Review: Call of Cthulhu
A test of sanity in brief moments, but completing this adventure is worth it in this investigative RPG based on the story and tabletop games sharing it’s namesake.
Fear of the unknown manifests in many forms, some of it founded, some of it unfounded. As consumers, fear of the unknown is commonly manifest in not knowing for ourselves if what we’re buying into is worth our time and resources, video games included. With cosmic horror at a new peak popularity in recent years, it was only natural that we’d get some video games along the way.
With this in mind how does Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu stack up? Based on the increasingly-popular fictional universe founded by H.P. Lovecraft and his story of the same name, Call of Cthulhu (2018) is a first-person linear RPG where you take up the mantle of Edward Pierce, a WWI veteran and private detective at the end of his rope as he dives deep on his alcoholism and sleeping pills to push through his own mental struggles. It’s at this point the game begins as you are given a big break when circumstance lands you the investigation that is the game’s story, the death of one Sarah Hawkins under fishy circumstances (ba-dum-tish).
If you’ve been exposed to Lovecraftian media at any one point in your life, you will no doubt be able to gather the beats of the story and events unfolding before they actually happen, but regardless of that, the story holds up as a rather simple dive into the cosmic horror that we’ve come to know and love over the years. There are twists and turns over the 9 hour story that even caught a fan of cosmic horror like myself off guard at times which really got my attention held for the entirety of the campaign. The dialogue really pulls you into the atmosphere swirling about the island of Darkwater and sets a damp, unsettling tone for your time throughout the game.
As far as the gameplay goes, there’s primarily investigation of your environments and simple puzzles based on your gameplay stats. You have a true “character sheet” in game ala the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG which ties directly into dialogue options and available solutions to puzzles throughout the game. I went through 2 full playthroughs of the game, my first focusing on the “spot hidden” and “investigation” skills for exploration, the second playthrough focusing on “Strength” and “eloquence” for dialogue and changing up my paths through levels. I can vouch that these skills truly come handy throughout your time in the game and change the means by which you progress, which leads to some replayability, but ultimately not enough for more than 2 in my experience.
As you progress through the story, new gameplay elements are added including more puzzle-solving and sanity-testing encounters which can, at-times, remind you of games like Frictional Games’ Soma and Amnesia: the Dark Descent. Trying to avoid contact with the horrors you’re faced down with, but alternate to a simple type of “combat” in a late-game chapter (avoiding spoilers). The puzzle-solving always feels mildly clever enough to amuse and the sanity portions aren’t the framework of the game, but a part of it which leads to brief tension but not overwhelming amounts. The odd-man out here is the “combat” which isn’t explicitly bad but feels out-of-place. Thankfully this segment is short and sweet and you go right back to the elements that work in favor of the game.
As for the elements that do* work, the dialogue is very well done for the majority of the game, with people echoing their dreary environments and pushing their personalities forward, but the characters that fill environments have less depth and will often repeat lines you’ve heard dozens of times as you pass them by while you’re combing an area for clues to progress. This compounds if you manage to get turned around or confused about where you need to go or what you need to do which is a struggle at times in the game, but not always. There are almost always clues hidden about environments that “clue” you in about where you should look or what you should do next, so paying attention to what you’re given is paramount to avoiding this pitfall the game unfortunately deals with.
I say this is “almost always” as when it rears its ugly head, it leads to particularly frustrating segments at times. Without going into spoilers, there is a harrowing encounter midway through the story which leads to instant death if you fail and restarting at a decently generous checkpoint around the beginning of the encounter. Unless you go into this point of the title knowing that you need to find an environmental weapon to help you survive, this segment will lead to a number of frustrating and pointless-feeling checkpoint visits/deaths.
This couples with some of the muddy-looking textures and graphics which don’t quite hold their ground all the way through the game. At times, textures don’t quite load in as you encounter them, particularly with unnatural environments or organic sea-life. In the 2018 market of games which have particularly high-fidelity graphics, this doesn’t quite hold up to some of the triple-A graphic benchmarks but you will notice texture loading issues throughout the game.
Ultimately, Call of Cthulhu stumbles across the finish line, but It crosses nonetheless with a rather enjoyable showing. The story is a highlight, even if elements are predictable for those familiar with cosmic horror and its tropes and going through the game more than once is only for those truly dedicated to see how the options available to you as a player can change in the nitty-gritty. If there was just another coat of polish put on, this title would absolutely receive more praise than it’s currently getting. As someone who has a hardcover copy of the necronomicon on my shelf at home, I can say I enjoyed this game enough to play it twice. If you haven’t delved into the mythos yourself but you like an atmospheric, ominous story and setting, I imagine you will too.