Be careful what you dream. Cthulhu may be calling.
Genre: Adventure, Investigation, Horror
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Studio
Release date: 30 Oct, 2018
I’ll cut right to the chase here and let everyone know that Call of Cthulhu has a ton of dialogue, you can’t shoot or stab your way out through the majority of the game, and you have to out-think the monsters by planning your method of escape much like in Outlast or Alien Isolation. It’s not a jump scare walking simulator either, although there are a few jump scares towards the end of the game that really nailed me. That said, it’s actually a very solid horror game that achieves just about everything it sets out to do as a story-rich adventure investigation game with a bit of RPG involved and some horror-survival components that are not nonchalantly thrown in for the hell of it. This game has some attention to the form it sets out to be with an emphasis on atmosphere and terror rather than the usual gore, although there is plenty of that as well. The direction of the game shines because even though it’s a smorgasbord of different game genres, the cohesive manner in which the game moves from one type of game style to the next feels smooth. It’s a very nice change of pace for a horror game because in this genre, it is very easy to produce a dud despite a director’s best attempts. So, I’ll let readers know right now that if they do not like what I’ve described, quit looking because you’ll never like this game. Read on if you find yourself intrigued, though.
Dreams can possess you if you are not careful. Be it immersive where you lose yourself so far down the rabbit hole that it’s nearly impossible to wake up easily, or disturbing to the point of questioning your reality, a simple dream can entangle the mind as few things can. It’s here that Cthulhu beckons you. In the dream state, where you are most vulnerable, his power is sublime and the truth is what he tells you it is. It’s a modern-day story of the Sandman, but it’s a tale of a power so ancient it pre-dates the animals of the earth. Cthulhu is a god, born of the stars and come to this planet when the stars and planet aligned just right, trapped in a city sunken below the seas for the eons. It’s a myth and a mythos, intangible and surreal yet his effect on humanity scratches at the walls of our dreams each year around the same time in late March until April. At least, according to the original story.
This game, unfortunately, does not give us the original story of the Call of Cthulhu written by HP Lovecraft, but instead it is inspired by it. I have to note, though, that even if this game is more or less a new story, it does have many aspects drawn from the book, especially the dream motif. It’s not a retelling or even loosely based on the original, but it certainly is based in the same universe with an emphasis on the dark side of the Cthulhu stories without being a quick synopsis of bits and pieces of the scary things. So, rather than a scattered hodge-podge of story ideas, it is formed from the clay that shaped the history of Cthulhu.
I won’t give away too much detail other than some basic background info. You play the role of Edward Pierce, a roughshod private detective in the year 1924 who is on the verge of losing his practice until he is offered to look into the possible murder of a young woman named Sarah Hawkins who died in a house fire. The setting is in Boston, and the aptly named island of Darkwater is where her house stands off the coast there. Your discover she is an artist, which I think may be an interpretation of the artist Wilcox, from the original story. He too was an artist whose art reflected not only just his own dreams but also Cthulhu’s power as it became physical in the form of his artwork. As you traverse through certain locales on the island, you investigate sectionalized areas and solve some puzzles here and there. However, that is not the focus of the story. The focus is the journey of Mr. Pierce, and not just the plights he endures against the police and bootleggers. The more you play, the farther down his mind you travel until it’s very unclear what is reality and what is insanity. A rather strong amount of horror comes from just how you are faced with confronting choices as fate or free will, leaving you wondering if he ended up here or was it simply foretold from the beginning. Even if it is free will, what is the truth and what is the green-hued appearance of truth? It can be hard to discern between the two the more you play.
The choices you make along the way can affect the story and affect a few scenes. You are notified when this occurs and there is no way to go back once a choice is made. As you encounter people, you find yourself in a sort of Fallout/Witcher type of dialogue with them with multiple choices about what to ask. However, don’t go in thinking you will be able to listen to everything because some of those choices may be limited by the RPG skill levels you pick in the game. The RPG skills cannot be changed once saved and you’re stuck with them for better or for worse. Did you skip adding a ton of Eloquence? Well, then you’re not going to be able to convince people of taking a certain action. Do you lack some Psychology skills? Then, you’re not going to be able to analyze people very well either. This isn’t all doom and gloom, as checking through every nook and cranny will also allow you to ask questions with NPC’s, but don’t’ expect to listen to them all. That’s right, as you get further in the game you only get ONE choice of question to ask and if you skip the cool one that was unlocked by your skill-set, then you missed out.
I have to note, Call of Cthulhu is not a traditional adventure or survival horror game in the least. It’s more along the lines of a Murdered: Soul Suspect, but substantially less repetitive and with a decent level quality of writing and voice actors for the NPC’s. Really, this makes a huge difference because without it, this game is just mediocre. Not every actor is phenomenal, but a few really make you feel like it’s 1920’s New England and that’s the magic of it. It’s the writing and direction that lead this game, make no doubt about it. Throw in some Outlast, Amnesia the Dark Descent, and Sherlock Holmes and now we have a baby.
