Wayback in February 1928, the pulp magazine Weird Tales featured a short story from H.P. Lovecraft titled “The Call of Cthulhu.” In the 90 years since then, Cthulhu has been expanded on and the Cthulhu Mythos have transitioned to essentially every form of entertainment.
In 1981, Chaosium released the first edition of the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG. Seven editions later and with multiple scenarios and supplements, it remains a popular choice for fans of tabletop RPG’s.
Cyanide Studios’ Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game is based on the Chaosium game. While it is presented as a first person detective/horror mystery game, it does maintain some of the RPG elements found in the pen-and-paper version and has some survival and stealth tossed in for good measure.
Players assume the role of Edward Pierce, a private investigator. Edward’s a bit of an alcoholic, and his time spent serving in the first World War has left him with a little PTSD. That’s the character’s backstory, but ultimately Pierce is just the in-game vessel for the player to experience the story through. There are a few instances in the game where you can choose to drink or not drink, supposedly affecting your destiny, but for the most part Pierce’s background never comes into play.
Edward faces losing his license because he hasn’t been taking many cases. Of course on the day he learns this, a man shows up to his office with a most intriguing case. The man wants you to investigate the death of his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. The family died in a fire that was blamed on his daughter and her mental issues. He wants you to restore his late daughter’s reputation.
Needing the job and intrigued by the case, Pierce agrees to do the investigation and sets off for the mysterious Darkwater island off the coast of Boston.
As far as story stuff goes, I’ll stop there so as to better preserve the player experience. This is, after all, a game that’s less about actual gameplay and much more about the story, how it unfolds, and the atmosphere.
Speaking of the atmosphere, Cyanide absolutely nailed it here. Darkwater, and the locations you’ll visit on the island, is a dreary, miserable looking place. Once a thriving whaling city, it’s now completely run down.
Of course Darkwater isn’t just a down on its luck little community. There’s some sinister stuff going on that Edward will soon discover as he investigates a burned mansion, an asylum, some caves, and a few other locations.
There’s a green tint that’s ever present. At first, I found that a little annoying as I don’t generally like filters. As I kept playing, I grew to like it, or at least tolerate it. It helped add to the feeling of unease and insanity the game was going for.
Gameplay wise, Call of Cthulhu is a mixed bag. Most of your time playing will be as an investigator doing investigator stuff. It’s not quite on the detective heavy styling of the Sherlock Holmes games (also published by Focus Home), but for the most part you’re walking, looking for clues, reading, and talking to the people you meet.
For some, that’ll sound boring, but these are the best parts of the game. From a purely gameplay perspective, say the first seven or eight chapters of this 14 chapter game, is the best part.
The game is at its best when you’re immersed in the role of investigator Pierce. You walk around the environment and you find clues and items. These can help you understand things as well as open up dialogue options when talking with the various characters’ you’ll encounter.
You can also, at times, enter what is called “reconstruction mode.” This allows you examine evidence and “see” what transpired in a past event. What caused the fire at the Hawkins mansion? Did the family have a fight? When it clicks, you’ll see stuff and think it before the game tells you and that’s your “aha, I’m an detective” moment.
Exploring the genuinely creepy locations, reconstructing past events, and examining items is a lot of fun. I’d argue it’s what the whole game should have been, alongside of course the essentially interviews with townsfolk. And while there may be some animation issues here and there, the interviewing is the heart of the game.
I felt, to their credit, Cyanide nailed the dialogue pretty well. Dialogue can always be tricky to get right. Many times in games dialogue feels unnatural and not what someone would say, or when given an option to choose what you say isn’t actually what the option made you think it would be. Here, there were more times than I could count that the dialogue options had Pierce asking someone the same question I was thinking or would’ve asked in real life.
The game borrows some RPG elements from the pen-and-paper version that’s based on. While it’s not as in-depth of as that version can be, you can tweak Pierce how you want in a few different ways.
As you do stuff in the game, you’ll earn Character Points. You spend these points on upgrading several skills that you can rank from amateur to expert in:
Spot Hidden: This represents your ability to find hidden objects. You’ll only be able to find some objects in the game if this skill is high enough to detect it.
