If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again.
I’ve always known Cultist Simulator was special — Steam literally won’t stop recommending it to me each time I visit the homepage — but I could never get a clear enough image of the game to justify pulling the trigger. From what I could gather, it was something to do with the occult, possibly tarot cards and spoopy noises, but anything further than that remained shrouded in mystery no matter where I researched. It was clear that keeping the game generally vague was done on purpose, and since that seemed pretty on-brand for the title, I was more or less content to let it stay that way. Curiosity did eventually get the better of me when the Switch review key came across the inbox, though, so I finally gave into temptation to see what Cultist Simulator was all about.
Developed by Weather Factory and published by PLAYDIGIOUS, Cultist Simulator has finally made its way to the Nintendo Switch after collecting numerous awards on Steam for the past three years. Now called Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition, the Switch version features the base game plus the first three DLCs as standard: The Dancer, The Ghoul, and the Priest. With a launch price of $13.99 (regularly $19.99), Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition is an affordable way to pass the time doing goth girl shit.
Players are quite literally dumped into a scenario where they are picking up cards and trying to put them into the slots that will take them. There’s no tutorial and hardly any sort of explanation given — it’s sink or swim in Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition, and there are no life preservers here. To be clear, that is by design; the developer would like players to have no way to understand how to play the game except by trial and error, so expect to die repeatedly as you struggle to get the hang of things. On the one hand, this design absolutely lends to the notion that these cards hold a mysterious power waiting to be uncovered by those who can detect their magic; on the other hand, if you’re not willing to fail for hours on end just to learn how to play, this may not be your goblet of blood of the covenant.
Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition features a slightly different interface than the PC version, and I’m genuinely torn when it comes to determining which one is better. While I find the Switch version ultimately more organized and a cleaner affair, the PC version had an interesting, almost emergent feel to the card layouts that, while they got super busy, there is clearly a charm to it. I suppose if I had to choose, it would be the Switch version for its organization but on PC, as I just feel that clicking around instead of trying to use a controller or tapping to be more intuitive.
I don’t want to spoil the gameplay too much since discovering it on your own is part of the actual design, but I will break down as much as I can. In Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition, the aim of the game is survival. Players will draw cards and plug them into the right section to receive more cards that will progress the story. It’s not all linear, however; players have several needs they must keep fulfilled, such as health and funds, in order to stay afloat while progressing in the game. Other needs, such as passion and reason, are required for things like work so that they may acquire funds. If these needs go unmet, players run the risk of falling ill and eventually dying. Of course, death is just the beginning — as soon as death occurs, it’s almost as if the game truly starts, and the player chooses a new life that is mysteriously connected to the one who died before them.
If I’m to impart anything of value here, it’s that I want readers to understand that Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition is an intriguing yet confusing experience. This may be enough to pull some players in, while for others this will be an incredibly frustrating experience. There’s no tutorial, something that was a deliberate design choice to force players to feel everything out for themselves. The way time passes in the game means a lot of fantastic writing inevitably gets skipped because there’s simply no time to read it, which is such a damn shame. And speaking of time passing, everything happens so quickly that things almost immediately become overwhelming. I think a lot of this could have been forgiven if I had played on PC, as playing this in handheld offered better controls via the touchscreen yet tiny text while playing on console mode was big enough to read everything yet relied on slow joystick movements in lieu of clicking. Despite all this, I’m hooked in the way that you know you shouldn’t mess with Ouija Boards or Tarot Cards unless familiar with the materials. There feels like a deeper magic and mysticism here, and I definitely want to crack it; unfortunately, the only way to do that is to die, die again.
Do I like Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition? Or do I like the idea of it? It’s hard to tell, but one thing’s for sure — I’m going to be playing this one for a very long time. The writing is superb, the atmosphere is spooky, and the gameplay is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Although I understand the design choice of making players learn competency through experimentation and that it was done well here, I cannot say it’s going to be fun for everyone. I’ve barely scratched the surface with Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition and I’m certainly not very good at it, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition beckons, and I feel compelled to continue.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: iOS, PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: PLAYDIGIOUS; Developer: Weather Factory; Players: 1; Released: February 2, 2021; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Cultist Simulator: Initiate Edition provided by the publisher.