H.P Lovecraft’s short stories and novellas have been a rich source of inspiration across many artistic mediums, and video games have not been immune to their call. The idea of a ‘Mythos’ populated with evil cults, interdimensional creatures, and ancient beings that can sever your hold on reality are an enticing well to draw from, and Cyanide Studio’s new Call of Cthulhu game – based on both the pen and paper role-playing game, and short story of the same name – seeks to draw amply from this ‘Mythos’.
Private Detective Edward Pierce isn’t living his best life. Haunted by his time in the trenches during World War I – not to mention some very bizarre dreams – he spends most of his time tailing unfaithful spouses, or at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. When he’s offered a job by wealthy industrialist Stephen Webster to look into the death of his daughter and her family on the remote island of Darkwater, he feels compelled to accept, heading off to the whaling settlement in search of answers.
While it’s touted partly as an RPG, Call of Cthulhu is much more of a first-person adventure game. Divided into clearly delineated chapters, you’ll progress your investigation by talking to the inhabitants of Darkwater, hunting for items of interest, and solving a few challenging but fun puzzles. While it’s a largely linear experience, there are multiple parts that offer you some latitude in how to reach your goal, and this is where the RPG elements come in.
At the start of the story – and throughout the narrative as you earn more - you can assign character points into a number of different skill areas such as strength, Investigation, or psychology, allowing you to increase the chances of success in skill tests for any given one. The most notable effect from how you distribute your points comes in your ability to access additional dialogue options, or to overcome certain environmental roadblocks. For example, early in the game you need to get into a warehouse, and this can be achieved either by using your strength skill to force access, your investigative skill to pick a lock, or you can just talk to the head of the local bootlegging gang for assistance. You’ll ultimately get to where you need to be whichever way you succeed, but your skills may affect the path you take.
The problem, though, is that the whole system feels shallow. You’ll be able to see any unavailable dialogue options, as well as find the occasional obstacle you fail to get through, but you’ll never feel like you’re actually missing that much. Maybe there’s more to it, but if there is Call of Cthulhu does a naff job surfacing it for the player. Even the obligatory Telltale Games-esque prompt letting you know that your actions have affected your destiny feels like window dressing as you’ll struggle to identify just what impact most of your choices have had in how the story plays out, and why you should be putting any real thought into where you dump your character points.
At least the story and atmosphere make up for some of the aforementioned disappointments, and Call of Cthulhu does a pretty good job in evoking an undercurrent of uneasiness, as well as the horrible, sanity-sapping forces at work in Darkwater. While the well-known source material means that the story beats aren’t hugely surprising, the fast pace at which the narrative unfolds means that no one part drags on too long.
While the story isn’t that surprising, the fact that Call of Cthulhu doesn’t feel like a full-on horror title perhaps is. While there are only occasional scares, the six or seven hour story predominantly has a through line of tension, putting you more on edge than anything – especially when a being called ‘The Shambler’ shows up. This is most notable during a couple of stealth sequences, that while very basic and far from revolutionary, change things up nicely from the more straight forward investigative gameplay, which, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, comes complete with the obligatory reconstruction sequences that have you piecing together clues about past events.
A big part of what helps flesh out Call of Cthulhu’s Lovecraftian atmosphere is its visual design, and this is most evident in the rendering of the locations you visit. While they don’t come close to the visual fidelity you’ll find in bigger budget games, they make good use of what they’ve got, frequently using a sickly-green tinged colour palette that helps give the settlement of Darkwater – a community that has long been in decline – a undercurrent of evil. The use of deep shadows also comes to the fore in the gameplay as you use your trusty lantern - or lighter, if you’ve run out of oil - to pierce the darkness in search of hidden items that’ll help you unravel the mystery.
While the locations themselves are nicely done, the character models on the other hand aren’t as consistent in quality. Reminiscent of the exaggerated character designs from the Dishonored series, they have big swings depending on their importance in the story. The voice work also suffers from similar problems, but the main cast at least do a decent job - even when they’re called on to delivery some painfully authentic New England accents. In addition, the incidental music and sound effects are appropriately eerie and are successful in feeding further your sense of unease while exploring Darkwater’s various locales.
Call of Cthulhu’s successfully evokes Lovecraft’s Mythos by delivering an eerie story that ultimately doesn’t stray too far from some well-trodden ground. While anyone expecting a terrifying horror title or an RPG packed will player choice and decisions will need to check those expectations at the door, there’s at least a half-decent adventure game lurking under the surface.