In terms of video games, the influence of H.P. Lovecraft is very palpable. Many games, whether horror or not, lift elements and concepts from his fiction rather liberally. Despite this, there’s not ever been many amazing games based on the Call of Cthulhu, one of his most well-known works amongst fans. The last good game, Dark Corners of the Earth, released almost thirteen years ago, and since then publishers have been reluctant to touch the property. I won’t mince words here – this year’s game, simply titled Call of Cthulhu, is easily one of the best Lovecraftian horror games in years, though it’s almost certainly not for everyone.
In Call of Cthulhu, you play Edward Pierce, a private investigator who is suffering from an existential crisis. The year is 1924 and Pierce can’t find the cases that excite him anymore. He’s a grizzled war veteran, after all, and finds himself succumbing to his vices (namely alcohol and drugs) to cope with the lack of satisfaction in life. One night, a man brings a strange painting to his office and asks him to inspect it. The catch? The woman who painted it died, along with her family, in mysterious fire on Darkwater Island. Unsure, but oddly compelled, Pierce is drawn to investigate the strange goings-on and determine whether the fire was really an accident. As you’d expect, this small island town has some secrets to hide.From the moment you step into the world of Call of Cthulhu it’s immediately apparent that the developer’s number one focus was mood, tone and atmosphere. Despite the game’s technical shortcomings, the game still does a great job at pulling you into the story. The story itself is much better than it has any right to be, and while not the scariest horror game I’ve ever played, stays compelling from beginning to end. I finished Cthulhu in two very long sessions through no fault of the game, but more so through the gripping nature of the mystery and intrigue of the story. The (best) ending is bound to be divisive, as it’s, for lack of a better word, blunt; but Call of Cthulhu’s tale is satisfying from beginning to end.
What’s a little bit less certain is the way the game plays. An admittedly brave choice, especially today, Call of Cthulhu plays like a modernised point and click adventure game with little to no combat. You’ll play as a variety of characters as they discover the secrets of Darkwater Island, viewed from the first-person perspective. You’ll investigate crime scenes, explore run down locales and evade enemies both cosmic and corporeal. While I usually detest games like this, Call of Cthulhu seems to get the pacing just right and I never got tired of the trial-and-error stealth sections or the investigations.You’d probably be wondering if a game like this has combat then and barring some minor moments towards the conclusion of the story, it is a largely passive affair. As mentioned previously, Call of Cthulhu is a game that places an emphasis on world building, investigation and stealth over anything else. Those expected a mind-bending romp like The Evil Within should look elsewhere. It’s what Call of Cthulhu does with its level design that makes it feel a little bit more than your typical, cliché hide-and-seek horror game.
While not explicitly an open-world game, Call of Cthulhu does give players some freedom in deciding how Pierce carries out his investigation. Levels are linear, but the way in which you complete the chapters in the game are usually numerous. Pierce can interrogate some members of the island community and attempt to use a soft or hard approach to get what he wants. As he progresses further into the game, things get a bit more complicated and your choices can guide the story in multiple directions.A huge part of how this works is with the game’s skill system, which allows you to develop Pierce’s knowledge the way you see fit. Awarding you character points throughout the story, you can invest these points into categories that influence how Pierce interacts with the world. Invest in Psychology to better analyse people, Investigation to give you access to certain areas otherwise locked or hidden or even Speech to garner important information from witnesses.
Other abilities, like knowledge of Medicine or the Occult, are only improved by finding items in the world relevant to those fields and improving these allows Pierce to comment with greater understanding on these topics. If you’re Occult knowledge is too low, you might not be able to identify a weird engraving or insignia at a crime scene, for example, and potentially lose a lead. This sounds frustrating, but the game does a good job at steering you back on course if you miss something, usually through some other means.Despite the game insisting that these choices guide the story, you’ll ultimately end up at the same few conclusions at the end of the game, which is slightly disappointing. Still, it’s slightly humourous to see just how far you can push Pierce. A major element of the game is the concept of sanity and its role in Pierce’s decision making. Witnessing certain events in the story influences Pierce’s sanity and unlocks additional dialogue and options towards the end of the game when the story dovetails to its kooky conclusion. These “mental trauma” moments are glorified collectibles, but they’re where the crux of Cthulhu’s horror comes from.
I use the term horror gently, however, as Call of Cthulhu has a bit of a bad habit, especially during it’s opening hours. Many times, would I be playing through a chapter, absolutely tense from the stellar sound design, only for the game to tear control away from me in lieu of a cutscene. I applaud the developers for not relying on jump scares to creep out players, but it conversely removes all tension from the game when a tense build-up is punctuated by a cutscene rather than just letting me play through the creepy moment the game has worked so hard to build up.In terms of pacing, Call of Cthulhu feels just right. The game never overstays it’s welcome and knows just when to move from one scenario to the next, which is especially important when there’s quite a few trial-and-error stealth segments in the game. From beginning to end, most players will see the credits roll at the eight to ten-hour mark, though there’s multiple endings to see, though one which is easily superior. I wouldn’t play Call of Cthulhu through a second or third time immediately, though I see some value in doing so later on.
Perhaps the biggest surprise with Call of Cthulhu is how good it looks given the scope and scale of the whole production. It’s by no means as good looking as the latest and greatest AAA blockbusters, but the strong art direction certainly helps the game sell the mood and atmosphere that it’s going for. Despite the locales looking dark and moody, the models for the characters themselves can look rough at times.
Catch them under the wrong lighting, or delivering a long monologue, and they themselves can be unintentionally nightmarish as well. Still, this is a minor issue with the presentation that’s easily compensated by other visual strengths. Voicework is similarly strong, and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score is haunting, eerie and suspenseful.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED ON AN XBOX ONE X FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Call of Cthulhu is one of the better games based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and despite its visual shortcomings does a great job at commanding your attention from start to finish. It’s not for everyone, however, and the emphasis on exploration and trial-and-error stealth mechanics is bound to turn some people off. Putting this aside, Call of Cthulhu feels like a triumph for many reasons – it’s well paced, its story is intriguing and the uneasiness of it’s chilling conclusion will stay with you long after you’ve turned it off.