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Review: Cultist Simulator – A beguilingly odd card game

Developer: Playdigious
Price: $7/£7
Size: 481 MB
Version: 1.1
Platform: iPhone & iPad

Cultist Simulator

In Cultist Simulator’s alternative 1920s setting, the life of a scholar of the unseen arts is as full of banal routine as illicit power. This roguelike narrative card game will force you to work and suffer every step along the path to enlightenment – but the rewards are deeply and strangely satisfying.

The virtual Poker table through which you’ll experience this off-kilter world is built around five permanent verb cards: Explore, Study, Dream, Work and Talk. By laying the cards you’re dealt onto each of these in varying combinations, you’ll ascend the long and treacherous ladder to mystical mastery.

Dream is the key to the game’s deepest mysteries

It’s largely left up to you to figure out which combinations achieve which effects, and the route to advancement can be painfully opaque. Experimentation is essential, though you’ll be able to pick up on clues from the game’s floridly-written descriptions.

The mechanics of play go a little like this: drag location cards onto the Explore verb to seek out arcane books. Drag those books onto the Study verb to gain understanding, which might manifest itself as Lore attributed to one of the color-coded mystical disciplines. This Lore can then be used and combined in a whole variety of ways to further your progress as a practicer of the dark arts.

Founding a cult opens up multiple interesting avenues

Elsewhere you’ll get to start your own cult, which will unlock the ability to recruit converts, conduct rituals, summon unspeakable creatures, and send minions out to do your dirty work. You’ll need to work to earn a living, which can entail manual labor, a dead-end office job, or directing your dark imagination and notoriety into artwork.

Ultimately, though, it’s through the Dream verb that you’ll access true enlightenment, and hopefully become a powerful Know.

Notoriety brings unwanted attention

You’ll need to proceed with caution whichever avenue you pursue. Every action you take has the potential for dark repercussions, requiring you to actively counter states of dread or illness, or the meddling of the Suppression Bureau. This requires the timely spending of hard-won resources, be that health, money, or mental states.

Indeed, our biggest recommendation is to make liberal use of the pause button, especially early on in the game. There’s enough to be digesting here without the added pressure of multiple timers ticking down towards some dreadful fate.

The game can feel cluttered on an iPhone

It doesn’t help that Cultist Simulator feels a little cluttered on smaller devices. You’ll soon find multiple cards sprawling out all over the table, many with timers ticking away on them. This is undoubtedly a game that’s best experienced on an iPad.

Not that this should stop iPhone users from giving Cultist Simulator a spin. This is a game that’s all about grind and busywork, after all. The really magical thing is that it remains a lot of fun through all the friction.