James Stephanie Sterling
Cultic - In The Blood (Review)
Cultic Released: October 13, 2022 Developer: Jasozz Games Publisher: 3D Realms Systems: PC
Waking up in a foreboding grave. An army of gun-toting cultists. An endless cavalcade of graphic violence. These are intrinsic parts of the classic 1997 shooter Blood, elements that have been liberally lifted for a contemporary spiritual successor by the name of Cultic.
Its creator cites Resident Evil 4 and Dark Forces as primary gameplay influences, but the aesthetic and tone is positively dripping with Blood.
Put together by a lone developer (Jason Smith), Cultic is one in a long line of retraux first-person shooters following such titles as Prodeus, Dusk, Amid Evil, and many others. I’m sure I have a limit to how many of these games I can care about, but so many of them have been great that I’ve still got plenty of time for them. For now, anyway.
Cultic is another quality addition to the trend, a deliciously gory romp through a spooky world teeming with zealots, zombies, and bountiful body horror.
This is a game that loves its own brutality. Heads burst with gleeful geysers of gushing blood while the screams of those set alight are comical in how damn extra they are. It takes very little effort to trigger slow-motion effects designed entirely to show an enemy dying in all their gratuitous juiciness. The mayhem is downright charming in how vicious it is, and it maintains a remarkable sense of satisfaction no matter how many gibs go flying.
Unsurprisingly, Cultic keeps it light on the story, though there’s a narrative that runs through the background. Documents littered through each level flesh out the antagonistic cult and suggest a light slice of cosmic horror. They’re decently written and can be glossed over for those who just care about the killing. Light though it is, I could have stood to learn more about the antagonists’ history and beliefs. What’s provided is evocative but little is done outside of small text passages to make the cultists stand out as much more than generic robed villains.
Cultic’s 1960s setting is only really evidenced by the lack of modern weaponry, as players find themselves largely relying on vintage firearms, at least by our standards - a handgun, double barrelled shotgun, lever action rifle, and old fashioned submachine gun serve as the backbone of our protagonist’s arsenal. Late into the game, you obtain some heavier weapons, but even the more exotic flamethrower is (sort of) grounded and appropriate to the period.
While not fancy, each gun feels devastatingly effective. The humble handgun, often swiftly outclassed in your typical FPS, manifests as a machine pistol more than capable of holding its own through to the late game. Despite its slow rate of fire, the lever rifle’s power and accuracy makes it so good at popping heads that I preferred using it even over the sniper rifle found much later on. Ammo is frustratingly sparse in the early stages, but once you have a decent supply, combat balances challenge and empowerment nicely. Notably, Cultic’s not shy about handing out tons of dynamite and molotovs, which can be lit and thrown or tossed unignited and then shot at. This ordnance can prove vital at times, and blowing a group of enemies to bits is a laugh.
Guns can be given multiple upgrades apiece using collectible weapon parts, adding a little more depth than one usually sees from retro-style shooters. Weapons have an alt-fire mode too, either as standard or through said upgrades. The rifle can rapid fire, for example, while the handgun may be outfitted with a burst fire mode. While the gun improvements aren’t many, they’re welcome additions that help every weapon remain useful throughout the entire campaign.
Like any FPS of its ilk, Cultic wastes very little time with anything outside of violence. The cult boasts a moderate variety of enemies, from bog standard followers to hulking monsters and zombies that leap terrifyingly long distances. Most of them are fun to deal with in their own way and can offer some nasty surprises, such as the traps thrown out by chainsaw-wielding brutes. The only creatures I truly hate are the floating telekinetics who love to hide and can deal damage with a mere thought. Having to stop and look for them sometimes proves to be an irritation, albeit a minor one.
One neat thing Cultic does is allow you to manually heal by storing pickups as raw HP. After you find the field kit item, any healing pickups you collect while at full health get stocked up to a maximum amount. It’s a little thing, but having to leave fewer health pickups on the ground while gaining extra flexibility in how you regain HP is a surprisingly pleasing touch that made me feel much more in control of my success while limiting the frustrating waste of good items that would otherwise lie on the ground while I’m at 100%.
Controls are rock solid and work terrific with a Steam Deck, though I do have an issue with movement - specifically the way in which one glides across the floor. My grievance is highly contextual, however. It’s not a problem until one needs to make their way up some open steps or navigate a platform that curves in some way. I’ve fallen off the sides of surfaces many times, something I never really do in other first-person games. Since there are rarely any death drops, it’s an inconvenience rather than anything truly terrible, but it happened to me enough to be worth a mention.
While the graphics successfully emulate the look and atmosphere of a 90s shooter, the stylistically muddy textures have a tendency to conspire with the largely brown environments to make everything look far uglier than it ought to. Cultic is not, inherently, a bad looking game, it just does itself no favors by relying exclusively on shit-colored surroundings. I don’t expect things to be bright and colorful given its moody tone, but the game could do with at least some visual variety, especially since the graphics are otherwise good and the enemy designs are really neat. Whether tromping through mine tunnels or exploring abandoned asylums, the color scheme is always begging for something fresh, and the game’s pixelated shadows don’t always look great when set against the dark surroundings.
I want to emphasize that I like the game’s look and feel overall, it just loses its atmosphere a little when there’s nothing to break up the aesthetic monotony. The same cannot be said for the soundtrack, featuring a number of truly excellent tunes that add a ton of weight to climactic battles and do so much heavy lifting in holding my attention throughout the course of the campaign.
Also, I must say it has a really nice flashlight. In a medium full of terrible torches, it's always worth noting a horror-themed game with a decent method of illumination.
Cultic compares somewhat unfavorably to the games it’s inspired by in terms of personality. It lacks the dark humor and enjoyably overwrought characters found in Blood or Resident Evil 4, and maintains its brutal style at such a consistent pace as to offer no major highs or lows throughout - save for one brilliant level that takes place in sprawling church grounds and features swarms of enemies followed by a ridiculous artillery-boasting boss fight.
The main campaign won’t take many hours to complete and ends very much like the shareware games that inspire so many of these modern homages. It’s made quite clear that this is part one of multiple installments, so there’s not a definitive conclusion at the end of this one. If you do wish to engage further with Cultic’s excellent combat, there’s a survival mode pitting you against waves of enemies across a selection of arenas. As a fan of horde modes, I’m pretty happy with its inclusion, and I’m glad of the further opportunity to burst heads open with that beautiful rifle.
Cultic’s shameless revelry in gore is delightful. Its array of guns is conservative in number but tightly focused in design, each weapon built for purpose and tangibly effective as a result. Pacing is a little one-note and insistently dingy visuals can be offputting at times, but the whole package remains a top notch retraux shooter. I had tremendous fun throughout, and while I’d like to see a little more unique personality from future installments, I haven’t had my fill of the action on offer here.
This certainly isn’t the inevitable game that finally wears out the subgenre’s welcome.