You can’t teach an Old One new tricks.
Title: Call of Cthulhu
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Release Date: October 20, 2018
TL;DR: Doesn’t quite deliver on all expectations but is a fun, weird little trip nonetheless.
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When Silas, the caretaker of the ol’ Hawkins place, came at me with an axe, I reacted by trying to grab it from him. Unfortunately, I’d sunk all my character points into eloquence instead of strength, meaning my attempt at axe theft ended with Silas whacking me across the jaw with the butt of said axe, telling me to “calm down,” before we had a nice little conversation. A conversation which, thanks to my eloquent rhetoric, ended with Silas handing a key to the house over to me.
That single conversation epitomises Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu. Because, while the game offers up a few scares, it’s far more a game about investigating, and on the surface, a well-realised hybrid of horror and noir mystery. But much like how my attempt to steal the axe from Silas didn’t have much of an effect on how that whole scene would play out, it seems with every crossroad the game offers you, every outcome inevitably led to the same conclusion. It’s this illusion of breadth in the game that makes it a lot of fun to play as it borrows so much from its tabletop roots, but as soon as you look to push the boundaries of choice, the limitations of the game are clear to see.
The jarring thing is that the game could have offered so much more. Take your protagonist, Edward Pierce, as an example. Pierce is fresh back from the Great War and the game heavily implies he’s suffering from PTSD, as well as terrifying nightmares. And while a lot of what we saw leading up to the game’s release suggested that Pierce’s mental state would become more and more unhinged as you go through the game, I only ever noticed the moments that were scripted; the illusion of something swimming towards you was a clip from the early trailers that a lot of people thought was going to be something that would happen throughout the game, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Instead, Pierce’s sanity level seems more like a charter of the story itself, with events being added to his character sheet like a pin on a map, but it doesn’t really have much sway on how you play.
And while you can customise Pierce’s character somewhat as you choose how to spend your character points, be it in his speech, his strength, his ability to spot hidden items, his understanding of psychology, or his investigative work, your ability to affect an outcome of an investigation is rarely impacted by the way you use the character points. The only aspects of Pierce’s character that are noticeably affected by how you play are your understanding of medicine and the occult. Both of these attributes can only be improved through interacting with specific objects in a move that will have you interacting with the various books and trinkets that litter Darkwater. It’s a mechanic that could’ve affected the game a great deal, and left players wanting to replay with a different character loadout. But as it stands, Pierce’s character sheet is pretty much aesthetics that unfortunately hold no real bearing on the game.
And while those two aspects of the game are fairly hefty flaws, the game itself is no less fun to play. As I said, Call of Cthulhu is a wonderful realisation of horror and mystery that plays up to its period setting very well. Don’t get me wrong, Darkwater is by no means a living, breathing town; it instead left me feeling like an interactive historical exhibition as you explore different parts of the island in closed off sections. Personally, I felt wandering the island in isolated, fenced off parts only served to fracture the town from itself, and while I’m not keen on every game being forced into having some kind of open world, I do think having some freedom to explore the nooks and crannies of the island would’ve served it far better.
Darkwater is a place in the grips of human folly; a place a little too well past its golden age. It’s seen in the weathered fisherman of the town, all of whom still speak fondly of the “Miracle Catch,” that was both the foundation of the town’s prosperity and the origin of its downfall. “All the whales have vanished,” one fisherman tells you, while a group of angry locals argue with the police for dragging a beached whale back into the water, warning them of the bad luck the act will bring.
Running in tandem with the superstitious locals are the newly arrived bootleggers, led by the not-so-charismatic but very angry and violent Kat; you’ll see a handful of these bootleggers hanging around the alleyways of Darkwater or else threatening the fishermen – who deal exclusively in nautical-based insults, meaning you’ll hear things like “Ya sand crab!” which is an objectively brilliant term. Other than threatening fishermen and feigning being tough guys, the bootleggers get on with their business quietly, simply looking to make the most of both the island’s handy docks and the uninterrupted misfortune of Darkwater citizens, whose misery ultimately drives them to the bottle.
But you won’t have much time to get to know the Darkwater community, as Pierce gets stuck into a case full of otherworldly mishaps, members of the occult, and untrusting locals. And while you’ll spend some of the game speaking to people, the other segments of the game rely on recreating a crime scene, seeing Pierce go into a trance-like state as he interacts with points of interest in a room as he tries to make sense of what’s happened. There’s also a run-of-the-mill stealth gameplay that, while it’s nothing special, does its job well enough so as not to become a pain in the arse. The game does offer a fair amount of puzzles, which might not scratch an itch for you hardcore puzzle-lovers, but there’s enough meat to them to have you thinking twice about what you need to do – a particular puzzle that has you trying to figure out a code to a safe is a real highlight for the game.
And it’s worth noting that – without going into spoilers – there’s a section of the game that turns into a full-blown shooter, and it’s bloody brilliant. The shooting is absolutely nothing special, and it’s a matter of one hit, one kill for you and your targets. But for a game that has you skulking about for the majority of it, there’s something that’s so satisfying about just getting the chance to feel in total control. I had hoped that section would’ve had a more interesting reason for occurring, but the whole segment is nonsensical, yet manages to deliver a sharp turn in gameplay – and it’s just fun, to be honest.
Like I said at the start of this, Call of Cthulhu wants to be an ambitious title – it doesn’t quite hit the mark there. And to be honest, it doesn’t feel like an out-and-out horror title; instead I have it pinned down as a game I’d want to play during Christmas. Why? Because it feels like a supernatural Midsummer Murders at times; with its small-town mentality, the secrets that seem to always be just out of reach, and the town of Darkwater itself. I have a feeling that a lot of people will be expecting something totally different from what Call of Cthulhu actually offers, and while the game itself is a little unexceptional, it’s still well worth picking up.
- A decent variety in gameplay
- A well-paced story that’ll have you wanting to stay up just one more hour
- Some of the scripted moments in the game hit an excellent note of surrealism
- It would’ve been nice to see a little more variety in how events could have played out
- The segregated locations mean the whole town feels like various sets rather than a town
- I was hoping it’d be a bit scarier
Call of Cthulhu is rated PEGI 18 in the UK and “M,” for Mature in the US. Unless you’re bringing your children up as followers of the Old Ones, then they probably don’t have much reason to play this.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by PR for the purpose of this review.