace things around them and cards can appear in seemingly random spots which you need to scroll around to see. Cards can also stack but there’s no way to know if there’s anything underneath it short of lifting it up. So, if you have to find something specific, there are a ton of places it could be with no good way to find it.
These are all minor issues in of themselves, but since all you do is move cards around for hours at a time, every minor adjustment slowly snowballs into a mountain of frustration. Combine this with my board becoming unclickable after a long playthrough and I knew it was time to call it.
I’ll tell you what power is
Admittedly, I didn’t plumb the hairy depths the game has to offer and may have missed some of the holy splendour. But getting there required hours and hours of what is thinly disguised menial labor. While you could technically deconstruct any game to that level, Cultist’s levers are particularly naked. There’s no context for anything that’s going on. Minions have nothing but flavor text and colors so they are essentially inert tools. All these cult secrets you unlock and follow are so vague and really only semantically different. There’s no real anchor to the real world and everything has to be so edgy and esoteric. Everything is so abstract and there’s nothing to grasp on.
People are wowed by the “secret map” which unlocks after a random combination of two cards but that’s just another sublevel to farm. They also seem to be taken with the little snips of pretty flavor text on the cards. That’s as thin a compliment as it sounds. Combine this with the board glitches and the mindless repetition of tasks, I could not muster up the willpower to continue.
Power is people listenening to you
Any game that made me play in double digit hours has some merit, but in this game the merit is manipulative. It’s an unashamed grind the entire way, a coquettish tart that refuses to keep it’s vague promises of interest but has no problem continually offering them. I suspect a big reason that this labor has been well reviewed is because of the interesting initial experience. But over longer periods of time, I just felt worse and worse about myself for submitting myself to this self finger-flagellation. This is really only appealing to those who like games with repetitive little tasks that feel like I’m working in a government bureau. I’ll admit that I may well have missed a lot but I refuse to invest any more time in this braindead click farm.