Cultic might be the year's grungiest retro FPS

Cultic FPS
(Image credit: Jasozz Games)

It’s one of gaming’s great tragedies that we never got a sequel to Build engine classic Blood (opens in new tab). At least, not one worth speaking of. Enter Cultic (opens in new tab), an ambitious spiritual successor from solo indie developer Jasozz Games, launching today into early access. Despite being only part of a planned whole, what you can play of Cultic right now is a juicy (positively blue-rare, even) budget-priced slice of halloweeny FPS fun.

Cultic evokes fond memories of Blood from the get-go, but it's not just trying to be Blood. You are a gunslinger (a detective this time, rather than a cowboy) risen from the grave to get revenge on the cultist army that offed you and seemingly half the county’s population to fuel their rituals. While our protagonist is (sadly) silent, there are enough expository journals and notes to fill in any blanks. It’s a simple premise delivered largely through environmental storytelling, which is reason enough to shoot a lot of color-coded mooks in robes.

And the shooting is excellent. Like Blood, it’s twitchy and aggressive, with machine gun- and shotgun-wielding cultists able to tear you to shreds on sight. Blitzing unaware groups of human or undead foes with lobbed dynamite (satisfyingly reducing foes to chunky clouds), molotovs and headshots before scrambling for cover is Cultic’s heartbeat. You’re a glass cannon, a problem mitigated by stockpiling healing items you can use to patch yourself up mid-fight.

While this is immediately familiar retro FPS stuff, Cultic does mix things up. Its levels are long, containing claustrophobic carnage closets and larger outdoors battlefields for sniper-range combat, scouting and flanking tactics. The hefty arsenal of 1950s-esque guns feel grimy, noisy and impactful, and secret areas often hold upgrade parts that can be used to add up to four perks to each gun. Fully upgraded, the sawed-off shotgun becomes Team Fortress 2’s Force-A-Nature, recoil double-jumps and all.

What Cultic impressed me with most was its ability to shift tonal gears. Within a single level it’s not unusual to traverse long trails full of small encampments before assaulting a cult stronghold in a frantic cover-to-cover battle accompanied by some very John Carpenter synth jams. Moments later, I’m in a dark corpse-lined tunnel, tension building and the music completely absent until a horror set piece introduces a new supernatural threat. All that in the space of 10 minutes. 

This initial offering is generous: For 10 bucks, you get a 10-level campaign. Two of those are shorter boss stages, but the eight main levels took me around 20-35 minutes each on the third of five difficulties. With nastier enemy placements on higher settings and plenty of secrets I didn't find, there’s good replay value. Were it not for a plot hook set up in the closing seconds, Cultic could already pass for a finished and satisfying four-hour game.

There’s also a survival mode with three maps and a smart gimmick. You fight waves of enemies in arenas, collecting resources and money to buy gear between waves. The game ends on death or when the clock runs out, encouraging frantic, reckless play to clear waves as fast as possible. It’s good fun and the time pressure makes it feel distinct from the campaign. Considering the low price, the campaign is meaty enough, and survival is a tasty side dish.

Despite being just the first part of a larger game, Cultic’s early access version is a nicely self-contained FPS. It's polished enough that I can only come up with minor issues to nitpick. Precise sniping can trivialize some encounters and there’s a few strange difficulty spikes and dips, but nothing that player feedback can’t hammer out. The way the game renders in ultrawide is a little unusual too, with stuff on the screen edges being magnified, but I only noticed it when I was actively looking for it.

Cultic FPS

(Image credit: Jasozz Games)

My only halfway serious critique is that elements of Cultic’s positively scrunkly low-fi style don’t quite do it for me. Now, the environments, the sprites, the chunky voxel decorations? They’re all great. The textures evoke the DOS era perfectly. It feels authentic, while pushing a bit beyond '90s limitations in physics and scope. It’s the post-processing that goes too far.

While Blood (and other Build engine games) had some crunchy sounds and a limited DOS color palette, combat barks for these cultists can sound like they’re being belted out though a speaker packed with glass shards, and the visual effects sometimes makes the game look like a 256-colour image hit with some JPEG compression. I’m sure some will love the look, but it’s not for me. Thankfully there’s options to tone down the color-grading and dithering effects, but the audio remains extra sharp.

Those few issues did nothing to dull my enjoyment while I was playing. While clear and proudly inspired by its Build engine inspiration, Cultic (opens in new tab) already delivers a solid transfusion of new ideas into that body. I see no reason not to B-Positive about the levels yet to come.

The product of a wasted youth, wasted prime and getting into wasted middle age, Dominic Tarason is a freelance writer, occasional indie PR guy and professional techno-hermit seen in many strange corners of the internet and seldom in reality. Based deep in the Welsh hinterlands where no food delivery dares to go, videogames provide a gritty, realistic escape from the idyllic views and fresh country air. If you're looking for something new and potentially very weird to play, feel free to poke him on Twitter. He's almost sociable, most of the time.