Call of Cthulhu Review (Game, 2018)
Disclosure: I received a keycode for the PC release of Call of Cthulhu for this review. All screenshots and logos come from the press kit.
Call of Cthulhu is an adventure game with RPG elements based on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG from Chaosium Inc. The Call of Cthulhu universe is inspired by the work of HP Lovecraft, one of the most influential and problematic weird fiction authors of all time. He created this vast universe of monstrous beings from another realm that consume you with madness until you destroy everyone and everything around you. He was also an incredibly paranoid man who wrote extremely harmful things thanks to xenophobia and a legitimate fear of anyone not like the people he grew up around in his hometown. The pop culture understanding and enduring legacy of Lovecraft is not based on what he actually wrote but on the ideas he wrote and permitted other writers to expand upon in their own stories.Call of Cthulhu does find a valid way around these issues without turning a blind eye to the darker legacy of Lovecraft’s words.
Cyanide Studios’ adaptation is all about art and detective work. Sally Hawkins, one of the most acclaimed painters of her time, died under mysterious circumstances. Her father hires you, a private investigator, to go to the remote whaling outpost Darkwater Island to investigate the story. Nothing seems right from the start. The sailors worship a whale caught almost a century before, the last major catch for the island. Liquor runs freely thanks to a mob of bootleggers who control everyone else’s business on the island. Everyone you meet has a reason to hate Sally and possibly be involved in her death, as everyone you meet hates her paintings. They’re just too strange.
The reason to play Call of Cthulhu is the story. Through a series of cutscenes and interactive dialogue trees, you learn everything about the island, the people on it, and the ever-expanding circumstances surrounding Sally Hawkins’ role in the community. It’s really well-written. I genuinely wanted to get through certain gameplay elements so I could pick up on the story that takes you everywhere from a cult’s secret underground lair to an antique bookstore.
Perhaps the best element of the plot is that confrontation of Lovecraft’s words versus his ideas. The people of Darkwater Island are not good people. They are hateful. Anyone who is not descended directly from the families that caught the whale they worship is treated as a lesser human being. This can be subtle things like not talking to you or refusing you service at a bar to more aggressive tactics like cutting into your face with a knife for questioning them or even levying false criminal charges against you for being an outsider on the island at all. Better still, the cast of characters puts women in roles Lovecraft would never have permitted them to be in, such as a doctor, an acclaimed artist, and the feared leader of a mob. While it would have been even better to include more varied character models to confront the virulent racism of Lovecraft head-on, it’s good to see a game actually break from the established canon of a universe to create a more open and inviting world for players.
Call of Cthulhu rises and falls on the variety of gameplay elements. The adventure/exploration elements are great. You walk through the various environments at your own pace, looking for clues related to the Hawkins’ case. Put the pieces together and you unlock other gameplay objectives that allow you to advance the plot and move onto the next chapter.
There’s this really great recreation mode that pops up from time to time that works beautifully. We’ve seen this kind of gameplay before (Remember Me built its entire gameplay universe on it), but it just works well in the supernatural world of the Cthulhu mythos. You enter a darker version of reality with flickering projections of the people who were there at one point. You go through the room, piecing together what really happened at a crime scene. Every clue rewards you with more story and reenactments—really someone else’s memory—of what happened in the scene. The various projections stay up, allowing you to admire the story elements and design until you’re ready to move on.
Less successful are the action moments in the game. There are, periodically, these stealth/action missions that are pretty unforgiving for an adventure game. In one, you confront a monster, the Shambler, that crawled out of one of Sally Hawkins’ paintings. You can hide in closets to avoid detection. The creature is blind, so it reacts to sound, but the kind of sound it reacts to is pretty ill-defined. Yes, breaking a glass display case to grab a ritual weapon is definitely loud enough to draw its focus, but so is (occasionally) standing still in a corner or crouching in the wrong part of the map. It took me enough tries to beat this and several other stealth/action sequences that I stopped counting how many failures I had.
Call of Cthulhu‘s problems stem from an unfocused audience. The adventure elements of the game are pretty clear, nowhere near as complex as a Myst game, and feel open to any gamer who is old enough to handle a story of cosmic madness, existential dread, and destruction. Then there are these action sequences—chases, fights, stealth missions—that are so precise and demanding that you’ll want to pull your hair out. It’s a really jarring disconnect between the two game styles and almost feels like an artificial level of difficulty thrown in just to slow down the game.
The adventure elements aren’t totally immune from this, either. Four times in the game I got stuck trying to advance the plot. I knew what the objective had to be—someone asked for sleeping pills, someone needed a medkit, I found a key for a locked door, I needed to break into a location with a lever mechanism—and found it on the map. I could not physically proceed because I had not checked every other area of the map, including places nowhere near the objective, and interacted with every possible character first. Only after exhausting every other possibility was I allowed to actually complete an objective I found long before the game allowed me to use it. The more I think about this, the closer I come to editing and increasing the number of time this happened. Suffice it to say that there is an absurd level of precision required across the gameplay styles that takes the game from challenging to frustrating.
The artificial difficulty is frustrating because Call of Cthulhu is otherwise so well made. The visual style of the game is great. It creates a constant state of dread and suspicion about the world you’re exploring. The voice acting is solid all around. The branching dialogue options do create subtle changes to the game. There even are multiple endings that do cast a very different tone or style of horror depending on the one you pick. Those endings are influenced by your choices made earlier in the game, as well.
The big question of the game is cost. Call of Cthulhu is $44.99 on Steam (PC) and $59.99 on PS4 or XBox One. That’s expensive for the amount of game you get. If you’re better than me at the action missions, you can take your time and finish a playthrough in 10 hours, easily. It’s easy to see from the technical and artistic quality of the game why it costs so much, but it really feels like you’d have to choose to playthrough it multiple times to get your money’s worth. If you’re willing to support a game that tells a wonderful horror story well with high production values and can afford the price tag, I think it’s worth trying. Otherwise, I’d think twice. It’s a download only game and those can’t be returned to the store like physical media if you don’t like them.
Call of Cthulhu is currently available on PC, PS4 and XBox One.
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