For many years there's been a disturbing lack of Lovecraftian video games but after FMV title The Infectious Madness of Dr. Dekker and the turn-based Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, we're now getting treated to a proper horror adventure in the shape of an officially licensed Call of Cthulhu video game (a pen and paper game first released in the early 1980s). It's a busy time for fans of Cephalopods.
This game follows the trials of Edward Pierce, a World War I veteran turned private detective who's struggling in his new profession, with life, and memories of the war. He's taken refuge in alcohol and sleeping pills and as a result hasn't been getting around to solving many cases. Under pressure to clear cases, he takes an assignment to look into the deaths of the Hawkins family on an island called Darkwater not far off the coast from Boston. Sarah Hawkins was a famous artist and her wealthy father seeks you out in order to convince you to take the case. There's not much to go on other than a mysterious painting and a shipping label that suggests it's been sent from a warehouse on Darkwater Island. Sarah, her husband Charles, and their son supposedly died in an accidental fire, but the police report is sketchy and mentions Sarah's mental state, which triggers the feeling that there's more to the story.
Darkwater Island is as depressing as it sounds. A small settlement built around whaling, but the whales no longer frequent the waters, and there's not much to do except to drink. At least not on the surface of things. It starts out fairly straightforward, but as you'd suspect from there on it's a downward spiral into the occult where you'll never quite know what's real or not, who's friend or foe, and if you're even acting according to your own free will.
From a gameplay point of view, things are also evolving throughout the game. At first, it is mainly a narrative adventure where you solve puzzles and explore dialogue trees, but as the game continues there are stealth sequences and even action scenes, and your dialogue choices come with more in the way of consequences. There are also scenes where you recreate a sequence of events by examining clues. Similar to The Council, the episodic occult mystery game from the same publisher, there is a slight RPG element here where you spend points towards abilities. These abilities, in turn, will see you pass or fail various skill tests. It's a fairly limited system, and while some options or choices are only available with certain skills levelled up, it doesn't really have a huge impact on your path through the game.
Call of Cthulhu is never top of the class in terms of any of its mechanics but it's all solid and works for this sort of game. While most of the game is played in fairly linear fashion in smaller environments, there are levels that open up more and allow for exploration. However, there's a bit too much trial and error to the game design in some cases and at times your objective is a bit obtuse which leads to some mild bouts of frustration. While we appreciate a game that doesn't always hold your hand, we do feel like there should always be ways to be able to succeed without having to fail first.
One area where the game shines is the atmosphere. Various filters and tricks make the descent into madness an immersive and memorable one. The gallery of characters also shines, and there are some tough choices to be made with regards to them along the way. Some of our favourite characters included the certifiably insane Doctor Fuller and the policeman with the heavy accent, Officer Bradley. The bootlegger Cat was another great, yet perhaps not entirely pleasant, acquaintance. Edward Pierce himself is perhaps not as captivating at first, but as the game progressed we grew more invested in him.
In terms of horror, most of it is psychological here. Panic attacks are simulated by shrinking the player's view and distorting the visuals. There is disturbing imagery throughout, and the sounds will give you nightmares from prolonged exposure. The developers have also used some neat tricks like replacing a few frames with a disturbing image that pops up, and even a few jump scares are thrown into the mix for good measure. It's the right sort of jump scare though, the kind that doesn't punish the player as the game over screen would be an immersion breaker in these instances. In parts, it channels Silent Hill and P.T., particularly in the latter stages when madness takes hold (or does it?).
The game offers a rich set of horror clichés as far as environments go: an abandoned mansion, mysterious caves, a hospital that's seen better days, and a police station to mention just a few. All of them are well made and there's a great attention to detail in the environments.
If we focus on the technical merits of Call of Cthulhu it won't win any awards. The character models and facial animations are decent enough but put next to games like Uncharted 4 or Red Dead Redemption 2 it naturally pales. To be perfectly honest it wouldn't look out of place on the previous generation of consoles. However, the aesthetics and the various filters still manage to create overall visuals that we felt did the job. We experienced the occasional hiccup where the soundtrack went quiet or glitched, but as a whole the game was polished.
What we end up with is a game that achieves what it sets out to do. It truly feels like we're a pawn in the scheme of The Great Dreamer and the madness is very real. Towards the latter parts of the game, your sanity becomes a factor. How much knowledge will you take in and at what cost? In the end, your choices will influence the ending and there are four different ones to experience.
The adventures on Darkwater Island play out over 14 chapters, some shorter, some longer, and we spent about a dozen hours or so contemplating whether to heed the call or resist it, a second playthrough would certainly be quicker, but the good news is that there's plenty of reason to replay the game to catch nuances that may have passed you by the first time around and maybe make some different choices.
Call of Cthulhu offers mechanics that feel a bit out of date and there's a bit too much trial and error in some of the level design, but nevertheless, the subject matter, the characters, and the atmosphere makes it a worthwhile experience that fans of Lovecraft and horror games should check out. There's not a great deal of these sort of genre-mixing horror adventures out there and with an intriguing narrative that truly oozes of Lovecraft it pulled us in from start to finish.