Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't Drink the Kool-Aid: Super Cult Tycoon 2

Here's a free indie game by Eddie Cameron and Robert Yang (now of Altercation). In Super Cult Tycoon 2, your mission is to start a religious cult and summon the mothership before the FBI can shut you down. This creative idea blends elements of tower defense, tycoon, and real-time strategy with you using resources (Kool-Aid, manpower, and money) to build your society. The bigger your cult grows, the more suspicious the feds get, requiring you to spend more of your resources diverting their attention and fending them off until the final count-down.

Super Cult Tycoon 2 has some technical and design problems that leave it far from perfection, but the gameplay proves to be pretty fun, and that makes it worth checking out. 

The game starts out with you driving your van into a rural farm town in Colorado. Finding an open patch of land for your headquarters, your first objective is to recruit members for your church. Which you do by disguising your van as an ice cream truck, abducting people from the local farms, bringing them back to your barn, and brainwashing them with Kool-Aid. 

"Recruiting" acolytes will bring in a steady flow of cash tithes, which you can use to build structures on your land. Initially, you'll need to build some barracks to house your acolytes, but pretty soon you'll need to build Kool-Aid refineries in order to retain them. You can build a garage to enhance your van, allowing it to move faster and hold more abductees, as well as build factories where your acolytes can produce wallets and export products to bring in more cash. 

With townspeople going missing, rumors of your cult start circulating the local strip, and before long the FBI starts trickling into town to investigate. At first they just occupy the local strip, but then they start sending patrol cars to your base and blockading the backroads. A meter at the top of the screen fills up in chunks whenever you recruit acolytes, causing the feds to send more and more agents to your farm until they're eventually ordered by the president to take your organization down by force.

Arriving at the new site of my personal cult: The Blarney Cow Pies. (click for full size)

All-the-while you're able to build "PR agencies" that bribe FBI agents with money you've accumulated. Or, you could pay for a "Robert sentry," a mystical, autonomous sphere that will eliminate agents or bring back deserted acolytes. But once you've earned enough money and kool-aid, you can start building the three monoliths required to summon the mothership, which will cause the meter to start constantly filling up, attracting more and more feds. Once all three are built, a three-minute timer counts down; all that's left to do is survive long enough for the mothership to arrive.

At this point, the feds will start attacking your barn, depleting its "health" down from 100% to 0, unless you have enough PR firms or Robert sentries to hold them back. If they overwhelm your barn, then you get arrested and it's game over. If you hold out long enough for the mothership to arrive,  then you apparently abscond with all of the remaining money and kool-aid that you had left-over. These "stats" could be considered your "final score," but the game doesn't really do anything with this aspect, which makes the ending feel just a little shallow. Like if the whole point is to run off with the money, then why spend so much of it bribing the FBI in the final stretch instead of just skipping town before everything starts hitting the fan?

As you might imagine, there's a satisfying level of balance to be had between raising your own resources, avoiding the feds, and constructing the monoliths. In that regard, it accomplishes the same feeling of playing Starcraft or Warcraft, with the brain-teasing strategy elements and the sense of accomplishment when you succeed, except in a more concentrated dose. Super Cult Tycoon 2 only takes about 20 minutes for a single playthrough, but odds are it will take two or three attempts before you even understand what you're doing.

Three active monoliths, waiting for the mothership with feds inbound. (click for full size)

This is where the problems start. The main issue is that the game doesn't explain its mechanics very well, and you don't really understand how things function until it's too late. At the beginning, you're constantly producing a steady flow of kool-aid, but it wasn't overtly explained that every recruit would add a constant drain on your supply, so I didn't even notice it depleting until it was near zero. At which point my acolytes started leaving and the game prompted me to build "Robert sentries," when I apparently hadn't unlocked that construction yet because it wasn't anywhere on the tool bar.

Once patrol cars started showing up at my farm, the game told me to build PR firms, so I planted one down in the middle. And it wasn't until I was getting swarmed by agents that I realized they were proximity-based (they only start slowly feeding money to agents that are close enough to it), and that I'd really be needing one at each entrance to my farm. And then at the end I didn't realize that I would need more set up around my barn when the mothership count-down starts.

Finally, there's the fact that once you build a single monolith, the FBI gauge starts progressively filling up. At first I'd thought it was wise to get them built as soon as possible, but after building the first one I realized I had just shot myself in the foot and now put a time limit on myself, when there hadn't been one until I'd made it. 

It seems entirely possible to beat the game without escalating things to the point of the "all-out final confrontation." As long as you're producing enough kool-aid to support your members (building a single refinery is enough to get the job done with a modest following, and building two becomes over-kill), you'll get a steady, if not rapid, stream of cash coming in, and if you just sit there waiting long enough, you can raise enough money to build everything you need to and then build the expensive monoliths and wait for the mothership to arrive with the feds still at a relatively low attention-level.

Running off with the money, an impressive $0.02 profit. So worth it. (click for full size)

Of course, it's boring as hell to just sit there waiting, so I chose to take the more exciting route and get things going at a quicker pace, but it seems like a slight flaw in the design that almost rewards you for keeping your cult small. Maybe that's part of the whole point, that smaller cults are more discreet, but it still seems like the FBI meter should be filling up on a time-basis before you build the monoliths, at least to give you a little push to keep you moving the whole time.

Otherwise, there are some bugs and issues that can make the game unbeatable or just make it a chore. Your van sometimes has poor path-finding, getting caught on seemingly nothing, forcing you guide it around for a bit. There's supposed be a button that will automatically lead the van back to the barn, but on one playthrough it literally did not work and I had to manually navigate the van all the way back each time. At another point, I put a PR firm right in front of my barn, not realizing that I wouldn't be able to get the van close enough to drop off new recruits. And at another point the monolith icon was crossed out on the toolbar and I could never build one, despite having more than enough money and kool-aid. Besides that, the camera's not the best. 

But despite these problems, I still enjoyed the premise and gameplay. It's unique and creative, with a certain amount of satire and irony that makes it even more appealing, sort of mixing the Jonestown ritual suicides with the Heaven's Gate, among others. The gameplay does a surprising job of emulating the satisfaction of playing "hardcore" RTS games, which makes it all the more recommendable. Download Super Cult Tycoon 2: Deluxe Edition for free here

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