After its 6 month exclusivity to Xbox Series X|S and PC has expired, Out of the Blue’s Lovecraftian inspired puzzle adventure Call of the Sea has been released on the PlayStation platforms. Unusually for a game associated with the eponymous writer, this is not a horror title, more of a steady paced adventure that explores the lengths people will go to for the ones they love. Equally surprising is that it’s not set in New England in some dim and flooded town on the brink of collapse, there’s a much more palatable tropical setting. There are fish people though… that’s something that seems to be a prerequisite for anything linked to H. P. himself. Does a change of scenery and pace bring on a more exciting and intriguing tale than you’d expect; and can throwing away the standard expectations of the subject matter give the game a greater appeal? We think so.
Norah is looking for her husband Harry. Around a year before we step into her shoes, he mounted an expedition into the Pacific to find a cure for a mysterious illness that has caused spots to appear all over her skin, and lethargy to rule her life. After no contact for some time, Norah receives a letter that starts her off an a scavenger hunt to find her missing husband, and sets sail to a remote Polynesian island where he might be. With only her wits and her journal she heads alone to the land mass in a small boat with a promise to be picked up again after 3 days. Can she find out what happened to the expedition in that time? Norah will discover much more than she expected on her exploration of the island: seeing what happened to each of the crew members, uncovering an ancient sect, and quite possibly catching the attention of the Elder Gods at the same time. It’s all laid out at a steady pace as she wanders the beautiful landscapes and solves intricate puzzles, but despite the scale of the events and the introspection it causes, the human thread of finding her soulmate again is always the driving force keeping Norah moving.
Wandering around the areas on the island, with each area being a chapter, Norah is left to free roam and examine everything at her leisure. This is a peaceful place with her as the only inhabitant, so there’s no danger, combat or pressure other than whatever she’s feeling about finding Harry. Following the trail of the expedition party and learning of their discoveries and mishaps is brilliantly told through the environment and the level of detail put into them. There’s a dark side to the story that includes madness, transformation, arcane rituals and otherworldly powers, which is par for the course in a Lovecraftian tale, but because it’s viewed with such detachment by our heroine it all comes across as compelling rather than threatening. It’s not like there isn’t atmosphere created though – there are some sections where there’s a sense of dread and despair that’s really well conveyed in the scattered notes and photos from the original crew’s trek. Of course there is a supernatural side to events, and this is handled well by keeping the happenings grounded and within the framework of the created world so it doesn’t jump the shark at any stage.
We’re saying that Call of the Sea is an adventure (and it is), but in terms of gaming style it’s much closer to the point and click genre than the first person exploration you might think this is. Examining the environment and picking up on clues in what Norah narrates – as well as what’s written in the ever useful journal – is how you’ll gather the knowledge needed to solve whatever puzzles are thrown at you. They don’t confound with obscure leaps of logic, and are constructed in a way that you could probably solve them without the full set of info. At the very least you’ll stumble upon a puzzle setup and probably know what the ultimate goal is, even if the fine details aren’t apparent immediately. Searching around fills out both the backstory in the journal’s log pages, and more critically, the clues in the notes section. A press of one button is all that’s needed to pop it into view, and that fact it can be triggered anywhere means it’s extremely useful even in the middle of interacting with mechanisms. I’ve nothing against having to make the odd physical note for a puzzle game, this just takes all that hassle away completely. It also serves as a sort of help guide too if you’re particularly stuck. Seeing blank spaces means you might have missed a clue or two and prompts re-scouring the environment for more info.
Supporting the immersion is the lovely stylisation of the surroundings that get more intricate the deeper Norah goes into the island. Call of the Sea works with a heavy cartoon style, similar to the likes of Firewatch actually, where there’s a lot of detail conveyed in a simplified model. It’s distinct and very easy on the eye, and makes discovery a joy. Items and objects that can be interacted with have a marker pop up showing it’s either going to be used or read, and it’s unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t spoil the view. That does also mean that you’ll need to be pretty close and in the right window to make the interaction work. As the markers are white, there’s an odd occasion where they’re hidden due to the colouring of what you’re looking at, and that can lead to a small amount of headscratching until you realise. Likewise, sometimes the detection is a bit too good and it’s possible to trigger items before you’re supposed to – like opening a letter that’s still inside a container. Mostly that just means repeating a bit of dialogue whilst the game goes through it again, but early on I was able to activate an elevator without the right key item and that stopped subsequent puzzles from working correctly. Arguably I spent more time stuck on progress due to that than anything else in the game.
There are a couple of other niggles as well, one being the feeling that there’s a lack of payoff in respect to the Elder Gods. If you’ve come looking for an in depth visit with Cthulu then you’ll be a tad disappointed. With several references to these beings, and a couple of different endings, you might run into something monstrous, yet Call of the Sea is not about that specifically. What it does do is flesh out the world with rich dialogue and interesting drawings and text. Norah comments on everything through some really great voice acting from Cissy Jones, and Yuri Lowenthal turns Harry into a likeable, if absent, character. Disappointingly, the triggers for audio info can overlap and you find something getting cut off too early. If it’s related to an item being examined then there’s an option to replay the lines, though sometimes these tail off rather than feel like they’ve fully ended. It will not stop the enjoyment of the game, but it makes you think that sometimes you’re not getting everything communicated as the devs intended.
What Call of the Sea does really well though is take you on journey of discovery and understanding the acceptance of fate. With strong characterisation, very well written story beats, and intriguing puzzles it’s everything you could want in a tropical island adventure. Mostly it’s on the light hearted side, with the undercurrent of terror kept strictly away from the surface, and that should make it a universally enjoyable game. Norah’s and Harry’s searches are entwined, their relationship charming, and where they both end up might not be what you expect… it’s always great to have that “Aha!” moment when the truth is unveiled. Those looking for a change of pace and a fine example of how to craft an interactive story shouldn’t hesitate in answering this call.
A PS5 review copy of Call of the Sea was provided by Out of the Blue’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS4 and PS5, as well as being released at the end of 2020 on Xbox X|S, One and PC.