A sim­ple card game opens the depths into di­verg­ing cult strate­gies

Games TM - - ACCESS - For­mat: pc | pub­lisher: Hum­ble Bun­dle | de­vel­oper: Weather fac­tory | re­lease: 31 may 2018 | play­ers: 1


Time is money. It earns funds and con­sumes them. More of the for­mer than the lat­ter, if you play your cards right. Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor is a dig­i­tal table­top game of cards in which the clock is al­ways tick­ing. Mad­ness and ill­ness, both even­tu­ally fa­tal, are rarely more than a few care­lessly spent cy­cles of time away. Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor’s of­ten ob­scure di­rec­tions cre­ate un­cer­tainty and anx­i­ety while the march­ing clock forces the player to keep sev­eral plates spin­ning at a time. It deals in just the right amount of anx­ious en­ergy for its sub­ject mat­ter, but uses too heavy a hand in ob­scu­rity.

Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor im­me­di­ately drops the player in front of the dig­i­tal table with only two items: a to­ken called ‘Work’ and a card named ‘Me­nial Em­ploy­ment’. Com­bin­ing the two adds a ten-sec­ond countdown to the Work to­ken, af­ter which it pro­duces a Funds card and a Health card: two valu­able re­sources. Another to­ken ap­pears with the name ‘Re­call My Dreams’ which runs a 20-sec­ond timer with­out any external in­put.

Though the Me­nial Em­ploy­ment card was con­sumed, a bit of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion re­veals that Health can be played with Work to pro­duce ad­di­tional Funds. It takes 60 sec­onds to pro­duce one Funds card and be re­turned the Health that was in­vested. It’s an in­ef­fi­cient so­lu­tion for stay­ing alive, but the only one im­me­di­ately avail­able. Af­ter the ‘Re­call My Dreams’ to­ken fin­ishes run­ning, a third to­ken ap­pears: ‘Time Passes’, which con­sumes one Funds card ev­ery 60 sec­onds. With­out Funds you’ll be dealt Hunger and even­tu­ally An Af­flic­tion, a dif­fi­cult fate to re­turn from.

Stay­ing alive and found­ing a fledgeling cult car­ries on in the same man­ner as the open­ing mo­ments. More to­kens un­lock as you progress, al­ways in the form of ac­tion verbs.

Cards, al­ways nouns rep­re­sent­ing re­sources, ideas and peo­ple, are com­bined with the verbs to pro­duce new cards, and so on. Time al­ways passes, guz­zling up mea­gre Funds. Even af­ter recog­nis­ing a few pat­terns and re­li­able ways to earn Funds, you may find your­self dy­ing of ran­dom sick­ness you don’t have enough Health to fight off, or ex­is­ten­tial dread, which can only be staved off with the scarce Con­tent­ment cards.

The strug­gle to re­main barely above the om­nipresent threat of poverty and de­pres­sion high­lights a clear divi­sion be­tween what Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor does well and the thing it does worst. En­cour­ag­ing you to ex­plore new com­bi­na­tions is its nat­u­ral tal­ent. When pick­ing up any card, the verbs it can be played with to pro­duce in­ter­est­ing re­sults are high­lighted in pur­ple. The ones that will be in­ef­fec­tive are white. The sys­tem re­wards cu­rios­ity with new cards and pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor loves en­cour­ag­ing you to stray from the path, but sel­dom lays any bread crumbs lead­ing you back. The Vi­tal­ity card, when clicked, gives a clear re­minder that ‘Vi­tal­ity can be used with Study to gain Health’. Other cards give less ob­vi­ous tips. Many lack guid­ance at all. Con­tent­ment, a key in­gre­di­ent for neu­tral­is­ing lethal Dread cards, gives only the phrase: ‘I’m happy, I think.’ If you’ve for­got­ten how you hap­pened upon Con­tent­ment in the first place, there’s no clear in­di­ca­tion of how more might be pro­duced. Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor could ben­e­fit from ad­di­tional guid­ance to re­turn play­ers to an ef­fec­tive strat­egy loop with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the dif­fi­culty al­ready in­her­ent in the sys­tem.

Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor’s sub­ject mat­ter, found­ing a cult and ex­plor­ing the mys­ter­ies of your own dreams, is dark, but re­tains a wry lev­ity in its judge­ment of your actions. The early sec­tion of the game can be­come an up­hill bat­tle, as found­ing a cult takes a back seat to the mun­dane task of sim­ply re­main­ing alive and healthy, but breaks into an ab­sorb­ing mid-game full of di­verg­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties – if you have the pa­tience to look up a guide as you play. Although Cul­tist Sim­u­la­tor could stand to bet­ter di­rect play­ers through the ba­sics, the un­der­ly­ing con­ceit of par­ing player in­put down to nouns and verbs is an ap­proach­able sys­tem that part­ners well with the es­o­teric ideas of cult spir­i­tu­al­ity.

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