Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PS4 Pro
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Could Lovecraft ever have known just how popular his unique brand of cosmic horror would become? Since his work is now public domain the Cthulhu name is everywhere, including literally hundreds of board games, books and video games. You can’t escape tentacles, green mist and hard-boiled detectives going slowly insane, it seems.
This Call of Cthulhu sounds like a sequel to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (released waaay back in 2005/2006) or even like some sort of barmy Call of Duty spinnoff due to its name, but actually this is no relation and instead originates from the tabletop RPG of the same title. That also means that this official video game adaption is more focused on investigation and the trauma of dealing with entities and concepts far beyond what humans can handle, which is more in keeping with Lovecraft’s original work where happy endings and beating the bad guys were practically non-existent concepts.
Edward Pierce, private investigator and full-time drunk, is the lead character here and the game opens with him being hired to investigate the supposedly accidental death of a man’s daughter on the island of Darkwater. When you arrive via ship it’s a rundown, murky place that was once a thriving whaling town but is now little more than a shadow of its former self. Of course, this is a Lovecraft inspired game so its clear from the outset that things aren’t right, but even if the people didn’t give it away then the constant green tinge certainly would. There’s more to the death of Sarah Hawkins, her son and her husband than meets the eye and it’s your job to figure it all out across the course of five or six hours.
A game like this lives or dies on the quality of its writing and whether it manages to create the foreboding, creepy atmosphere that Lovecraft inspired horror needs to thrive. Here the limited budget and the messy development history (which spanned four years, two developers and a lot of delays) definately come into play as Call of Cthulhu has horrible animations, poor character models and lip syncing that appears to be matched up with an entirely different game at times. Hidden in all of this, though, is some nice art design. The initial steps into Darkwater, for example, reveal a suitably run-down town that feels isolated from the world by towering claws of rock circling the island. Darkwater feels forgotten by the larger world. Likewise your journey up to a mansion early in the game absolutely nails the oppressive, bleak atmosphere.
The quality of the voice acting is surprisingly strong, too. Sure, some of the minor characters don’t sound very good, but most of the major characters get some really great actors playing them who are clearly giving it their all. In particuilar the actor for Pierce delivers his lines convincingly, and manages to sell the character’s descent into the madness of Darkwater extremely well.
Since this is a Lovecraftian tale the plot is understandably a bit bonkers at times, though I’d actually say Call of Cthulhu is relatively tame with nothing that stood out to me as truly insane from a visual or gameplay standpoint. Lovecraft deals in psycholigical, cosmic horror, the unfathomable kind that drives a person insane, and through that there should be a constant sense of dread that just wasn’t present for me. The times where there was genuine threat were always clear, meaning the other times you could amble around without much sense of worry.
However, while I do feel that the writers didn’t delve as deeply into madness as the videogame medium can allow this is still a fairly compelling plot with a couple of intriguing twists and turns. Whether or not the ending will leave people feeling like the journey was capped with a good payoff is hard to say, though. The biggest mistep is probably that more time isn’t given to fleshing out the island and its inhabitants, with only a few supporting characters who don’t get much personality. With a longer runtime more time could have been given over to building up the town, its people and the uneasy feeling that things just ain’t quite right. Instead, it’s instantly clear that this isn’t a good place to be and most of the islanders are just background details.
A lot of the time you’re just walking around in first-person checking out various clues that will advance the plot and fulfill your current objectives. This isn’t an open-ended game where you have to use your intellect to piece together everything and then make deductions, rather it’s a fairly linear story and while it’s certainly possible to miss things along the way there are always specific clues that you have to discover to get things moving. To this end there are special segments where Pierce can use his detective skills to “recreate” a scene in his mind, extrapolating what might have occured, often to extreme points as he seems able to make massive leaps in logic, the kind that would make Sherlock look shocked.
Depending on what clues you discover or the skills you’ve invested in the dialogue options you get might change or certain events may play out differently. As you pick up clues and complete objectives you’ll be given Character Points that you can spend to level up strength, investigation, eloquence and psychology, while your medical and occultism skills are improved by finding special things in the world. Like the tabletop RPG of the same name on which this game is based you’ll be given chances to test these skills, although wierdly I almost always seemed to succeed during these moments. You might be able to use your high strength to brute force a puzzle, for example, while eloquence and psychology can open up new conversation options.
