Inscrutable Mysteries

HIGH I love the concept and the, uh… promo art.

LOW Dull presentation and a lack of teaching/clarity.

WTF Every moment of gameplay.

There is a certain value in letting players explore and discover things for themselves. The excitement of finding a secret or figuring out a trick is its own reward, but when this approach is taken too far, it can lead to confusion and frustration. It’s a fine line to walk, and not every game gets it right. Unfortunately, despite a strong premise and concept, Cultist Simulator finds itself way, way, way too far on the wrong side of that line.

To be fair, Cultist Simulator lets players know where it’s coming from immediately by proclaiming “You won’t always know what to do next. Keep experimenting, and you’ll master it.” as soon as the game loads up. It’s a fine thing to say, but such a statement almost feels like a disclaimer that the game can’t be held responsible for the lack of onboarding and confusion that results afterwards.

When I started Cultist Simulator I had literally no idea what was going on, and I’m little better off now. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, I had no idea who I was or what the goal was past the title’s suggestion, no clue about the mechanics, what was happening or even if the controls were working. I eventually made some progress, but I can’t say that I ever came to grips with it.

Essentially, the player takes on the loosely-defined role of a person with a certain job. The default starting character (I think) is a general worker, and there are a few others to choose from. The game is presented with the Switch’s screen acting as a tabletop with the camera looking straight down. On the table are ‘slots’ where cards go labeled things like WORK, DREAM and INVESTIGATE, and the player only has a few cards to start.

Since Cultist Simulator explains nothing, what it boiled down to was randomly putting a card into a slot and seeing what happened. Some cards fit some slots and others don’t, and it’s not really clear why. Other times I’d swear that a card that used to fit a slot no longer did later, and some cards that appeared to fit did not activate. Again, no clue why or why not.

Once a card is in a slot and ‘accepted’ by the game, a timer counts down and awards the player new cards. These new cards can be used on more slots, and they will also count down and finish by giving new cards. As things progress, more slots open up, more cards become available, and… that’s it?

At the completion of each card’s countdown a small snippet of vaguely evocative story is told, but there’s no concrete narrative and it’s hard to piece much of it together. There’s frequent mention of dreams, suggestions, betrayals and other general notions, but nothing concrete to hold on to — it constantly felt like I was on the verge of understanding something, but never did. Given the themes and tone, maybe that’s the point? But if so, it’s a profoundly unsatisfying result.

After a series of attempts where I was blindly fumbling through things and randomly putting cards into slots because it’s the only way to interface with the game, any desire to carry on evaporated. I was never sure whether I was doing well or poorly, and when I’d die, I wasn’t sure why. Was I making progress? Hard to say.

Beyond this cryptic structure, Cultist Simulator fails to leverage its status as a videogame by offering almost no graphics, effects, animation or artwork. There are no character portraits to connect to, and almost nothing to help build mental continuity or to communicate events. It’s an extremely dry experience in all aspects and might as well be a boardgame for how little it takes advantage of the things a videogame can do.

I’m sure Cultist Simulator makes perfect sense to the people who created it, but they don’t seem particularly interested in letting anyone else in – it’s an intensely insular experience that almost demands someone track down a wiki to find a way in, and there’s little incentive to invest that much time and effort on a title that gives newcomers nothing but an indifferent shrug.

Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Weather Factory and published by Playdigious. It is currently available on PC, Switch, iOS and Android. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Drug Reference.  there’s nothing really to be cautious of here except for some vaguely evocative language. I did not personally see any drug references during my playtime.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played 100% of my time with the sound muted. All information (what little there is) comes via text, some of which is a decent size, some of which is too small. (Examples above.) Players can zoom in on small text but the subtitles cannot be resized or altered. No audio is needed for play. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Brad Gallaway
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