As some of you may know, I like Lovecraftian horror. The concept of things so dreadful that the sight of them would send you mad is interesting on a lot of levels, and I love the idea that Lovecraft put as high a value on people’s sanity as their physical health. Quite relevant today really. With all that said, this form of horror is difficult to put into other forms of media – there’s a reason why many of Lovecraft’s stories feature someone retelling someone else’s story. Whilst some games have done fairly well with it, Amnesia being a great example, there’s a lot of room for modern interactive adventures in this universe. Thankfully there a few coming along soon, and I was more than happy to pick up Call of Cthulhu on release.
Based on the RPG rather than the book itself, Call of Cthulhu has you take on the role of Edward Piece, a down on his luck PI with a penchant for drinking. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. With things looking bleak, he’s approached by a man who suspects foul play in the deaths of his daughter and her family in a house fire. He presents Edward with a painting created by his daughter, Sarah, showing some sort of demonic image. Once you’ve set up your character’s abilities, you head off to Darkwater Island to unravel the mystery, should one even exist.
Call of Cthulhu is hugely story driven, so I’m going to avoid any and all spoilers and focus more on the mechanics and gameplay. The game mostly plays like something of a more open-ended walking simulator, with you exploring the local area and speaking to the locals. From time to time you’ll encounter a puzzle that can be solved in a number of ways, or a stealth section. As the game progresses, the puzzles, conversations, and stealth elements become more bizarre thanks to how the story develops.
The conversation system makes up a large portion of the game and works really quite well. Taken on its own merits, it’s a simple dialogue wheel that has been seen many times before, but often you’ll only be able to ask one or two things, locking out other options. In fact, depending on how you’ve set up your character, you may have more or fewer options to go for. If you’ve put points into Eloquence, you may have choices that allow you to manipulate other characters, whilst a high Psychology trait will help you delve into people’s beliefs and motivations surrounding the island and its mysteries. It’s a fun system, and I found myself wondering what I was missing out on when I hadn’t distributed my character points in a certain way.
This use of character points goes further when you consider some of the puzzles in the game. Whilst Call of Cthulhu‘s puzzles aren’t complicated, there are a number of approaches you can take depending on your skills. If you need to get into a building, perhaps you can use your investigation skills to find out information to blackmail a guard, or if you’ve built up your strength you might want to find a way to force your way in. You can gain more points to spend as the game goes on, and discovering certain items will increase your medicine and occult stats, which are useful in certain situations. I really enjoyed this system, as it made everything I did feel specific to my version of Pierce.
This being a Lovecraft based game, there’s a further trait in the form of Sanity. As you see the horrors in the game (and there are some unpleasant things!) your sanity will decline further and further. This ties into the multiple endings, but interestingly it also brings you closer to the ancient gods any sane person would be fearful of. This is shown with your ability to speak in the language of the old gods, as well as have knowledge of things you haven’t come across. It’s a neat mechanic, but a little irritating when you try to use it in conversation as you don’t know what Pierce will say seeing as the text is written in R’lyehian. Further, I felt that it wasn’t fully utilised in the game as a whole. At one point, my Sanity was classified as ‘psychotic’, but I had a really quite pleasant conversation with another character. It seemed a little off. Also affecting the endings is your Destiny, which is tied to the actions you take during the game. You’re never quite sure when these choices are happening, which is interesting, but choose your conversations and actions carefully, as people can live or die based on them.
The stealth sections are probably the weakest part of the game. They make a lot of sense in terms of the narrative, and most don’t outstay their welcome, but they aren’t great. They often take place in quite labyrinthine areas making navigation a bit of a pain, and sometimes it isn’t too clear what you’re meant to be doing to complete them. In many of them, getting caught results in a pretty weak failure animation, but on the plus side it’s well checkpointed and won’t set you back too far. They weren’t too difficult, but I didn’t have a great time with them.
On the subject of animations, the visuals are a bit outdated. Character models aren’t as detailed as you might expect, there’s a lot of muddy textures, and I often noticed the environments not loading if I turned too quickly. Many of the animations are equally weak, and I saw many of them be repeated during longer conversations. It seems a bit amateurish considering this is a full priced release, and even more so when you notice that the sound and visuals in cutscenes are regularly out of sync.
The fact it’s full price is also quite relevant to the length of the game. I finished Call of Cthulhu in about seven hours, which isn’t terribly long. Whilst there are a number of endings, and many ways to approach situations, some may feel a little hard done by in terms of length. I for one will probably go back to see some more endings and try to keep a higher level of sanity, but if you tend to play a game only once, you may want to wait until a sale! With that said, the story on offer here is really quite good if you like Lovecraftian tales. Starting out as an interesting PI story, things go off the rails as events unfold. If you can overlook the short length and janky presentation, you’re in for a treat in this regard.
Call of Cthulhu was developed by Cyanide and published by Focus. I played the game on Xbox One and would heartily recommend this to people who like a good horror story and can overlook the somewhat high cost of entry. Whilst there a number of presentation issues and a couple of undercooked mechanics, there’s evidence of a lot of respect for the source material. Just don’t let some of the issues drive you mad.