Call me, maybe?
Set in the year 1924, Cyanide Studios’ Call of Cthulhu puts players in control of private investigator Edward Pierce. Down on his luck and living his life at the bottom of a bottle, one day Pierce is tasked with traveling to the island of Darkwater, situated just off the coast of Boston, Massachusetts, to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of one of the island’s most prominent families. However, before long, Pierce comes to discover all isn’t well in this dreary whaling town. The locals are restless and pumped full of sedatives. Masked cultists gather under the cover of night in seaside grottos. And, unfortunately for the town’s crusty sea dogs who call the dingy hamlet home, all manner of eldritch terrors go bump in the night.
With strange happenings seemingly unfolding around every corner, the stakes are constantly raised as Pierce works to unravel the island’s darkest secrets while keeping his sanity intact.
A Miskatonic Mystery
Call of Cthulhu isn’t your average horror game. Sure, its haunting visuals and Lovecraftian narrative certainly paint that picture. However, when boiled down to its base elements, the game shares much more in common with a Tex Murphy adventure than Resident Evil – albeit with a healthy dash of Layers of Fear inspired psychological horror thrown in for good measure.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a few occasions where you’ll have to outrun ghastly creatures. There’s also a handful of action sequences, but they’re obviously not the star of the show here (a fact made obvious by their rather janky and unpolished implementation). The vast majority of the game’s 10-hour story is spent exploring Darkwater Island’s crumbling seaside estates and barnacle-encrusted docks in search of clues to shed light on the town’s secretive inhabitants.
Most of the time you’ll find yourself rummaging through files or reconstructing crime scenes, not unlike those found in Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. And, on rare occasions, you’ll have to solve a few simple puzzles to advance to the next area. It’s all pretty straightforward. This is further compounded by the way the game pushes you forward from chapter to chapter with little room for exploration.
Admittedly, this constant sense of forward momentum can make Call of Cthulhu feel painfully linear at times – especially for a game that bills itself as an RPG. That said, if you’re hoping for something more akin to 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, there’s a chance you might be a bit disappointed with this game’s comparatively rigid structure and pacing.
One element that does manage to spice things up a bit is Call of Cthulhu‘s rather robust talent system. As you progress through the story, you’ll earn points that can be spent on upgrading a number of Pierce’s abilities which allow you to approach the adventure in different ways.
For example, as you increase Pierce’s strength you’ll be able to move heavier objects and occasionally get the upper hand in combat scenarios. And, while Pierce is already a talented detective, dumping points into his investigative skills will help him pick locks, spot clues, and highlight hidden items.
In addition to these detective skills, you’ll find other abilities are better suited for dealing with the natives. Shoveling points into your eloquence trait will turn you into a veritable silver-tongued gumshoe, allowing you to talk yourself out of sticky situations. While boosting your psychology skills helps to understand the underlying motives of the people you’ll meet. However, there are some skills – medical and occult knowledge – that can only be leveled up by finding items hidden in the environment.
The actions you take can often have very real consequences that affect the game’s story. There were many points during my review playthrough that I found myself lamenting the choices I had made. What would have happened had I been able to talk down a character from making a rash decision? If only I brushed up on my occult studies, I could have spotted a key detail without relying on the forbidden knowledge of some ancient evil and retained my sanity.
The various outcomes to each situation, combined with the multiple endings you can unlock, greatly add to Call of Cthulhu‘s replay value.
R’lyeh Weird Fiction
As someone with a fondness for detective games from the moment I first fired up Déjà vu on the NES, I didn’t mind Call of Cthulhu‘s rather slow pacing and emphasis on sleuthing over conventional horror game tropes. However, there are times the game attempts to spice things up at key points in the story, often with mixed results.
About midway through the game, you’re faced with a boss battle that feels maddeningly tacked onto the experience. Your character’s plodding movement speed, combined with some questionable trial-and-error design, make what should have been one of the game’s most exciting moments come apart at the seams. By the time I had wrapped up this dreadful encounter I was ready to hurl my controller into the inky abyss.
While combat is almost nonexistent, a few late-game areas do feature some gunplay. Sadly, it’s completely weightless and unsatisfying.
Thankfully, there are a few pretty explosive chase scenes that manage to fare much better than the bungled boss fights and stale shooter segments. Running through crumbling caves or exploding shipyards is a real treat and provides some nice fireworks to boot.
While it’s a shame Call of Cthulhu‘s more action-packed moments often fall flat, like any detective mystery, the story is the most important part of the game. And in that regard, Cyanide Studio has managed to deliver the goods. From moody opening sequence to the surreal finale, the developer has crafted a fantastic narrative that will keep fans of the Cthulhu mythos engaged from start to finish. The eccentric cast of characters are brought to life with solid voice performances, and the plot features enough twists and turns to satisfy the most jaded whodunnit fans.
While I really enjoyed my time with Call of Cthulhu, I don’t think the game is for everyone. Despite its horror roots, the game offers very little in the way of real scares to satisfy the survival horror crowd. Likewise, the game’s rather linear stages and relatively brief playtime may make it a tough sell for role-playing game fans looking for a more substantial adventure.
Despite these issues, the game does a great job of delivering an engaging detective thriller draped in all of the marvelous madness that is the Cthulhu mythos. And with numerous ways to approach your investigation, you’ll be hard-pressed not to make a return trip or two to Darkwater Island to see everything the game has to offer.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Focus Home Interactive; Developer: Cyanide Studio; Players: 1 ; Released: October 30, 2018; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A PlayStation 4 review code was given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.