Call of Cthulhu Review
While there has been many a game inspired by the horrifying creations of H. P. Lovecraft — from Dead Space to Bloodborne — it is somewhat rarer to find a game which takes on the full weight of actually using the original mythos wholesale. Surprisingly, as we approach the end of 2018 there are not one but twotitles fast approaching. Directly ‘Lovecraftian’ games are like buses then. Buses with tentacles and teeth, and yellowing manuscripts aboard instead of free newspapers, but buses nonetheless. Ahead of 2019’s upcoming The Sinking City, first out of the gates is Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu, readying itself for a spooky Halloween release.
This new Call of Cthulhu is not a direct continuation of 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, but each was produced under the license of Chaosium’s long-lived role-playing horror game. To that end, Cyanide Studio has unleashed an engaging romp through the haunted underbelly of the 1920s, with a pacy plot and a seriously unnerving atmosphere — even if the RPG levelling system and player choices don’t initially seem to offer as much to the game as had been previously thought.
You play as Edward Pierce, a typically grizzled private investigator armed with the one-two punch of alcoholism and a wrecked psyche (the dual result of his time on the bloody fields of World War I). Roused from a drunken stupor in his mess of an office one morning, a case comes across Pierce’s desk that he can’t help but look into — even if only to keep the detective agency from revoking his license due to inactivity. A family has died in a freak fire at their home in the isolated whaling town of Darkwater, but your client believes that something more than a simple accident has led to their demise.
Stepping off the boat at the Darkwater harbour a short cutscene later, you’ll begin to meet the locals and start gathering information about the demise of the Hawkins family, and the local community as a whole. Your dialogue choices can take you down different conversational paths leading you towards or away from pertinent clues — but that’s all for you to decide. The vast majority of characters you bump into can hold a conversation; this number does drop off as the game goes on, but the job is already done: Darkwater stands out as a living, if small, township with internal tensions and pressures felt by each and every resident.
Cyanide Studio has lifted a (low-tech) version of the Arkham series’ ‘detective mode’ in Call of Cthulhu: Pierce can piece together physical evidence and what he knows so far to visualise a likely sequences of events. It’s dreamy and soft-focus, and it’s pleasing to see his perception of what may have occurred alter as you gather more clues in a room. These tasks may not require as much thought as conversations, but owing to the pre-modern spin on the mechanic it doesn’t feel shoehorned in.
What does feel forced, however, is the levelling system. Experience you earn as you progress can be used to upgrade Pierce in the characteristics of Eloquence, Strength, Psychology, Investigation, and ‘Spot Hidden’ (this last one impacting Pierce’s proclivity for noticing additional concealed clues in any area). Whilst conversation options are expanded the higher your Eloquence or Psychology stat, you can also achieve the same by having picked up the right information from other NPCs, which gives a more organic cause-and-effect principle to your investigation. There are a handful of areas where a high Strength rating will allow you to bodily bypass an obstacle, whether it be a rusted lever or a bootlegger guarding a doorway. Apart from that — and these occasions arise so infrequently — there is little reason to have this attribute. As these blocked paths have simple, quieter ways around them, the alternative routes feel more satisfying and in keeping with the mood of the game. After all, there’s a reason why Edward Woodward didn’t rock up to The Wickerman’s Summerisle with his sleeves rolled up and a bandana around his forehead.
What I really enjoyed about Call of Cthulhu was how varied the gameplay can be from chapter to chapter. The majority of the time you will be investigating creepy locations and interacting with the locals on your quest to get to the bottom of Darkwater’s secrets, but every now and then you’ll be plunged into a situation that requires a different approach to continue. Amazingly, the gameplay shift doesn’t feel like an abrupt shake-up, as you’re using the exact same controls and abilities you’ve had since the start of the game; you just didn’t know you could use them in this way.
There are environmental puzzles to solve in order to get through blocked passages. There are hallucinatory sequences which test your memory and resolve to navigate shimmering pathways through shifted variations of previously familiar locations. Best of all are the stealth horror sequences — which had me holding my breath in delighted fear. Whether avoiding wardens in a hospital asylum or skulking behind cloaked cult members in caverns deep underground, these levels require high caution and nerves of steel. My favourite event (and one of the strongest moments from a game built on an unrelenting atmosphere of inescapable dread) had me guiding Pierce around a pitch-black art gallery full of occult paintings and artefacts, all the while being stalked by an otherworldly creature waiting to mete out some brutal instant death animations. Ventilation grates and cupboards can be used to hide from your opposition, but you don’t have the luxury of waiting there until the guard patterns (presumably) reset. Instead, Pierce’s vision blurs and his heart hammers in your ears, as he succumbs to a claustrophobic panic attack. I would stay hidden for as long as I could bear it before exiting my hidey-hole gasping for air, hoping that it had been just long enough for the coast to clear. It’s a really effective device to keep you moving through the level instead of having time for a cheeky power nap and to get your thoughts in order. As you don’t pick up a weapon until one of the final stages of the game — and admittedly doing so is not a great experience, reducing that chapter to a simplistic shooting gallery — you feel so weak and exposed in these sections, aware that one false step or pulling out your lantern could spell your end.
Call of Cthulhu isn’t the prettiest game on the Unreal Engine you’ll see this year, at times occupying an awkward middle ground between last-gen and current-gen. Character models are generally fine but distinctive, with a slightly angular, elongated take on the human form — which isn’t always complemented by some wooden animation. The styling of the crooked architecture and religious curios are gorgeous however, so the odd pop-in and blocky texture doesn’t detract too badly from the gameplay (Cyanide Studio has prepared a release-day patch which was not available at the time of writing, which aims to improve a number of unspecified aspects, so this point may be moot by the time you play the game).
Anthony Howell voices Edward Pierce, adding to the general quality of the voice acting much as he did for this year’s Vampyr. Early on in the game Pierce does tend to talk with an earnest Adam West-ian cadence for his inner monologues, which may lead to you mentally adding a few “old chums” at the end of sentences. Despite this, as the story progresses Pierce’s voice shakes and falters, trying to get to grips with the world-changing knowledge that has been forced upon him. This, combined with sequences in which Pierce stumbles and trips, his vision obscured with fear, ties the in-game events together with their impact on your controls: it’s nice not to have a character seemingly unmoved by their experiences.
Throughout the roughly eleven-hour storyline of Call of Cthulhu, you’ll uncover secret societies, dark prophecies, glimpses of the cosmic otherness that underpins our existence, and a heap of discoverable documents directly referencing other Lovecraft creations. With correspondence from scholars at Miskatonic University or references to Abdul Alhazred, Innsmouth and Leng, the game manages to pull familiar strands from multiple Lovecraft works without reducing the Elder Gods to city-toppling kaiju. In our post-Pacific Rim times, it shows a deal of restraint and recognition as to where the focus on the source material should lie.
Follow Pierce’s investigation through to the end and you’ll be rewarded with a well-paced plot with twists and turns aplenty, a number of different gameplay styles (most of which stick the landing), and a visceral sense of dread.
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