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After a few hours of play into Cultist Simulator, I feel twice annoyed at the game. The first round of annoyance is over how little fun I'm having. The second round comes from the feeling that it's somehow my fault, and I don't even know it. A voice in my head tells me I must be doing everything wrong, and if only I keep at it, open my mind, and expand my imagination, I'd see the true path forward. In other words, you perhaps have to think like a cultist to have a good experience.
Cultist Simulator is a game in which you create and run a 1920s cult. A title with "simulator" in it invokes various things; wonky niche games about operating heavy machinery, or perhaps 90s isometric management titles, and Cultist is none of these things. The entire game is presented as a card table and a deck of cards. The cards have things written on them like "Dread" or "A Locksmith's Secret", and the game is played by plopping these cards onto appropriate verbs such as "Work" or "Study", which starts a little progress meter and eventually transforms them into other cards (for you to then put on other verbs). The minimalist, hyper abstract design is a major part of this game's appeal, leaving the atmosphere and cult nightmare stuff entirely to your own imagination.
And that's as far as I can really describe it without spoiling the game. The whole point is that you are meant to experiment with your cards and figure out the way they are meant to fit together. The growing deck of cards approximates your cult growing in power, resources and enemies, as you inch ever closer to unlocking the deep dark secrets of the Universe.
The first problem is all this doesn't work out as a very good analogue to cult activity. After a while, you're just randomly slapping down cards in the hope that it will do anything, basically mixing random ingredients in a bucket. The second problem is that the cards can be so cryptic and abstract that there often isn't really a sense of accomplishment or progression with doing anything. Oh great, I've unlocked the "Temptation: Enlightenment" card. Why was I trying to do that again? After a few hours of play, I still have no idea if I've actually even opened a real cult, or if I've spent the entire time barking random orders at some bloke I met down the pub, telling him to hand my "Vitality" over to a nosy policeman. That's how opaque this game is.
And this is by design, which is why I have the double annoyance. Do I need to get good at this game before I can enjoy it? Normally I can enjoy games I'm bad at, but here I have doubts that I am the sort of person who could enjoy what this game is offering.
So this is why I plan to keep going a little longer, to see if this game is going to turn itself around - in which case I might rewrite this review. In the mean time, I can't recommend this game, especially as I find myself reluctant to start it up yet again.
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