Review – Call of Cthulhu
I enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft quite a bit. I’ve always found psychological horror far more effective than monsters and gore. Few things are more terrifying than a creature hungrily lurking in your peripheral, gnashing at the edge of your consciousness. Naturally, Call of Cthulhu from Focus Home Interactive and Cyanide Studios had my attention. So much so in fact, that I asked my colleagues where my fhtagn review code was almost hourly. I had high expectations going into Call of Cthulhu and now that the experience is over, I’m torn on whether or not I’m fully satisfied.
If I am mad, it is mercy. May the gods pity the man who in his callousness can remain sane to the hideous end.
On one hand it was a really fun experience, but on the other Call of Cthulhu can stutter like an old jalopy, especially when transitioning into a cutscene. The opening doesn’t make the best first impression either. The game drops players right in the middle of protagonist Edward Pierce’s vivid nightmare, exploring a cave littered with whale carcasses and faceless cultists. The character movements were stiff and unnatural and I was immediately disappointed, falling again for the allure of a cinematic trailer.
Pierce springs awake from his nightmare and finds himself lying on the couch in his office. He’s quick to blame whiskey from the night before for his nightmare exclaiming, “I hate whiskey.” Naturally, I take an additional sip from the glass on his desk. Suddenly, a green icon appeared in the top left corner of the screen stating. “This will affect your destiny.” It happened so early on in the game that I can’t accurately say how it impacted my story, but I can confidently say it was not a positive effect.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I opened it up to meet Stephen Webster, the living plot device who sought Edward Pierce’s aid in locating Sarah Hawkins, who is believed to be dead. But as Webster explained the circumstances around the case, I found myself distracted. As he spoke and moved his arms around, I noticed two things: Webster’s forearms were too long and his hands were a different color than his face. Even with the subtitles on, I was so distracted I missed a lot of the backstory.
I only snapped out of it and started listening attentively when Pierce snapped back, “Quiet down, I’m on your side,” to a monotone Webster. I was confused by what could have prompted that. As an early release copy, I imagined that maybe it was a fragment of the script that was recorded and left in to get patched out in the day one patch. So I started looking at all of the pieces like a private investigator only to see misspelled subtitles and horribly timed voice over lip sync.
The conversation ended, I explored the office a bit more, and then set sail for the port town of Darkwater. After a long load time, the cutscene leading into the landing at Darkwater was quite rough; blurry and tearing at times. A large quantity of green fog makes it hard to see, almost in an attempt to hide poor textures.
Pierce docked and I braced myself for the technical horrors I would face next. The ports were a mess, but in a good way this time. The textures looked cleaner, almost as if the opening was a rush job and Darkwater was the completed product. I was thrilled to see the improvement.
Darkwater looked like it was struggling to survive. The near by buildings were all storm weathered and dilapidated, but still occupied. Pierce spotted a bar called The Stranded Whale, so naturally, I had to take him in and let him get his fix. As soon as I walked in, I had an altercation with a bar patron and when the bartender called me out on it, I only argued. As a result, Pierce was refused service.
What to do in a bar that won’t serve you? I wandered around and investigated every detail on the place and started to learn about the history of Darkwater. I learned about the fishing and whaling village and their struggles as the whales started to disappear and how something called “The Miraculous Catch” saved them and their food supply.
Intrigued, I left The Stranded Whale and wandered Darkwater through a crowd of angry sailors expressing their concern about the sea-life to a local police officer. I searched the Harbormaster’s office and listened to his tales through a thick Massachusetts accent. And then, I stopped noticing all of the things that had bothered me up until this point.
It took me some time to get passed my initial impressions. Character models are stiff and move unnaturally. Less featured NPCs are generic and are often indistinguishable from the next, clearly created from recycled assets. What Call of Cthulhu does poorly appears to be the result of budget constraints rather than poor development, because what it does well greatly overshadows its weaknesses.
Call of Cthulhu, if nothing else, is atmospheric. It’s not about cheap jump scares, it’s about telling a thematic narrative with horror elements. Even knowing this, I was on edge while exploring the dark rooms of Hawkin’s Manor. Environments and props set the stage for the horrible events that took place so recently as Pierce walks through the halls inspecting each aspect as he reconstructs events to better understand what happened to Sarah. The use of set pieces, lighting, and creaking sound effects against a looming mystery pulls players in and makes it easy to forget that nothing will jump out. Something horrible happened to the family here, so why couldn’t it happen to me? I only have a lighter to see in the dark. Did I miss a lantern? Don’t go into the kid’s bedroom Pierce! There’s always bad things in there!