Eloquence: This is your ability to influence people you talk to. Improving it increases your chances of convincing or manipulating folks during discussions.
Strength: This is your physical power. The higher it is, the better your chances of forcing doors or mechanisms, and of using violence during discussions.
Investigation: This is your investigative talents. The higher it is, the better your chance of understanding past events and picking locks.
Psychology: This is your knowledge of human behavior. It helps you understand the motivations of a person and their behavior, and your analysis of an object.
I went heavy into Spot Hidden, Strength, and Investigation during my first play-through. I don’t think you can earn enough points to be an expert in everything, at least I didn’t.
There’s two other skills, Occultism and Medicine, but these can only be improved by finding objects hidden in the environment (occult objects, medicine books, etc.).
Ultimately, I don’t think any of these skills really matter. Your path is pretty linear, and not finding something or being high enough in one skill isn’t going to make a big shift in anything. The destination might change a little bit, but you’re still going to end up at the same destination.
Where Cthulhu starts to fall short is when it veers away from the detective heavy gameplay. There are some stealth sections that will involve solving a puzzle. Flip these switches, find these tools, make this thing happen while avoiding being caught. The odds of getting caught are slim, but the chances of “what the hell am I missing” are high.
The back half of the game, chapters 10 through 14, also seem like a desperate attempt to just end the game. There’s a laughable shooting section here that will also present the player with a choice to heal one of two people. We really only spend any time with one of the characters, but either ways there’s no emotional punch to care about saving either of them. I chose the person I don’t think I interacted with more than two minutes with the entire game, and I only chose him because there was a trophy for doing it. No idea what happened to the other character. I guess they died, but again you’re given no reason to care.
These chapters go by fast and there’s not much of the fun investigating to do. It’s just a mind trip where you’re not even sure of any of the stuff you’re seeing is real.
While I can’t say I found most of the non-detective gameplay to be all that fun, there were two encounters that I particularly enjoyed a great deal. One was a cat and mouse game of survival against an entity known as The Shambler, and the other was a similar encounter with a mechanic involved to banish The Shambler. These were fun and intense moments, albeit very brief, and gave off an Outlast like vibe.
On average, I suspect the average gamer will spend about 15 hours, give or take a few, on their first playthrough of Call of Cthulhu. The vast majority of that time is immensely enjoyable, and thankfully the final four chapters that aren’t that fun only take about an hour and half to get through.
Does the game warrant multiple playthroughs? I’ll play through it a second time, both to try some different things and also clean up a few trophies I missed. I’ve already seen two of the endings, I think there’s only three. Unfortunately, the game is a little too linear and your hand is held a little too much to have high replayability.
With the RPG aspects lacking, coupled with the linearity, I don’t think this is something most people will play more than once, and certainly not more than twice. And I mean in that in the “beat it and restart it” way. It released the day before Halloween, and even if you’ve beaten it a couple of times before (subsequent playthroughs will be much faster) it’ll be worth revisiting around October when you get in that horror mood.
Speaking of horror, props to Cyanide for not doing what a lot of studios (both gaming and movies) do and that’s rely on “jump scares.” Jump scares aren’t scary for one, startling maybe, and are the cheapest thing one can do in horror. Call of Cthulhu has maybe two such moments, which I’ll consider an acceptable number given how overboard some folks go with it.
If you like detective games, you’ll enjoy Call of Cthulhu. If you enjoy horror games and a mystery, you’ll also enjoy it. I’m not typically a big fan of horror games, but I definitely say this is one of the better ones I’ve seen.
Call of Cthulhu nails the Lovecraftian vibe. Eerie environments, engaging investigating mechanics, and a the dark story that questions sanity makes this a must play for fans of the genre. It’s a very good, very enjoyable game that’s boarding on being great. The final chapters and a step away from the best parts of the game, combined with the linear nature, hold it back from hitting that threshold.
Call of Cthulhu gets a three out of five: GOOD.
* A PSN code was provided by the publisher for review.