Familiarity is kind of the end goal for a lot of retro first-person shooters. Cultic: Chapter One could be described as a more explicit spiritual successor to Blood, whereas Dusk was more “what if Blood had a full 3D sequel that was good?” The thing is, Cultic: Chapter One doesn’t have as much of a unique identity as Dusk. However, this is still a mostly killer throwback with a good amount of meat to it in spite of a few balance issues and the obvious fact that this is only the first part of the game. At least it’s priced accordingly.
You’ve probably already guessed the story from the game’s title. There’s a cult worshipping some Lovecraftian being that is up to some grisly business. You’re on the trail of a journalist who gets wrapped up with said cult while searching for a missing person. The cult members themselves are very reminiscent of Blood‘s, but, surprisingly, are even more reminiscent of the cultists from Ion Fury, down to having cultists in brown robes be the simplest fodder and cultists in red robes posing more of a threat. Similarly, it has an obsession with grisly headshots atop the sprites you’re facing.
The visuals in Cultic: Chapter One are intentionally dated, with textures and sprites designed to be extra chunky and lower in resolution than you’d imagine. Somehow, this aesthetic combined with the art direction is kind of gorgeous. The game almost looks like a watercolor come to life at times, especially when you can see the striking nighttime skybox that mesmerized me whenever I glanced upon it. However, the game’s color palette is all too fond of a spectrum of earth and rust. The environments are often a different shade of brown, whether you’re in a mine, out in nature, or indoors. It gets monotonous.
It’s not a cult!
The level design is solid in Cultic: Chapter One, even if it can be a bit too mundane for its own good. There are memorable locations here and there, such as an abandoned town or the asylum, but you’ll do a fair amount of wandering in narrow, brown corridors looking for progression items. Sometimes you need a key or a doohickey to operate some contraption. One level starts you off in a dark forest where you have to find a cog and a wheel to operate a drawbridge. A couple of other levels have you searching out a can of fuel to get a generator going so you can power a lift.
There are 10 levels included in this chapter, although only eight of them are full levels. The other two are boss battles, which I’ll get into in a bit. The idea is that you pay $10 USD for the first chapter and then any subsequent chapters will be sold as DLC. I almost didn’t write this as a full review as both my and our EIC’s thought process was, “it’s not the complete game, so it shouldn’t be a full review.” But since the price for this chapter is set and it’ll be sold on its own no matter what, a scored review does make more sense to me.
As for the action, well, that’s the best thing about Cultic: Chapter One. As I said, the main enemies are a bit too familiar. Brown-robed cultists use axes, blue-robed ones have pistols, and red-robed foes have shotguns. Sometimes they have machine guns or grenade launchers. There’s also a heavily-armored enemy. Some foes are of the unliving, including zombies, skeletons, and undead knights. Then you’ve got your Eldritch abominations, such as a big thing with sideways teeth that vomits blood at you. You’ll even go up against a supremely annoying chainsaw bastard. Lovely.
Hey, man! Nice shot!
The movement is nimble and everything you’d want from a throwback FPS. Crouching while running leads to a slide, but ticking the “always run” box makes it so you have to walk at normal speed to slide, which is off. The guns feel great and they’re all continually useful. The basic pistol was actually my go-to weapon for the whole game, as it can take out almost everything with a couple of headshots. Body shots are kind of a waste of time in Cultic: Chapter One, as the enemies take a lot more hits that way. It’s a bit weird that dispatching foes via headshot takes as many hits as it does, but the game does an excellent job of making this work well within the gameplay flow.
After decapitating an enemy with well-placed headshots, time will often slow down, accompanied by the colors becoming muted, and you can use these moments to do some more serious damage. As for the rest of the arsenal, there’s your shotgun, carbine rifle, machine gun, flamethrower, and grenade launcher. I think there’s one more rifle, but I almost never used it. I did mostly stick to the pistol and shotgun (especially for shielded enemies and more dangerous foes), but your mileage may vary.
As you explore the levels in Cultic: Chapter One, you’ll find weapon parts that you’ll use to upgrade your weapons at workbenches. Naturally, upgrading greatly incentivizes exploration, which is always nice in these classic-style games.
On the normal difficulty, Cultic: Chapter One is quite lenient. There are tons and tons of health pickups and enemies also drop them with some frequency. This chapter took me about six hours to get through, but I also took my time to explore and made liberal use of save states, as I love replaying encounters to minimize how much damage I take and how much ammo I use. There are also three survival maps in case you want to test your mettle with those. Killing enemies grants you cash that you can use to purchase more weapons and ammo here, which made it remind me of the Mercenaries modes in the Resident Evil games.
Time for a speedrun
Highly skilled players who tend to move at a lightning pace might be able to knock the game out in just a few hours, as levels are really only about 20 minutes long — save for those boss levels. These are the most underwhelming sections of Cultic: Chapter One. The first one, which is the game’s sixth level, is kind of maddening, as it mostly sees you fighting waves of enemies in and around a church. The issue is that you aren’t allowed to save at any point in the level, which is ridiculous. New enemies pipe in kind of slowly, so dying means you have to spend minutes waiting for enemies to show up.
It really throws a wrench in the game’s pacing and feels needlessly restrictive, especially since the waves go on for minutes before the boss shows up. This section ends with you fighting two chainsaw-wielding enemies at once. If they hit you, you’ll probably die, as their chainsaws tend to cut away at you ’til you’re dead. They also throw bear traps which root you to the spot, making it easier for them to make you start the whole level again just because you made a single mistake.
After you clear all the waves, you fight a very easy stationary boss. Generally, the boss can be taken out by just throwing a bunch of dynamite at it and then shooting said dynamite, taking away most of its health in one go. The first time I got to the boss, I died when it was almost dead because a machine gun cultist spawned in and shot me in the back due to me not knowing enemies would continue to spawn in. Guess who had to start the whole level over again? I can’t stand that shit. It’s not even hard; it just wastes your time.
You’re just gonna stand there?
The final boss of Chapter One is similarly disappointing, but at least you don’t have to fight any enemy waves. Just a big ol’ stationary boss that’s only mildly threatening that you can take out super quick with more dynamite. Sure, it pipes some annoying enemies in from the sides which can be a bit of a pain to hit if you don’t use the scoped weapon. Speaking of which, one thing that annoyed the hell out of me is the way weapon accuracy works in this game. It’s surprisingly inconsistent between the player’s weapons and the enemies.
For instance, the pistol loses a ton of accuracy beyond medium range. The pistol enemies, however, have no issue hitting you from across the fucking map. The shotgun here is much like shotguns in other games: highly inaccurate at range. But lo and behold, the shotgun cultists can basically snipe you with it. This vexed me regularly as well as damaged immersion.
But none of this is a deal-breaker. Cultic: Chapter One is well worth playing for anyone who wants a few hours of a really strong throwback FPS, especially considering the low price tag. I just hope chapter two has a more varied color palette.