Call of the Sea Review

May 10, 2021
Also on: PC, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series
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Six months on from its maiden voyage, Call of the Sea is newly washed up on the shores of Sony’s family of consoles. Originally released at the end of 2020 for PC and Xbox platforms, JDR is now ready to don a pith helmet and sensible shoes to explore this tropical puzzle-adventure from developer Out Of The Blue. The year is 1934, and protagonist Norah is almost at the end of a months-long search for her missing husband. Having followed a breadcrumb trail of clues after his expedition party seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, Norah has chartered a ship to a small South Pacific island — largely untouched by the outside world — to trace their final known steps. 

You’ll be a dab hand at deciphering pictograms in no time.

Pulling up on the beach in a small boat, the first thing to take in is how bright and colourful everything is. The sun beats down and the vegetation springs up around you as Norah ventures deeper inland, feeling more and more like a Doc Savage pulp novel than a fearful tiptoe into unknown territories. Call of the Sea is separated into six main chapters, each with a distinct area to explore; Norah’s trail takes you above and below ground as you trace the footsteps of the ill-fated party. As Norah explores, you’ll find lost languages to decipher and ancient technologies to manipulate. These puzzles and code-breaking exercises vary enormously, and the fresh challenges to understand in each section build nicely without retreading the same ground. As the game progresses, areas become larger and encourage more exploration, with smaller puzzles needing to be deciphered before the results can be applied to a larger, more complicated barrier. It’s a compelling approach, designed for momentum as you move through an area, and having hints buried amongst world-building materials merge the storyline and mechanics in a satisfying way.

This isn’t a hardcore puzzle game in the manner of Myst or The Witness, as there are usually clues aplenty to populate your journal with for ease of reference, but there are still a few headscratchers thrown in for good measure; two puzzles had me jotting down patterns in a real life notebook collecting clues to help me pass them (enjoyable), but one section in particular did reduce me to brute-forcing it as the logic behind it was so inpenetrable (not so enjoyable).

Norah’s masterful bullet-journalling skills should keep you on track.

All of this is served up in a stylish and dreamy environment courtesy of the Unreal Engine. The architecture and objects encountered are often gorgeous, making Norah’s journey worth the sight-seeing, instead of blustering through to the next problem to solve. Despite being such a vivid and atmospheric game, the lighting could have been reined in a bit: the bloom effect around the sun and other luminescent objects tended to obliterate their surrounding no matter the brightness setting, and there was a noticeable amount of screen tear in early sections when moving through these sun-drenched areas. Besides this I was sold by the world of Call of the Sea — although I wouldn’t have minded a slightly wider field of view to drink more of the scenery in.

A great many puzzle games keep an abstract narrative to focus on mechanics, but Call of the Sea has just as much in common with an immersive walking sim like What Remains of Edith Finch as it does with a traditional puzzler. Norah’s journey and ruminations on her own life experiences are just as compelling as cracking the next code, and her in-game notebook is the perfect bridge between the two when you flick between puzzle clues and diary entries reflecting on her adventure. There are a great many missable collectibles to discover in this game, from newspaper clippings to strained correspondence from those who have come before her. The twists and turns uncovered as you progress propel the narrative along as it forces you to second-guess your feelings towards your husband and his expedition, and all are cemented with consistently wide-ranging and well-written perspectives from the cast of missing crew members; their personalities and relationships grasped through grainy photos and abandoned personal belongings.

Cog and wheel puzzles require a lot more tinkering than initially thought, with multiple parts needing to be solved in order.

Call of the Sea is woven throughout with a story picking selectively from the more prominent works of H.P. Lovecraft, but rejects the horror, the madness, and the bigotry in favour of the mysterious, the ancient, and the adventure. It’s a Lovecraft story through the lens of Jules Verne — of journeys with purpose, and discovery with wide eyes. All of which isn’t to say that it ignores the wider canon of Lovecraft (multiple characters and locations from his work are directly referenced in discoverable scraps of correspondence), but it certainly turns away from the bleak, desolate atmosphere of companion Lovecraft titles like The Sinking City or Call of Cthulhu.

Having a fully-voiced protagonist can be difficult to get right, but a spirited performance from Cissy Jones (perhaps best known as Delilah in Campo Santo’s Firewatch) as Norah carries the story with a wonderful sense of identity. ‘Grounded’ would be the wrong term for a script so rich in purple prose and melodramatic monologues, but Jones plays it warmly and sentimentally; a full embrace of the pulpy adventure fiction which inspires the game. The put-upon Transatlantic accents of Norah and husband Harry (another good turn from Yuri Lowenthal — Marvel’s Spider-Man — in flashback sequences) delight in their clipped syllables and old-fashioned pet names for each other.

The soundtrack is similarly effective, well-suited to the atmosphere of mystery and intrepidation. Unfortunately, both background music and dialogue are sold short by some very rigid activation triggers, as Norah will cut off an interesting piece of story to comment on a new surrounding if you’ve made the mistake of walking whilst listening to her. Similarly, ominous music relating to a creepy artifact will start immediately once in range of it, but will cut off just as suddenly if you take a single step outside of the area where the audio cue has been mapped. A relatively minor gripe all things considered, but it does prevent Call of the Sea from fully immersing you in the experience.

Abandoned camps with Mary Celeste vibes deepen the mystery further.

It took me north of six hours to play through Call of the Sea, but whilst a direct route from puzzle to puzzle would shave that down considerably, the empty spaces in Norah’s journal at the end of it indicate even more eldritch secrets hidden away in enriching optional interactions — which are more than worth the intense scouring it takes to uncover them. Varied and interesting puzzles occasionally clash with obtuse clues, and there’s a couple of choppy technical hitches, but little can detract from the solid story of love in the face of the unknown, and understanding as the antidote to fear.

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With attention beneficially split between puzzles and story, Call of the Sea charms with an enjoyable pulp adventure.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.