Cultist Simulator review – a crabbed but intoxicating bargain with otherworldly forces
Cultist Simulator is about forbidden knowledge, forgotten histories and terrible pacts with entities who aren’t so much gods as unsettling cosmic frequencies, felt rather than understood, but it would be nothing without its monotony. Starting the game, you are confronted not with a squiggle of eldritch geometry but a wooden table covered by a worn leather mat, its scratches picked out by a mysterious cobalt light. An hourglass timer begins to drain away, sucking Fund cards out of your hand with every revolution; you counter by plugging Reason, Passion or Health cards into a Work timer to generate more. This mundane rhythm keeps up throughout the ensuing 20 or 30 hours, as cards and timers of all kinds slowly cover the tabletop, each accompanied by a gravid yet delicate prose snippet about the game’s curious, alternate-1920s England. It’s the bassline for an experience that is as much an investigation of mind-killing drudgery as it is a homage to the wayward imagination – indeed, an experience that derives much of its mystery and threat from their inseparability.
Many of the challenges and setbacks you’ll face during your career as a cultist will be crushingly ordinary: injuries in the workplace, humiliating demotions, a fatigue mechanic which renders certain cards briefly unusable, periods of bleakness or dissociation that may doom your character if you let them fester for too long. You’ll deal with bullying superiors as an underpaid bank clerk, paint rapturous vistas in your spare hours that nobody buys, push paper as a police inspector, haul cargo as a labourer.
Sometimes you’ll dream of endless roads, locked doors or being trapped under wormy floorboards. Often, you’ll dream of nothing whatsoever. And eventually, if you’re tenacious enough, you’ll break through to a comfortable plateau, with a sustainable income, robust health and a little time for hobbies such as walking and reading. One of the endgame options lets you commit fully to this existence, to a blameless everyday world of graft, rest and idle recreation, a world without either light or shadow. Of all Cultist Simulator’s deadly temptations, this could be the most seductive. It is, perhaps, the closest thing the game offers to happiness.
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