Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition Indie Snippet
Billed as a “roguelike narrative card game”, Cultist Simulator is coy. Nothing is handed to the player out of the gate. Instead, this game obfuscates and confounds at every turn. But for those who are eager to see what’s beyond the pale, Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition, newly released on Nintendo Switch, might have answers. Though confusing and occasionally frustrating due to deliberate design choices, Cultist Simulator will draw in the curious. The Initiate Edition is just as obtuse as the original release but has many new features that make diving back in or experiencing this game for the first time a pleasure.
To say that Cultist Simulator plays its cards close to the vest is an understatement. Lacking even a basic tutorial, developer Weather Factory instead encourages players to experiment to find answers on their own. At its core, Cultist Simulator is a game of solitaire mixed with resource management. The goal is to last as long as possible, building a cult, gaining followers, and attempting to transcend death. Players choose a path at the start, which changes up cards they can earn and may influence how they manage their resources. To advance, players must let the clock move forward, which eats up money cards, and eventually health points; if a player loses all their health, they meet an ignoble end. But that’s not the only way to lose, as it’s just as easy to give in to despair or madness as it is to run out of money. The player isn’t doing battle against monsters or an AI, or even rival cults. Victory is achieved by clever manipulation of resources.
Starting paths dictate what a run looks like. And though the words “roguelike” and “card game” appear in descriptions of Cultist Simulator, this game is far from being a Slay the Spire knock-off. Beginning a run as a wealthy young heir seems easy, with the player having access to far more resources than other paths out of the gate, but they’ll have to scramble once their inheritance dries up. And since Initiate Edition contains the first three DLC packs for Cultist Simulator, players eventually have access to the dancer and priest paths. The dancer always has a steady job at the expense of health, but their passion also opens the door to mysterious strangers and opportunities unavailable to others. Priests are more set up to build a large following, but this can backfire if the player isn’t careful. Every path offers a slightly different flavor, but the loop is largely the same once things get rolling.
Gameplay in Cultist Simulator feels like navigating menus in a real-time strategy game. The game’s interface might seem overwhelming, but the developers thought hard about how to make everything work on Switch. In fact, the entire game has had its control scheme completely reworked to be played with a controller, rather than the mouse-and-keyboard setup of the original release. Navigating the many menus is simple with a flick of the analog stick or tapping a button. Most useful is the ability to pause the clock at any moment, to take the necessary time to read the descriptive flavor text. Players can also advance the clock more quickly, to lessen the waiting around certain activities. The game looks like a Tarot reader’s spread on a big screen, but it is also fully playable undocked. Cultist Simulator saw a lot of success as a mobile title, and it shines just as brightly on the Switch’s touchscreen. Of course, text size is always an issue, especially in a title with as much reading as Cultist Simulator, but the Switch’s screen is still larger than that of the average cell phone. Taking the Switch off the dock and playing it in a dark room might be the optimal way to experience the slowly-building cosmic dread that Cultist Simulator simulates best.
Even with the DLC included, gameplay is mostly the same. Most everything is on a timer: will the player character have enough funds to purchase food by the day’s end? Will the player be able to procure a tincture that helps them sleep before the nightmares begin? How many days of work can the player skip to study arcane mysteries before their employer forces them to beg for a second chance? All of these actions cost some kind of resource, and stress compounds as the player flips through different menus to see what they have available. Progression is difficult, as there are no easy paths to ascension. During play, resources and time must be devoted to studying, exploring, and talking with other characters, but without paying careful attention, it can seem like the player is spinning their wheels, draining resources and making little progress.
Often, the trick to progression is investing in and upgrading cards the player already has. One might find an arcane book in an ancient language and declare it unreadable and useless. But after studying to improve their linguistic skills, what was previously unreadable becomes invaluable. A player might gain a follower after talking with them, and sending them to explore dark alleys at night will test their loyalty and make them more devoted to their cause. Loyal followers are more useful and allow the player to perform more actions. But there is another purpose to having a stable of devotees, a darker one: some paths to victory eventually requires the player to make a sacrifice of either a follower, or themselves.
What’s most interesting about Cultist Simulator is that the action takes place wholly in the mind of the player. There are no animations; there are no cutscenes. Even card art is extremely limited, with resources being color-coded to their function. Background music is barely even a factor. But while the experience might feel bare-bones, the text that accompanies card descriptions is extremely flavorful. Each brief description of a location or a mysterious stranger is just evocative enough to jump-start the imagination. For players willing to take the time and read descriptions, they’ll find plenty to invest in. Fortunately, players can pause the ticking clocks at any moment to assess their situation, organize their resources, and read every little phrase and card. While not as visually arresting as something like Bloodborne or even The Sinking City, Initiate Edition on Switch engages the mind in a wholly unique way.
The sinister is always just around the corner. There are those who see the colors in the fringes of the world and find themselves dreaming of something greater. Power is there for those willing to do what it takes to seize it. Dreams lead to enlightenment or madness, and no one but the individual is right to say where first begins and the second ends. In Cultist Simulator, these epic confrontations happen constantly, but not in the traditional way. Like a choose-your-own-adventure combined with a Tarot deck, the outcomes are predetermined yet dependent on the luck of the draw. It’s a confounding experience, but for those willing to plumb the depths of despair (and maybe r/cultistsimulator), it can be a vastly rewarding one.
Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition is available now on Nintendo Switch.