Review: Call of Cthulhu

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Review copy provided by publisher

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Lovecraft is more than just a troubled genre writer now, he’s essentially become a genre unto himself. Stories, films, and games have all taken countless attempts at bringing his visions of cosmic, unknowable horror to life, with varying degrees of success. Some of the best adaptations of his work borrow the themes and tones and apply them to a new mythos, such as with The Last Door and Darkest Dungeon. But other attempts pull directly from that dark well, and that’s where you’ll find Call of Cthulhu, clinging to the line. Despite taking the source and running with it, this title unfortunately runs straight into the ground with technical issues, nonsensical writing, and a serious problem with pacing.

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Edward Pierce is living the low life as a private investigator, following his harrowing stint in World War I. He spends more time examining the bottoms of bottles, at least until a strange case lands on his doorstep in the form of a painting. Sarah Hawkins, a brilliant and eccentric painter, has died in a fire along with her husband and son under curious circumstances. To get at the truth of her passing, Pierce will travel to the remote island of Darkwater, a comically-appropriate name for the grim little fishing village rife with unspeakable secrets. With a sharp eye and a silver tongue, there’s a chance Pierce can piece together this mystery, but even if he does the cost may prove too great for him.

Call of Cthulhu is a first-person adventure game, focused on investigation and dialog instead of exploration or combat. After the opening scenes in your office you’ll find yourself in the sickly harbor of Darkwater, surrounded by seedy characters to chat with and carelessly-discarded notes to read. Much of your time in the game will be spent talking with NPCs, grilling them on their experiences and pressing them on their stories. This is facilitated by a light RPG system where you assign points to five skills including investigation, psychology, and strength to unlock new options both in dialog and in solving puzzles. Facts learned from the inhabitants of the island will be essential for your progression and also for making sense of the dark machinations in motion there.

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This is also where you’ll notice the first cracks in this promising package. I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is, but every single character in the game looks off. This isn’t subtle fish-person syndrome either, this is a failure of the artists to produce convincing-looking humans. Everyone is stiff and waxen, with dead eyes and exaggerated hand gestures to distract you from those seriously dead eyes. Animations often jerk and blink around, and anything meant to be affected by physics like long hair or dresses is going to spazz out at least once. The rest of the game looks pretty good, if a little too green, but the characters being such a major feature makes their failings all the more noticeable.

And then there’s the dialog. Adventure games live and die on solid writing, and I don’t know if it was localization troubles or what but the dialog here is downright laughable. Again, it’s not off-putting on purpose, it’s simply written with no regard for actual human expressions or reason. Your boy Pierce snaps at people who’ve said nothing objectionable, assaults a man and then buys him a beer without suffering any consequences, and snatches an axe from a threatening fellow only to immediately return it. NPCs are impossible to get a read on, as they might hate you at the start of a dialog and then offer you anything you want by the end. The voice actors seem to be trying here, but with lines that so frequently contradict each other in terms of tone there’s only so much they can do.

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When you’re not conversing with unconvincing mannequins of people, you’ll be investigating grim locales and skirting past foes. The former there is decent enough, giving you detailed rooms to comb and simple reconstruction scenes where you just click on the pertinent parts of a room to recall what happened there. You’ll also turn up plenty of supplementary notes and items, sometimes offering alternate solutions to progression barriers. The latter, however, comes in the form of stealth sections that ultimately killed the game for me. Stealth in a cosmic horror game is a natural fit but your first bout with it is outwitting dopey guards to escape an asylum, a far cry from the thrill of eluding eldritch terrors. You do actually get to do that in the second sequence, but it’s in a cramped gallery with an uninspiring monster, and you’re reduced to trial-and-error because you can’t outrun the thing, it can find you if you look at it, and it likes to bug out around the convenient hiding cabinets.

Overall, I get the impression that the developers just weren’t up to the challenge of seeing this vision through. Call of Cthulhu is a fine foundation for a cosmic horror game, but nearly every part of the execution falls short. The characters are stiff and off-putting in their speech, the stealth ends up being more of a pain than anything, and the pacing is all off. There was one great scare early on that showed a real mastery of timing and expectations, but that was it. You’ll get one good scare per chapter, if that, and everything in between threatens to bore or frustrate you away. Someday I hope to see a truly great game built on the Lovecraft mythos, but if this is where we’re at then I think I’ll be waiting quite some time.

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