Lovecraft was a bad man. Some say he’s a man of his time but really, he was a terrible man. Which makes it a difficult pill to swallow that his influence can be felt all over literature and media. Whether you can disassociate the person from the art or not, Lovecraft’s genre-defining work is as important today as it was back then. Cyanide Studio has created a Lovecraft story based on the pen and paper story of the same name. Call of Cthulhu takes the rules of the game and expands it into an atmospheric and living world that you can almost feel. But with the abundance of Lovecraft inspired games and stories, how does this instalment stand up?
Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, Call of Cthulhu takes a protagonist who already has a bit of a traumatic past. Edward Pierce is a private detective and a war veteran. His past traumas have pushed him to alcoholism and he is on the verge of losing his detective license if he doesn’t start taking cases. Luckily, a case falls right into his lap that takes him to Darkwater Island, a remote whaling community off the coast of Boston. Pierce is there to investigate the death of the Hawkins family who perished in a fire thought to be a tragic accident. Of course, this being a Lovecraft inspired story, Pierce discovers inconceivable horrors which will test his already frayed mind.
The main aim of the game is to investigate and to discover what has happened on this Island. You do this in many ways from talking to NPC’s to searching crime scenes for clues. This is where your skill tree comes in. Each stat you level up can help with specific things when investigating. Neglect eloquence and you may find it hard to convince certain characters to tell you what you need to know, forget strength and you will find it difficult to pull certain levers or activate some mechanisms and avoiding investigation means you may not be able to pick that lock to a door. Regardless, the story goes on and although you can miss some moments along the way, there is quite often multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.
Medicine and occultism can be levelled up only by finding specific books and items. These stats, unlike the others, govern your understanding of these subjects. If you have decent medical knowledge, then Pierce will be able to explain more thoroughly what could have happened to someone…or something! Having more knowledge of the occult means that Pierce may not be so confused when looking into something otherworldly. It’s a well thought out system but is not at all transparent. It’s extremely difficult to tell what you have affected by knowing certain things or using certain skills when talking to characters. Even doing a few playthroughs may lead to the same conclusions as it’s difficult to know what it really was that you changed.
Investigation mode is how Pierce paints a story in his mind using the evidence before him. It is a great way to tell the story by allowing the player to search for clues, which allows you to reimagine the scene. Perceptive players can find extra clues which will help paint a fuller picture of the scene. It isn’t always clear how this will affect things down the road, but it allows you to learn more about what has happened. Essentially, you’re walking around a room and looking for things which feels a little lazy. It feels like it needs a bit more, like allowing the player to deduce conclusions for themselves rather than just finding clues and allowing pierce to fill in the rest of the gaps.
Pierce isn’t a fighter in this game. There is one section where he uses a handgun, but this isn’t a first-person shooter. Instead, you only need to get Pierce close enough to the enemy and push X to shoot them. Pierce deals with everyone else by talking his way out of a situation or simply sneaking past. These stealth sections are very tense especially when dealing with creeping eldritch monstrosities. They can be very frustrating though as it is sometimes very hard to know when an enemy will or will not be able to see you. Your strength stat also governs if you’ll be able to overcome and NPC by using force rather than a silver tongue. Ultimately, it’s about talking your way through a situation or avoiding the enemy altogether.
The setting and the atmosphere are quintessentially Lovecraft. An old remote community set during the prohibition era in the 1920s where prohibition is merely a joke and the townsfolk spend their days drinking to pass the time. The environments are dark, candlelit, and littered with parchment and leather-bound books. Cyanide games have nailed the look and feel of the setting. Just wandering around gives you a constant sense that something isn’t right.
This is what grips you to the game, the feeling that there is more to what you see, or are you actually seeing it? It’s very easy for horror games to hit us with cheap jump scares and unnecessary gore. Call of Cthulu doesn’t need any of that as Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tropes are felt throughout. The uncertainty creeps up on you and the constant uneasiness stays with you from the beginning. It’s hard to trust anyone or anything and the lack of transparency leaves a crippling doubt in everything that you see. It’s an absolutely perfect Lovecraft story, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
Sanity and fear play an important role as ever in this type of game. As is the norm with a Lovecraft story, Edward Pierce plunges further into insanity the more he finds out about the occult. The more you see, the more you read, the more you will lose your sense of sanity and this is when you will begin to lose touch on reality. It works in the game but just like your decisions throughout it is sometimes hard to see how the game differs depending on your experiences. Special indecipherable dialogue options open up to you if you have accrued enough traumatic episodes which makes it seem like you are submitting to the eldritch call. Pierce can also inherit phobias like claustrophobia or necrophobia (fear of dead bodies). Hide in a vent for too long and Pierce will start to panic, alerting the enemy to your location. The longer you stay in these situations the more effect it will have on Pierce which could affect him in different ways.
Call of Cthulhu is as gripping as it is atmospheric. Cyanide has delivered a truly horrific world and an incredible story that fans of the mythos will absolutely love. Mechanically it gets a bit lost between the skill trees, the decisions, the fears and the sanity. It is never quite clear how certain choices shape your destiny and a lot of the decisions you make don’t seem to matter as there is always other ways around them. Luckily, the atmosphere, the story and the setting are a wonder to be in. If nothing else, this game is a reminder to leave that old dusty book alone unless you want to be looking into the inconceivable dimension.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
Call of Cthulhu£49.99
- The world and atmosphere are a Lovecraftian masterpiece
- Tense stealth sections has you sweating and gripping onto your controller for dear life
- Nails all of the themes you would expect from cosmic horror to losing grip on reality
- Hard to decipher how your decisions affect the grand scheme of things
- The story may be a little too much for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s work
- Although the Investigation mode tells a story it feels lacking