All hail The Order of the Bloody Cup. It's a cult unlike what you'll find in history books or Netflix documentaries. In this cult, we worship mystery, blood, and "appetite"—probably for blood and cups, among other things. In Cultist Simulator, your cult is yours to found and sustain. And it's a complicated goal.
In the early goings of Cultist Simulator, I don't understand anything I'm doing. If I were to describe it in one word, it'd be arcane. There's cards and lore and complicated words about the occult. But then everything clicks, even if the almost-impenetrableness of it all doesn't ever really go away.
Cultist Simulator is a single-player narrative-driven digital card game. That genre might make you instantly think of something like Hearthstone, but it's not. It's farther away from the likes of Hearthstone, Gwent, and whatever other digital card game than you can imagine. If anything, it's like an adventure game, if that adventure was driven by cards. In an early test playthrough of Cultist Simulator, I chose a detective. I was an okay detective. All right, I was a pretty bad detective minus the one case I solved.
In Cultist Simulator, you manage an arsenal of cards, perhaps best described as a series of verbs and nouns. Some nouns are feelings, like "Passion" or "Reason," while others are subjects, like "Damning Evidence" or the identity of a person. In Cultist Simulator, your goal is to manage these cards and slot them in with timed events that pop up along the way. Some cards fit in certain areas, others don't; almost always, slotting in the best cards rewards you with more cards. New cards are essential in progressing, and more importantly, in figuring out what sort of cult you want to start and how to keep it alive. And it's a hard field to break into, let alone maintain without falling victim to some horrible affliction.
No matter what starting point you choose, of which there are many, you work your way up to cult stardom. My most successful run came as an artist where I had non traditional sources of income, like selling items at the local auction house. As a cult leader, I gradually attracted followers and had to balance keeping the cult alive alongside, y'know, surviving. As in, not going crazy from studying the occult and also making a mundane living.
Cultist Simulator bears a lot of frustrations though, with its messiness. Without auto-sorting or stacking of cards with timers on them, my virtual tabletop grew messy often, especially in the late game where my table was filled with cards and ever-ticking timers. I'd lose track of necessary cards as their timers dwindled down, only to watch them fade away as their timer was up. Alexis Kennedy, one of Cultist Simulator's developers from two-person studio Weather Factory, recently noted on Twitter that some sort of feature (such as a snap or auto arrange function) is in-development to amend this common grievance. The early portions of the game are rough too, with no firm guidance minus the occasional helpful note about what cards are necessary, with the rest feeling like a guessing game.
And sometimes, there's an hour or so where nothing really happens. I worked. I took walks on moonlit streets. I routinely dreamed in an effort to attain a specific card I was eyeballing for a particular change of scenery, workwise. But the routine grabbed me, as did the chance to get more interesting cards of little tidbits about the occult. Through action and meticulous attention to detail, I began to learn the ropes of Cultist Simulator.
It's the opposite of what I always hate in games: when it holds my hand too much. I love being cast off without any knowledge, without a guide to tell me what to do; feeling out the world and how to do things in it. There are bad examples of this too, when the game isn't quite intuitive enough to feel it out naturally. Cultist Simulator, even, is that to an extreme. It's a daunting game, with cards and words you don't know the true grasp of until a few deaths in. Early on, I lost myself to despair as a detective, because I couldn't crack a case and lost my job. Another time, an affliction took me. (I was foolish enough to never dream it away.) The more I neglected to pay attention to, the more I learned for my next runthrough. And that's where it clicks: through its quasi-repetition, as every starting option pins you as a different identity. Because that first time you scare off a nasty investigator with a threat, there's no better feeling.
I'm still not great at it, but one day, I will be. Over the past few days, I keep finding myself gripped by it, watching timers tick away, pausing when events finish to collect more cards. Sometimes I pause just to read every tidbit from new cards that have floated my way, even the ones I know I probably won't use. It's a rich sort of game that I'm excited to play more of tonight when I'm off the clock, and then some. I imagine next week between all the hustle and bustle of E3, I'll head back to it too, ready to start another cult and see where my inevitable fuck ups lead me to this time around.