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Call of Cthulhu Review

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie

You Rang?

Call of Cthulhu, developed by Cyanide and published by Focus Home Interactive, is a first-person horror puzzler licensed by Chaosium, the minds behind the tabletop game of the same name. You play as Ethan Pierce, a down-on-his-luck private investigator fresh from the trenches of World War I, nursing an alcohol addiction and a pending probation from his company should he not take on a new case quickly. Desperate, he takes the next case that walks through his door: the suspicious deaths of Sarah Hawkins and her family. It’s up to Ethan to piece together the clues to determine the truth of the happenings on the sleepy, dying island of Darkwater, and the truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

Call of Cthulhu really nails the atmosphere and tone of the Cthulhu mythos. The small town of Darkwater is immediately hostile and foreboding in a subtle, encroaching way. No one is pleased to see you, and in many respects they will impede your progress until you win them over — if you can. Everyone is very matter-of-fact about it, too. You’re an outsider, you don’t belong, you’re sticking your nose in business that you have no right to intrude upon. You are other. This pervasive feeling of exclusion continues throughout the game. As you delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding the Hawkins’ deaths, it starts to feel like even the interface is trying to exclude you from the information you want.

The game hits the ground running with mythos reveals but then takes about a two-hour lull until you get back into the high strangeness. Once you come across your first occult ritual sacrifice, things pick up and don’t stop. You’ll be battling to keep Ethan from going insane and moving forward as he faces down otherworldly terrors with little but his own keen wit and investigative gumption. As with its tabletop counterpart, the more you know and observe, the harder it is to keep sane.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

As mentioned, Call of Cthulhu takes its inspiration from the tabletop RPG, which in turn took its inspiration from the H. P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. As such, the video game version features a handful of RPG mechanics. When you first start the game, you’re given a handful of points to distribute amongst a handful of investigative skills ranging from Spot Hidden to Occult knowledge. Each is a representation of what Ethan knows about a certain subject and unlocks different dialogue options during gameplay. Further, while investigating scenes, each of these skills will be used to “test” certain observations. On a success, you get some piece of relevant information about what you’re observing, whether or not it makes sense to glean that from what’s going on or not, while a failure leaves you with more questions than answers. As you reach certain narrative milestones, you’ll be given more sets of character points to upgrade all but your Medical and Occult knowledge skills. These can only be improved by interacting with objects (typically books) in Darkwater.

Call of Cthulhu’s dialogue is well written, even if the delivery for some of the side characters can occasionally fall flat. Each character speaks in a definitive narrative voice from Ethan’s frequently bewildered inquisitiveness to Cat’s no-nonsense attitude. Dialogue is also very final. Occasionally you’ll be given the choice to go back and ask questions that you opted not to earlier in the conversation, but more often than not your first answer counts. The other plot-moving mechanic is the scene reconstructions. As Ethan delves deeper into Darkwater, he will occasionally come to places where he needs to reconstruct a scene to gather more clues. This detective vision mechanic highlights various clues and interactables to test your skills against, eventually culminating in a sometimes not-so-clear picture of events. After piecing together the clues, it’s on to the next scene.

The Art of Madness

Darkwater is, unsurprisingly, dark. This is not to say that the visual presentation is muddy — far from it. It is moody and brooding, sure, with dilapidated shacks scattered along the shoreline and Hawkins manor with its sweeping, gothic architecture. When characters aren’t moving around, it’s actually quite starkly beautiful and unnerving. It’s when characters start talking that the cracks show. The localization is stiff and unrefined. Facial animation is minimal in most cases, but when the mouths do move enough to see them coincide with the dialogue lines, they don’t often match up with what’s being said. In the pre-rendered cutscenes, an artifact of a prior time that I thought had gone the way of the dodo, the facial animations are more detailed, but look like they haven’t been altered from the original French. The regular animations suffer from a similar lack of polish. My favorite was when Ethan was hauling open a secret door, and the texture on his jacket stretched to ridiculous proportions.

This lack of polish is a shame, though, as the sound design is fantastic. The ambient music is suitably spooky and haunting, ramping up in intensity during the scarier sections. Citizens call out while you explore, and characters have conversations between them from time to time. Audio cues tell you if you’ve succeeded or failed a given skill test, but are subtle enough that you may not notice them the first few times and thereby don’t break the immersion. When things get really weird, the music even distorts with the visuals, lending to the overall air of unease.

Things Man Was Not Meant to Know

A narrative-heavy game like this lives or dies by its story. Without spoiling too much, it’s not great, or at least it wasn’t what I wanted. During my playthrough, I leaned wholeheartedly into the mythos. I sought out the mental traumas to lower my sanity. I brokered with powers beyond my ken. By the end of it, I figured I would have no choice but to give over to the mythos and become a servant of the Great Old Ones. As it turns out, not so. Throughout Call of Cthulhu, you make various choices that the game informs you will affect your destiny. So far as I can see, the only choice that matters is the last one, whether to submit your will or not. Just to see if I could, despite all that I did, I was still able to resist. My sanity, by the game’s own admission, was “Psychotic,” the lowest it could go, and Ethan still had the prescience to stand against the mythos. To be fair, an ending cutscene did show Ethan committed to a mental institution, but still. If I could recommend the first half to three-quarters of the game on its own, I would.

The other glaring issue is the death possibilities. Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that you run the risk of dying; Cthulhu devours 1d6 investigators per round, after all. However, the deaths in Call of Cthulhu are frustratingly lacking to the point of feeling like padding. Each time death was on the table, it felt less like a loss and more like a temporary setback. While the animations are quick, they are uninspired and end with a smash cut to the menu to ask if you want to try that section again. Killing obstacles, on the other hand, tends to be very easy to the point of being a minor nuisance so quick that it kills the tension. These sections would work better if they focused less on the scare of a big monster and more on the existential dread that permeates the rest of the game.

5

The Verdict: Fair

While moody and atmospheric, Call of Cthulhu boils its last choice down to the dreaded “pick a button” with little regard to the choices you made previously. Clocking in at eight hours, I can only assume that the point is to play through multiple times to see different endings and perhaps suss out how choice affects the narrative, but the story hinges on the mystery which disincentivizes repeated playthroughs. Added on top of the lackluster monster encounters and distinct lack of polish that clings to most things, it is very hard to recommend Call of Cthulhu.

John Gerritzen
Written by
November 28, 2018
Published in Adventure

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John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.

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