Madness is everywhere in Focus Interactive and Cyanide Studio’s latest H.P. Lovecraft mythos-based Call of Cthulhu. The psychological, investigational, RPG steeps itself deeply in the world of Lovecraft, complete with Easter-eggs, winks and all the cosmic terror you can handle.
Much more based on the physical pen and paper RPG, Call of Cthulhu takes the bones of Lovecraft’s world and creates a choice-based and satisfying investigational.
The story follows Edward Pierce, a dude fighting some serious personal demons following the war. Pierce has set-up shop as a private eye in desperate need of work to save his business. It seems that Pierce’s livelihood is saved when he receives a case that involves the investigation into the death of the prominent Hawkins family on the island of Darkwater.
With the new case in tow, Pierce sets off to the ominous island to help clear the name of Sarah Hawkins, who allegedly initiated the fire that killed her husband and child.
The world is bursting with references to Lovecraft’s work. Simply glancing at books on shelves or hidden diaries reveal the rich tapestry of Easter eggs that cover the entire mythos.
The game is primarily built around conversational and stealth mechanics with the occasional puzzle thrown in to the mix. Walking around talking to the villagers of Darkwater to uncover information and looking in the nooks and crannies make up the brunt of this game. It never devolves into the familiar territory of any sort of hack-n-slash action or button mashing shooting.
Choices in dialogue are subjective to their respective levels on your upgradable skill tree. For example, if you don’t have enough knowledge of the occult or enough expertise in psychology, certain talking points won’t be selectable, leaving you to choose other options that in some cases can lead to dead ends in conversations.
I appreciate that the game doesn’t pull punches in that respect. Early in the game I spoke to a bartender and because my eloquence was at a low level, I was unable to gain information or even drink in his bar. The designers, made that finality of opportunity feel very real-world inspired. You will not always get what you want, and you will have to press on and hope to make better decisions and inquiries in future conversations.
The upgradeable skill tree is built of strength, medicine, eloquence, psychology, occultism and ‘spot hidden.’ Occultism and medicine are strictly upgradeable only by finding hidden items strewn about Darkwater. The rest you are free to upgrade as the game progresses leading to an edge on certain situations that play themselves out throughout your time in Darkwater.
The game is reliant on choice and will lead to bumps and passes along your journey. These all culminate in the finale of the narrative. The choices seem slight for the most part but a flashing icon in the upper left hand corner will remind you when you made a world altering decision by informing you that the choice you made will have consequences.
Certain situations call for you to enter ‘reconstruction mode.’ In this mode, you are able to piece together hidden clues to uncover a certain chain of events. These are played out through still frame visions of what Pierce has deduced from his findings. These situations are particularly well-done, and add that extra bit of absorption into being a grizzled private eye.
It wouldn’t be a Lovecraft mythos based game if it didn’t get into sanity and the loss thereof. As you progress through the game, Pierce suffers mind-fracturing hallucinations that may or not be real. The ‘sanity meter’ is introduced deep into the narrative and is something that you have to watch to insure you don’t completely lose your marbles. The on-screen effects come in the form of emerald green tunnel vision, and rising heartbeat. This is exacerbated by entering claustrophobic spaces like crawlspaces and hiding spots. If you don’t get out the dread induced situation in time, its game over and time to load from last checkpoint.
The game has a rich cast of characters that make up the Lovecraftian world. These characters act as both friend and foe. Choosing to side with you or be a thorn in your investigation. Siding with certain police officers or bootleggers further fleshes out the world, and makes the island of Darkwater feel even more lived in.
Uncovering, the truth is a special experience. Waking in fish intestine filled caves, lit with green flames and being able to connect the dots from the lexicon of Lovecraft, is singular in its effectiveness. The story already has your attention before it introduces the supernatural elements and that direction goes a long and lasting way.
Every once and while the game throws puzzles into your investigation. One of my favorite moments of the game featured a safe that I had to get the combination to. The way the game handles the clues to find the combo numbers was a great gaming experience. The puzzles aren’t difficult but they do require that added care to detail.
“an intensely Lovecraftian experience, pregnant with atmospheric dread”
A nice change from a lot of games that I play, is how Edward Pierce is not a very nice guy. A lot of his selectable dialogue options toss aside the generic hero and go for a protagonist who acts as his own antagonist. A lot of times, I was looking for a nicer way to say something, but Pierce only offered 3 ways to say it and none of them were nice. He is a bit rude, a bit brash and a bit of a drunk and I totally love that.
My biggest issue with the game is that some parts of the investigation feel superfluous. For example, if you go through the trouble of finding hidden items and working things out in certain dialogue trees, it seems that even without that extra effort the following cut scene would have lead you to the same revelation regardless of your troubles. This is echoed a few times throughout the game in the form of having information laid out for you twice or by NPCs repeating the same information in a different way. It makes your hard work feel without reward.
The world is rich and fully Lovecraftian, popping at the seams with deep-cuts fans can really get lost in. The level design is painstakingly loyal to what you have read on the page. You can almost smell the confines of old bookstores, the odor of wood rot, and the pungent aroma of the sea. It’s an impressive amount of careful world building that greatly assists in the feeling of total immersion.
Call of Cthulhu is an intensely Lovecraftian experience, pregnant with atmospheric dread. It drags you in and holds your sanity for ransom. Lovecraft is not an easy thing to adapt but these creative minds got it right and give gamers something that the inhabitants of R’lyeh would be extremely delighted with.