You’ll also often spot a little icon that informs you that this decision will somehow change your destiny. When I first noticed this I grew excited at the prospect of an adventure worth replaying, but to be entirely honest I never felt like anything I did had any real impact. So to my chagrin I put aside Red Dead Redemption 2 and my continued quest for loot in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey in order to put in a second playthrough to see what could be done differently. While some things can certainly change, like getting into a warehouse differently or dealing with certain characters in another way, it still didn’t feel like anything of genuine substance was changed.
That’s especially dissapointing with the madness system, wherein the more Pierce learns and experiences the more insane he’ll become. It’s an awesome idea and the menu screen shows a pile of different traumas Pierce can, with some of them being entirely unavoidable and others only occuring if you do something specific, like choose to ready the creepy looking books. The only thing I did like about this was that once you get crazy enough you unlock special dialogue options that allow you to get nuggets of truth from people.
When the game sticks to this investigation aspect it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s when the game steps away from the investigation and exploration that it all falls apart and becomes, at times, frankly unbearable. The first stealth section you encounter only has humans to worry about, but it still illicits some concern as the basic mechanics are rough to say the least. Thankfully the section is a doddle in terms of staying out of the way of roving guards.
That’s just a taster, though, because the next stealth section brings in the supernatural elements by forcing you to stay hidden from a creature while also searching for a special item. It should be a tense sequence that drives home how all you can do against beasts like this is hide, but what it ends up being is an excersise in annoyance. When the monster can and cannot see you is impossible to judge, as is how you can sometimes run around the corner and into a closet in full view of it without consequence, yet other times you can clamber into the closet with plenty of time to spare but then get yanked out and killed anyway.
The next major stealth sequence is perhaps worse. It hands you a gun this time so that you can shoot down some of the zombie-like beings that stand in your way, although in my first playthrough this gun vanished upon reloading after a death and while it continued to appear in my inventory I couldn’t use it again. Presumably I ran out of ammo and it never bothered to tell me. Anyway, the idea here is to navigate your way through the shambling enemies, something which becomes much less tense and scary and considerably more dumb. Your foes are inconsistent at best, sometimes capable of seeing and hearing you just fine while at other times failing to spot you standing right in front of them.
What this resulted in was me being in a building with two doors and a thin boardwalk around the edge. To get out meant having to amble out one door in order to bait the zombies crowding the way forward. Cue an absurd situation where I kept inching forward to get their attention before trying to lead them very slowly around the boardwalk, but sometimes they wouldn’t see me at all, or only one or two of them would follow while the third continue to stare at a wall. It was almost comical, but considering wound up dying a few times due to the clunky stealth and had to keep repeating this absurd dance it quickly became depressing. Worse, in the situations where one of the zombies wouldn’t leave the boardwalk at all it became impossible to progress, forcing me to commit suicide in the hopes that the next time would work out better. Even once I escaped (by handily discovering you can push zombies aside with a door) things did not improve, and yet another bit has you luring zombies around in a circle so that you can amble to you destination. It’s about as far from scary or tense as you can get.
On the second playthrough my gun never vanished and some extra bullets were picked up by saving a police officer, and so the segment became so much easier. I just hope that anyone else playing the game doesn’t get stuck doing the stealth route as it’s utterly tedius.
But not all the mechanics outside of the investigation are bad. A couple of light puzzles get tossed into the mix and while they’re nothing special they do still act as a pretty nice distraction. There’s another sequence involving some supernatual shenanigans and special lanterns that’s quite decent, too.
And by the end I was pretty invested in the storyline. While it guides you along there’s still enough background information that you can piece together yourself about Darkwater and the events surrounding it to make it fun.
I think there’s an audience for this game, even given it’s many problems. Lovecraftian horror has plenty of fans, after all, but not a whole lot of videogames to choose from that actually try to stick close to the theme in terms of focusing on characters and the horrors rather than guns and weapons. If you’re after something where you get to whack ancient horrors on the head or put some bullets into them then this isn’t going to be for you, but if you’re seeking something slower that focuses on the story then this might finally be the Lovecraft game you’ve been waiting for.
But while I did genuinely want to love Call of Cthulhu, ultimately it left me frustrated and at times struggling to muster the desire to even play it. The stealth segments did nothing but leave me angry at how poorly designed they were, and that in turn hurt my desire to play through the much better investigation areas where the game is at its very best. If you can find it on sale it may be worth it, but otherwise don’t bother delving into the madness for this one.