By the end of the game, I was quite satisfied with how the story, or journey rather, came to an end. I’ll let you know, there is more than one ending, but the game does allow you to replay to see the other ending. This is great because one of them is terrible and the other is fully fleshed out in the spirit of the original content. Just don’t skip past the credits, whatever you do.
The heart of Call Of Cthulhu is as an investigative adventure game where examining your environment can reveal hidden secrets and valuable clues about how to proceed to solve a puzzle or ask questions of other characters. You do a lot of searching about bookcases and the like, with little magnifying glasses popping up to notify you that something can be investigated. Some things can be very well hidden and it brings up a flashing green question mark on the screen when it is. It’s very helpful when trying to locate the special secret and once complete, you get a checkmark for the area informing you that you do not need to keep looking anymore.
There are also reenactment investigative scenes where you discover the truth about crime scenes and how the crimes were committed. It reminded me a great deal of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, though in a much more confined space, making it rather easy to find clues. There was nothing ragey or annoying here unless you dislike finding hidden objects.
As for the RPG element, it is somewhat limited and very basic but it does affect the game in some ways. Don’t go in expecting an RPG. It’s NOT much of an RPG at all. There are aspects, but it’s just a portion of the game rather than the center of it. Mostly, it involves forming a skill set based on things like Strength, Eloquence, Investigation, Spot Hidden, and Psychology. Two skills sets, Medicine and Occultism, can only be leveled up by actually discovering items in the environment that are related to those skills. As I discussed earlier, the RPG skill sets can provide you with more in-depth questioning or perhaps enable you to convince someone of taking a different decision than they would normally make. I didn’t feel the Strength skill did all that much, even when maxed out, so I’d center your skills on Investigation, Eloquence, and Psychology. Spot Hidden isn’t bad either, but I generally found everything I needed and never had it above 50%. While it definitely affects the story, the RPG elements do little to affect the actual game itself from my experience. One thing to note, if you are unable to complete an action due to a lack of Strength or Investigative skill there are always a few other ways to get through that area. It just requires a bit more legwork is all. For instance, if you are outsmarted by a locked padlock you can search around for an NPC who may have a way to distract someone and work your way in. The game is quite clever in giving you good options.
Now, towards the middle of the game, you will encounter some stealth sections with guards. You can see, in a sort of radar manner, the guards moving around, even through walls. There is an indicator that turns red when they spot you, but you can still run to a dark area and avoid getting spotted. However, if you have any clear view of the guard whatsoever, even through a tiny area of your cover, you will be spotted and picked up. It’s a bit frustrating, but really the stealth would be a piece of cake otherwise. For folks more used to pure adventure games, this may be a bit of a deterrent. However, keep at it and you should be able to find a few areas that the guards rarely frequent. The tough part in these sections is not just the stealth, but you must come up with a gameplan to retrieve keys and such, much like a Hitman game. This is brilliant and takes an otherwise boring stealth section and turns it into a well-planned operation with guards all around you. Expect the AI to be tougher to creep by than, let’s say Assassins Creed Origins, and about as hard as Hitman Blood Money at times. Good stuff.
Later on, this stealth gets cranked up with a straight-up monster called the Shambler and turned into survival horror. Ah, the Shambler. Right here is where you may get a little ragey, I certainly did. The reason at first was because I had no clue what to do and I was getting killed over and over. Why? This is because the Shambler does not have a radar or red marker of any kind. You must simply avoid it and it can spot you a mile away as well as when you make noise. So, I spent a very long time devising a method of escape from his view while I searched about for a way to attack him. This became a problem as well because there is no attack that works. I won’t reveal how I figured it out, but I do advise looking at every single thing at your disposal. The actions to get past the monster are more of a puzzle than just running away.
There was another section later on where I had to run away from the Shambler and use light to blind it. This would be fine except for one thing, the Shambler tends to appear from one repeatable location at the very end of that section and you can’t advance toward him or run away. If only he would appear at another location from time to time I could get by quickly and it would have been easier to get to safety, but that’s not an option. Perhaps that was the way the puzzle was designed, but I wasn’t fond of the solution in the least. It was close to the end of the game too, so I was miffed while trying to get out of there. Still, the survival horror wasn’t letting up on me and I was okay with that. It’s not a pushover game, this is the real deal and you won’t skid by easily to the end. I can respect that.
One other thing that I found interesting was the use of Sanity. It mostly only becomes an issue when hiding in a closet or crawl space, so I believe the character is claustrophobic. In any case, it seemed like it was a means to prevent folks from hiding for too long in areas. I wasn’t thrilled with its use, but it did add a measure of extra tension to the gameplay. If there was a monster outside my closet and it lingered, I’d be dead from a heart attack if I stayed too long. Once it left, it was like a breath of fresh air getting out of there. It’s a nice way to add some anxiety to the gameplay, making that descent into madness a little quicker than some other games.