The overarching story as a whole isn’t as engrossing as the individual stages are. For anyone who has ever experienced an H.P. Lovecraft tale before, Call of Cthulhu is going to feel familiar. The ports, manor, museum, and hospital are all trade mark locations from his works and adaptations like Mansions Of Madness, but this is the first time they’ve been so engaging.
At the beginning of the game, Pierce gets a phone call about his investigator’s license and he’s asked a few about his personal information. This is as close to character creation as Call of Cthulhu gets. Players are given eight character points to allocate between Psychology, Spot Hidden, Eloquence, Strength, and Investigation that can be improved at any point during the game as more character points are earned. Players can also allocate points to the starting values of Occultism and Medicine. However, these two can only be increased when Pierce interacts with affiliated objects.
Each of these stats impacts how Pierce interacts and understands the world around him. All seven of these stats unlock new dialogue options and improve Pierce’s chances of learning crucial information that would otherwise be kept from him. Psychology helps him deduce the reason for an NPC’s actions, gaining better insight into possible motive. The Eloquence stat is used to persuade NPCs to give up information or believe Pierce’s intentions. Occultism gives Pierce the ability to understand the runes and old texts that he uncovers. And the Spot Hidden stat will alert Pierce to hidden clues or secret doors that would otherwise be undetectable.
These are essential to the game’s progression. Call of Cthulhu has multiple endings that are only accessible after Pierce has learned particular details of the Hawkins case and the mysteries of Darkwater. If your skills aren’t high enough in a particular stat, there’s nothing you can do to correct it. Your story will progress with your choices locked in, restricting your destiny to one of the horrible fates the Old Ones have in store for Pierce and the rest of humanity.
On occasion, Pierce will have the ability to enter a reconstruction event where he can mentally reassemble a picture of the events that took place. By focusing in on any particular clue, Pierce will visualize ghostly apparitions of the events that took place, evolving as he further assembles the clues. It’s a fairly simple addition but a very valuable one. Most of the action has already taken place before Pierce arrives at the scene so it would be easy for players to become disinterested. Seeing the events play out before Pierce pulls us right back into the heart of the mystery without taking the focus off of the investigation.
At one point in the during the game’s development there were questions about combat and Cyanide Studios stated that it was indeed present but that the game’s focus is on stealth and investigation. Combat becomes available in sections of the late game but by no means should be a deciding factor on whether or not you purchase Call of Cthulhu. Combat is minimal and underdeveloped and exists more as an indicator of rising tension than a core gameplay mechanic.
Your choices will determine the horrors that Pierce encounters. Uncovering the truth behind reality and the forces that lurk at the edge of consciousness would take a toll on anyone and Pierce is no exception. As he dives deeper into the secrets of Darkwater, Pierce can develop phobias. In my case, small spaces made him panic and hyper ventilate, slowly darkening the screen and making it difficult to see. Actions essential to survival like sneaking through ducts or hiding in closets became taxing on Pierce, his heart pounding out of his chest. Whenever Pierce was hiding from a pursuer, his closing vision made it difficult to tell whether or not the danger had passed, making each exit a gamble.
One refreshing thing about Call of Cthulhu is the presence of more than one creature. It’s not just about the titular Cthulhu, but it expands into other unseen forces. I’m afraid to say too much on the matter because I don’t want to spoil any plot related details, but rest assured that ol’ Squidface isn’t the only Lovecraftian horror present.
But for as much as I enjoy the game, there are plenty of bugs. At one point Pierce was walking down a dark hallway with each footstep echoing off the walls, a deep sound lingering in the otherwise silent air. But if I made Pierce run, the echo disappeared and the footsteps became higher in pitch, completely destroying the effect. At another point a character’s skirt started twitching and jumping around while the character sat calmly in her chair. Quick transitions into cutscenes tend to stutter and skip frames as they begin. Thankfully, these issues aren’t beyond fixing in a post-release patch so we’ll have to wait and see if they get attention.
The budget limitations of a small studio are apparent. Animations are rigid, inanimate set pieces and clothing dance wildly as if to the tunes of the Old Ones themselves, and bug eyed characters stare dead and unending into the depths of what little soul the green has left me with. But despite its technical flaws, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the story and the world around me, so much that I stopped noticing the technical flaws. Even as I write this, all I’ve been thinking about are the other endings and the details I’ve missed. Even now, it calls me back into the depths.
Character animations are stiff and unnatural, but environmental textures are crisp when not covered by fog.
Game mechanics and character stats operate like the most immersive pen and paper RPG you’ve ever experienced.
Haunting sound effects enhance the atmosphere, but are grossly inconsistent in tonality.
Haunting atmosphere, fascinating investigations, and monster calls prevail over bugs for a good time.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Call of Cthulhu is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
A copy of Call of Cthulhu was provided by the publisher.