I feel like I'm in the upside down. Strange things are happening and it's not the combination of stop watches and brief paragraphs of flowery text that are provoking the feeling. Reviews for Cultist Simulator have been arriving in quick succession as I battled to get deeper into its guts and find the fun others were starting to tell the world about. Almost across the board, the game is receiving highly positive reaction for what some seemingly consider a mysterious approach to gameplay and story telling. I'm not so sure though.
Cultist Simulator begins with a warning regarding your progress and what to expect. If you've played previous games by Alexis Kennedy, that warning is going to feel redundant at a first glance, but I'm not sure it prepared me for quite how little game there was to enjoy after hitting the go button and getting to grips with its combination of the mundane and the arcane. In hindsight, it almost feels like something of a built in caveat for those who ultimately don't get along with the game, something akin to an excuse a bad partner might dish out for an upset loved one.
You take control and, at first, you'll have a blank space in front of you, a card with a brief description of your employment as a menial worker as well as another icon marked Work. Place the job card in the Work box, hit Start and you're off for a thrilling day of hospital portering. In your mind's eye at least, with nothing but some brief text to inform the event. A stopwatch begins, ten seconds count down and when they end you receive payment for the work in the form of a card marked Funds as well as a card labelled Health. Its description is vague, featuring an allusion to Full Metal Jacket's "This is my rifle..." speech, and is given alongside other curious snippets of information - three extra boxes at the bottom the description that offer up the card's Aspects.
For example, one of the cards you're given early on is Passion. Its aspects are Ability, Ingredient and The Moth. You'll be forgiven for wanting to know more about that last one, but don't go thinking that Alexis Kennedy is moving away from the nebulous, barely defined story telling he has made a name for with his previous work at Failbetter Games on Fallen London and Sunless Sea. All that's on offer is a snippet alluding to The Moth being related to chaos and an unattributed quote about a man who catches the creatures for the sake of releasing them to their doom.
Other cards follow a similar theme, their title being of a particular class (a place, a person, an attribute or item) and their Aspects following suit by featuring a combination of common concepts and abstract. This style of dishing out information and intrigue is either going to provoke the kind of curiosity that'll see you digging deeper in order to make sense of the swirl of concepts being thrown around, or if you're more like me, then you'll be left wondering when the sense of connection and character is going to kick in. If you know Kennedy's past work you might also wonder at just how many concepts on show are rejigged ideas from Fallen London with slightly different adjectives attached to them.
As you place cards and receive new ones you'll note patterns, as some tasks require finite resources, others provide those resources at a cost to other aspects of your character. A balancing act must be maintained, never over exerting your character through excess probing into the mysteries of this place nor resting on their laurels and watching cards, some of which have their own time limits, go to waste. With no instruction on how to progress and a great deal of ease in being able to completely mess up, some will find this a challenge of wits and of patience, while others will see it as an excuse to extend the game artificially by forcing restarts.
A great deal of what holds back Cultist Simulator's chance to provide some fun is its presentation and interface. Where previous work by Kennedy was supported and boosted by artwork and direct control over a cannon festooned ship with which you could get into combat and directly explore the world you're invited into, Cultist Simulator is a blue backdrop, text and a host of symbols. With previous work from the designer in mind, I can't help but imagine an overhead view of a city, a player avatar moving through twisting streets full of hidden locations, chance encounters and time restricted events being used in place of timers and cards - the aspects that would take this game from feeling like the core rules of a functioning idea to a complete and appealing use of the medium.
Dragging and dropping cards then waiting for a timer to tick away before receiving a short text full of allusions to unexplained and esoteric concepts is the be all, end all of a player's actions and visual feedback and I honestly found it impossibly hard to give it my full attention with other, far more compelling narrative driven games available. Even the likes of Sunless Sea, with its deserved reputation as a slow, often punishing exercise in learning its obscure world and rules feels like a treat after watching clocks tick down and cards arrive over and over.
It seems that Kennedy and Weather Factory have a different attitude toward design and what makes a game fun than those who play his work, because none of what was critiqued in his previous games has changed, and all that once supported it is missing. Cultist Simulator expects a lot of your time and patience and gives so little in return.