Cultic review: crunchy retro-inspired FPS is a vicious, violent delightBlood brother
Cultic has really good headshots. I mean, it also has a lot of other things going for it, but it feels rude not to highlight this right at the very top because I think it’s important. Cultic’s headshots are sensational. Enemy noggins pop with a squelchy crack that tickles a very unnerving part of my brain, the resulting blood fountain spraying so high it causes the ceiling to drip with human juice long after your hopeless adversary has slumped to the floor. It’s gross. But. You know. It’s also kind of great.
What more could you want from a retro-inspired FPS, really? Cultic’s combat is crunchy. Guns fire with a satisfying crack and bullets connect with a pleasing bite. There is a sense of weight and power here that really sells the danger of your arsenal, from the simple starting luger to the mighty sawn-off shotgun. Going against 90s shooter conventions slightly, the selection of firearms available in Cultic's first chapter is rooted firmly in reality. There are no shrink rays or room-clearing BFGs to be found here. Instead, there are hatchets, rifles and rattling machine guns. These weapons feel brittle and old, savage in an unknowable sort of way.
Alongside gratifying weaponry, Cultic features a surprisingly fluid movement system that makes fights enormously entertaining. Your protagonist is a zippy fella, capable of sliding and leaping towards foes like he’s auditioning to be Apex Legends’ next champion. Combat forces you to manage your distance between enemies. Sliding in close with the shotgun lets you take out weaker cultists with ease, whereas machine gun-wielding nasties are best off being dealt with from a distance using your rifle. As bullets run dry, you’ll find yourself swapping effortlessly between these two states, desperately attempting to stay alive by navigating fluidly through densely packed spaces. Worst case, you always have your dynamite, clusters of explosives that must be ignited with your lighter before being thrown towards groups of enemies. These bombs are highly volitaile, but aimed correctly can turn an advancing swarm of cultists into a steaming pile of human soup.
Cultists come in various shapes and sizes. Smaller, hooded menaces will come at you with hatchets and pistols in the game’s earlier stages, but later levels introduce all sorts of weird and wonderful things to shove bullets into. Zombies. Hulking titans of flesh and bone. Rag-covered ghosts. Skeletons with shotguns. It’s a varied selection, each requiring a specific approach if you’re looking to take them down without losing too much of your precious health.
When you do finally fell them, that’s when the blood starts to pour. Those headshots I mentioned up top aren’t a rare occurrence. They’re a frequent reward, a chipped and slimy gold star that is given to you every single time you encounter an enemy. If anything the game actively encourages them as the preferred way to take things down, with every other melon pop slowing the action to a crawl for a few seconds, daring you to try and get another before the chaos comes roaring back into focus. Cultic is gory, basically. Fights devolve quickly into a raucous cacophony of splashing blood, cracking bone and squelching viscera. It’s gross. Absolutely - brilliantly - disgusting.
It helps that Cultic is presented in a visual style that can only be described as crispy. Alongside the usual flourishes associated with games inspired by their 90s counterparts (pixelated textures, 2D sprites etc.) Cultic also features a limited colour palette that gives the game a grimy, dirty aesthetic that really stands out. Despite the rusty vibes, Cultic is sort of beautiful in a way. There’s just something about it that is both deeply menacing and strangely peaceful. The way the light falls on an abandoned car. The skybox a sea of stars that hangs disinterested above the violence below.
Complimenting this is a bunch of modern elements that give the world a sense of texture and depth, such as realistic lighting effects and a full-blown physics system. 2D enemy sprites are paired with fully 3D objects, enhancing the surreal nature of the world around you. It’s a neat decision, and alongside the art direction makes Cultic feel wholly singular despite its obvious influences.
Is this where I mention Blood? I guess this is where I mention Blood. It’s really hard to see screenshots of Cultic and not be reminded of Monolith’s 1997 horror shooter. The hooded cultists. The dynamite. The whole waking up dead thing. It would be easy to look at Cultic and assume this is the inevitable retro-inspired FPS retread of Blood. And, honestly, you wouldn’t be wrong. The similarities are clear and noticeable, sure, but once you’ve killed a few cultists and thrown a few sticks of dynamite you quickly realise that Cultic is a hell of a lot more than a simple Blood clone. It’s crunchier, snappier, and more tactile. If anything this feels like the Blood sequel we never got (quiet at the back, I'm aware Blood got a sequel), an expansion on that game’s themes and ideas but executed with more technical aplomb.
The biggest difference is, unlike Blood, in Cultic you are not a named protagonist with any kind of personality. From what I can tell the game is set around the mid-1950s, although that’s a total guess. You play as, I dunno, some guy, who after being thrown into a pit of corpses seemingly vows to take revenge against this hatchet-wielding group of cultists who have overrun an expanse of woodland. Story is not the concern here, at least not one that’s explicitly communicated to the player. With the exception of a handful of notes that fill in some of the game’s more obtuse elements (such as the “imbuement of flesh” which is a common theme here) you’re mostly left to glean as much as you can from the world around you.
Thankfully, one of Cultic’s strongest elements is its exceptional sense of place. Whereas most releases that take influence from 90s shooters tend to favour DOOM’s approach to level design, where locations are abstract spaces focused on conveying a specific tone, Cultic does the opposite. From thickets to asylums, mineshafts to cathedrals, Cultic’s world feels believable. Well. As believable as a crypt full of skeletons wielding shotguns can feel, anyway. Levels are structured practically, in a way that makes logical sense. As you scuttle through the drywall of an abandoned mansion fighting telekinetic ghosts, it's this subtle reminder of realism that holds onto your leg to prevent you from floating off entirely into the abstract unknown.
I particularly liked how Cultic alternates between wide-open areas and tightly designed labyrinths. The latter facilitates fast-paced shootouts, while the former slows things down to a crawl, heightening the tension and making you feel vulnerable and alone. You’ll find yourself creeping through claustrophobic tunnels on a regular basis, your flickering lighter providing you with precious visibility at the expense of holding a more powerful two-handed weapon. Cultic is not a scary game, but in these moments it certainly gets close.
The only thing holding Cultic back right now is a few cases of fiddly platforming. Nothing on the critical path, mind. Moreso secrets that are hidden behind a gauntlet of rickety platforms that I found borderline impossible to overcome. I am not averse to first-person jump puzzles, but there is something slightly off about Cultic’s movement that makes precision jumping an arduous task. I found myself giving up precious resources like permanent health buffs or weapon upgrade materials purely because I knew getting there would make me feel so intensely angry that it wasn’t worth the effort. A shame. I hope it’s something that’s smoothed over in the future.
Speaking of the future, this current release of Cultic is merely one slice of what will one day become a much larger game. Chapter One is already an exceptional first-person shooter, a rock-solid foundation that I’m excited to see sole developer Jason Smith build upon. After all, more chapters spell more headshots. What more could you ask for?