With a wealth of source material you’d have expected that H. P. Lovecraft would have had loads of games produced from his stable of work. Unknowable evils, creeping terror, tenuous grips on sanity – it practically begs to be the basis of a horror game… and there have been a few, but far less than you might imagine, with nothing particularly recent. Then shambling along comes Call of Cthulhu: The Official Videogame (to give it the full title) – a title based more on a pen and paper RPG from 1981 than the written story, yet still a part of the Lovecraftian legacy. Have you got what it takes to venture into the unsettling and hideous world that Cyanide have created and prevent the return of an ancient terror?
Beginning in the shoes of WWI veteran Edward Pierce, a PI who struggles with his nightmares of the war and resorts to the bottle far too often, you follow his investigation of the death of a family on a small island off the coast of Boston called Darkwater. Home to an old whaling station, a fishing community and not much else, Pierce has to ingratiate himself with the locals whilst figuring out what’s happened to the Hawkins family. What seems like an accidental fire has more to it than meets that eye, and soon enough uncomfortable truths come to light and embroil Edward in a fight for his sanity, the lives of the people he’s met, and even the world. It’s an intriguing tale that’s partially shaped by decisions made along the way that ultimately determine what the ending of it all is.
Call of Cthulhu is best described as an RPG detective game that feels like a walking simulator in places. That’s doing it a disservice, but it’s a difficult one to classify. Pierce is an investigator who’s skill tree is based around talking to people, searching the environment and mentally reconstructing crime scenes, so progression is based around improving those abilities. Levels are split up into chapters, and each one is essentially a self contained area which is broken up into a few different types of gameplay. Mostly it’s conversation with NPCs to uncover what’s been happening, though there are some stealth sections, fairly light puzzle elements, and a couple of boss fights. Areas which present puzzles to solve tend to be the stand out moments, and there’s a neat play on illumination in one of the areas that refreshes what could have been a stale plot point. With the focus being on the story and driving that forward it isn’t massively challenging, and it’s also because of that it feels like there are a few mechanics which are underused.
Building the skill tree up and deciding which ones to invest points in is a free choice, and developing them will generate different effects. Whether it’s being able to pick locks, sweet talk someone into giving up info they shouldn’t, or spotting items that would usually be hidden in the environment – it does feel like you’re able to tailor the game to your playstyle. In the more open levels there are a couple of ways to achieve objectives so skill selection will not stop progression. It’s a shame that there isn’t more made of them during the game, and that for most situations you won’t see a great deal of impact. It’s a bit the same in gathering the clues you work hard to uncover, where they provide a lot of detail and potential motivation for what’s going on, yet there’s nothing to do but read them. It’s almost as if there was a planned Sherlock Holmes style deduction system that was dropped.
Continuing the theme of nice ideas that don’t reach their full potential, there’s a flashback mechanism that allows Pierce to reconstruct events in particular areas. It’s a nice touch that plays into his character and pauses everything around to let him review all the items in the room. The downside is it’s very handhold-y so it tells you when to trigger it (even though a halo appears around your vision), and doesn’t let you leave until you’ve found everything that it wants you to find, and again tells you to deactivate it even though it’s not possible to trigger it outside pre-defined areas. There’s also something around Pierce’s sanity in the menu system that’s not really explained that well and seems only to really manifest itself when he comes across something that scares him to his core. And then there’s a system in place for lighting objects before interacting with them, whether that’s with a lighter or lamp. The former is unlimited but will only light a small area for a short time, whereas the latter is fuel restricted yet much brighter. In theory it becomes a trade off on which to use depending on the scenario, in practice it’s 90% lamp because you either don’t need it because it’s light enough already, or there’s loads of fuel around.
At least Call of Cthulhu does get the horror elements right. There’s a sense of foreboding from the moment you set foot in Darkwater, and the dread creeps along at the same pace as the story unfolds. It isn’t about jump scares, it focuses more on psychological impacts and creating some uncomfortable situations. There are a couple of points that serve up some really tense scenes that can take a bit to figure out, and more than a few retries that seem to ramp up the intensity rather than frustrate. Atmosphere is built through the lighting which green tinges just about everything and the audio design that emphasises the creepier sounds to disorientate you, just beware of the switching in volume level between cutscenes and in-game because it makes parts quite difficult to hear. It doesn’t manage to maintain the subtle terror until the end though. In the last couple of chapters it switches gears and flies through the revelations making it feel like there’s a rush to hit the ending.
Despite there being some strange choices in not making more of the mechanics and a rapid increase in pacing at the end, there’s something engaging about Call of Cthulhu. It’s not a triple A title and it isn’t a scary game, but it’s a compelling investigation into a sinister isolated community. The characters are decently realised, the voice acting good, and the locations are well designed to convey unease, and the tricks used to wrong foot you during gamplay are well thoughout. It hits a number of tropes – an asylum, unfriendly bars, mysterious voices – all of which work in context, even with enforced stealth sections there to break up the flow. It’ll not appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a game that strives to give you a different experience and attempt to question what’s sane, it’s worth peeling back the layers to find out what it has in store.
A PS4 review copy of Call of Cthulhu was provided by Cyanide’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £45.