Lastly, I want to touch on shooting. There is some involved, there is just one gun, and it’s okay but nothing great. Honestly, at some times it was tough to get a lock on the baddies, but I can understand that too because if someone saw me they’d move away instead of standing in the line of fire. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a bucket, though. Just keep a distance or you’ll get overwhelmed in a heartbeat. Don’t use up all the shots if possible, because there are a limited number of shots for the gun. It did give me a sweet sense of being able to protect myself, which was good. I’m not sure the gunplay was really necessary, but once again Call of Cthulhu decided to gamble on mixing things up and it worked sort of okay, though not as well as the rest of the game.
While the graphics are mostly okay, they are definitely not amazing. This is most apparent in the character models used and their facial animations. The faces are often stoic or mouthed so far off from the actual script that they may as well be eating peanut butter. There were even a few where a man looked like he was opening and closing his mouth more or less like a fish.
I think the use of the graphics engine to create a solid game world with depth and character was more impressive, and this became very apparent as Edward began to really lose his sanity. Yet, this would vary wildly within the game, leaving some places rather second gen looking and others gorgeous. Look at the screenshot above and below. Does that look terrible? No, but the graphic quality really was a bit all over the place. Ultimately, it’s the sheer use of art-style and environmental direction to create a sense of atmosphere that saves the graphics for me and makes me forget some of the poor character facial animations and badly made figures. The absolute beauty of the world outshines its limitations. Also, I played this game on EPIC settings for everything and it ran very well at 60FPS on a mid-level card up until the whale station scene, and then it recovered afterward. So, pretty decent performance and zero crashes. I mostly used a controller as well, the Steam controller to be precise, along with mouse and keyboard with no issues, though I preferred to use a controller.
Soundwise, I absolutely loved the atmosphere created by the use of tonal compositions and dark soundtrack music to give each scene a mood. The music direction is totally on par with any larger games out there, with the exception of those with full orchestras or huge compositions. Sound effects did a great job of making the characters come alive and notifying the player of impending doom, which is all I can ask for. The Voice acting, while not always fantastic, was about 85% great and really makes the game stand out. The voice actors literally give this game a huge boost.
There are a lot of game styles being incorporated into the gameplay here, but it meshes fairly well to my surprise. The investigative adventure part of the game takes center stage as you journey through Edward Pierce’s mental unraveling. There are a few odd unanswered things here and there, but overall the story grips you as you slowly doubt your own sanity all the way to the end. The manner in which the stealth and survival horror sections play out was surprising because they were not casual play in the least. You have to really plan, think about strategy and figure out clues on the fly. It’s great and there wasn’t a ton of backtracking either. The gunplay seemed almost tacked on, but it’s sort of optional to a point. The RPG part of the game is not anything of serious note. If you are looking for an RPG or heavy text driven Cthulhu game look elsewhere. This is a game based in the Cthulhu universe, it is well voice acted for the most part and the dialogue is actually interesting and well written. The game lasts about 12-16 hrs, so you can finish it without investing dozens of hours of your time as well.
There are a few ragey parts of the game, but it was blast realizing that it wasn’t about trying to escape in time, but instead about looking at my clues on hand, exploring the area, and coming up with a strategy to move on. That’s making the game more than it could be, it’s cranking it up a notch to be something better than average. The puzzles involved in the adventure/investigative areas were nothing too hard or too easy, just your standard figure out a combination or something based on clues in the environment. Still, way harder than an average Resident Evil 4-6 puzzle. I’ve had tougher before in adventure games, so I’ll say it’s about medium difficulty. I did feel the ending felt a wee bit rushed in a few places, but better than some games to be honest. The graphics were a mixed bag of some rather beautiful areas and some so-so graphics from a generation ago with bad facial animations to boot. Yet, I would think about how the graphics aren’t all that great until I see my screenshots and it’s not terrible either. Some of those are downright awesome. The graphics range from terrible to great all in one shot, and that’s jarring at times.
All in all, this game was one of the most enjoyable horror games I’ve played in a few years. Instead of focusing on gore, jump scares, over the top monsters, or haunted house types of frights it focused on the change of one man as he slowly succumbed to madness with his antagonist in Cthulhu, the god of the ancients pulling all the strings. The sad part is that you don’t quite feel that full force until 75% of the way done with the game. I have to also remark that it’s not just the story, or the script, or even the gameplay, but the world itself, cast mostly in a dull green slime hue, that pervades the mind to wonder what evil is lurking. The game brings to light ideas of fate or free will and of course whether we see the truth or are stuck in a dream we cannot escape. Whether $45 is worth the price of admission is up to you, but it’s a good game even if it’s not quite any one specific genre.
Editors Note: Apparently, there are two extra endings depending on if you played with choices that made you insane or sane. I went the insane route.