|Published by:||Focus Home Interactive|
|Format played:||PC – Steam|
Boston, 1924. War veteran Edward Pierce subsists on a diet of pills and booze. As a gumshoe for hire, work seems to have all but dried up. Until one day he is asked to investigate the death of the Hawkins family who perished in a fire in their mansion on Darkwater Island. Pierce sets off to investigate and that’s when the madness begins.
Call of Cthulhu is based on a short story by American author HP Lovecraft. Despite considering myself something of an avid reader, I can’t say that I was familiar with his work. A quick trip to Wikipedia tells me that he was virtually unknown during his lifetime, gaining posthumous acclaim for his horror fiction and would go on to be regarded as a significant writer of the 20th century. Indeed his cosmic-horror style and the themes contained therein would prove to be a influence on many subsequent creative minds, notably the likes of Stephen King, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman, all of whom cited Lovecraft as an influence on their own works.
Call of Cthulhu the game takes its cues from both the original short as well as a table top RPG game of the same name.
At its heart, Call of Cthulhu is a game based on procedural investigation. As Edward Pierce, you must talk to the residents of Darkwater island and investigate your surroundings to form a picture of what happened and try and try to piece together the truth behind the death of the Hawkins family.
The opening chapters set the tone for what is to come. Having made your way by boat to the island, you encounter a collection of distrustful locals, some under the employ of a local thug and bootlegger, others happy to drown their sorrows in the local bar that proudly defies the prohibition laws of the mainland. Walking up to characters generates a speech bubble prompt, dialogue options presented in a wheel allowing you some choice over what direction to move the conversation. Similarly, approaching objects of note within each scene brings up an on-screen indicator to let you know that this is a point of intertest, allowing you to interact with it.
Effectively it is like a first person point and click adventure, with a similar sweeping of the mouse across the screen but a little less in the way of random items to combine together. And you’ll want to investigate as many items and talk to as many inhabitants as possible in order to build up a better picture of the island and piece together some of the clues.
Whilst this investigative approach forms the core of the gameplay, it comes with an RPG influence, a nod to the table top game on which it is based. Pierce comes with a set of skill tree stats, allowing you to develop your character to suit your own play style. You might wish to prioritise investigative skills, in order to boost your chances of discovering clues. Or you may wish to focus on eloquence, using your powers of persuasion to eke out details from unwilling citizens. Or perhaps you lean towards favouring brute force, upping your strength stats, the threat of violence enough to ensure cooperation. Wanting to explore the game primarily from the perspective of a detective, I focused on the investigative skill tree, whilst also spending character points on the ‘spot hidden’ upgrade, allowing you to see items within a scene that would otherwise go undetected. The impact of this is seen within conversations, your development choices either bringing up or restricting lines of questioning available. Similarly enhanced stats in one area can affect your investigation of a scene, granting you the ability to, say, diagnose a medical malady or understand an otherwise obscure clue.
These elements are little more than RPG-lite though, Call of Cthulhu being far from a dedicated RPG. For instance I lacked the required skill to let me force the lock off of a door when investigating the Hawkins mansion and so, thinking my opportunity to investigate that scene had gone, I moved along. A short way down through I used the spot hidden skill to find a key that opened that very door. It soon becomes apparent then that, whilst these RPG elements offer some shape to proceedings, they are not defining to the experience. You are not going to miss out on any major plot points from steering your character development in one direction versus another. Indeed it feels as though all roads ultimately lead to the same point in any event. On my full playthrough, I was presented with three potential game endings, leading me to believe that the character-defining decisions I made were surface level only. The addition of a sanity meter also gives rise to an expectation that you must manage your mental health or face the consequences. This is compounded by certain events that trigger a notification that your destiny has been changed in some way. But I never found that this played a part in my journey or affected my character in any meaningful way, nor did I have any understanding of how my destiny may have differed had I taken another path.
This light touch RPG approach works in the game’s favour though, an added extra to the main course of detective work. After hitting the docks of Darkwater, we soon find ourselves at the Hawkins mansion to see the scene of the fire and the main elements of the game come to the fore. Entering a scene of particular interest, Pierce is able to enter a reconstrcution mode. The screen fades out, reappearing as a shimmering image from the past as Pierce works through the scene to understand what happened. Ghostly images appear to reenact key moments, even allowing conversational snippets to be heard whilst new clues manifest themselves as you work around the room. These scenes are fantastic, allowing you to really build a picture of what has gone before and helping to drive the story forward without the need for great reams of exposition. They also serve to make you feel like a proper detective, picking up and examining clues, even if the game itself usually fills in the blanks in for you. It’s not all point, click and walk though for some scenes involve a little more lateral thinking, one scene in a bookshop requiring you to piece together a puzzle in order to unlock a safe, for instance.
I found this investigative approach to storytelling to be tremendously satisfying. It isn’t particularly taxing. You pretty much know that you are going to find what you are looking for within each part of the game, the enjoyment stemming not from overcoming a particular obstacle but rather through the interaction of unravelling the story. This is a game that wants its story told and works with you to help you read it.
In between all these investigations though are some more physical exertions and not all of them are implemented satisfactorily. On a handful of occasions you need to employ stealth within the level, be it to outwit some guards at the hospital, some ne’er do wells at the docks or a hulking great beast in an art gallery. More on him later. As you creep round, a little icon appears to let you know if you may be in trouble. White indicates you may have been seen and so should be careful, red puts you on full alert that you are about to get busted. Presumably these scenes are intended to break up any potential monotony that may come from the main game and add some tension to the level but they just feel clunky and out of place. Skulking round the hospital, the guards are next to useless, walking on predefined patterns with no awareness of you unless you walk directly into their line of sight. If they do catch you, it is game over with no ability to fight them off once a hand feels your collar.
At other times, rather than stealthing your way through a level, you must break into a sprint to escape. Again, these scenes are at odds with the otherwise relatively serene nature of the game. More than once I was caught unawares and found myself busted before I could even get going. Call of Cthulhu is at its best when focusing on its core mechanics of detective work.
Two particular scenes stand out that combine both of these elements. In the first, a bloodthirsty beast is unleashed which then stalks me round an art gallery. Ducking low, I hide behind display cabinets to avoid him or take to hiding in wardrobes. Unfortunately I can only hide out for so long, the confined space causing Pierce to panic, the screen closing in as your breathing becomes more ragged and your heartrate quickens. Leaving the wardrobe behind, I look around for a weapon, clutching it tightly as my foe nears, lifting it high into the air, ready to strike a fatal blow. Before getting royally skewered and no doubt eaten down to my bones. I must have tried this scene about twenty times before I found the solution through a more indirect approach, the game offering little in the way of on screen pointers or narrative direction. Later on, I find myself in posession of a gun as the inhabitants of the island turn all hate filled and violent. I started off by trying to honour the RPG element of the game, resisting killing, trying to stay true to my character. But I soon realised it had no tangible impact, my magic gun having unending bullets, right until the particular point when the game decides it doesn’t want me shooting any more, destroying any sense of tension within the scene.
These action interjections feel out of place and their implementation, rather than serving to enhance the experience, actually detract from it. This is a cerebral game, one that rewards investment and attention to detail and it would be better served championing those aspects of its gameplay than attempting to woo the Call of Duty crowd.
Being based around a short story, it is in narrative and character development that the game can be truly judged. From the opening scenes we get a clear picture of who Edward Pierce is. Yes, there is an element of cliche – down on his luck, war veteran, reliant on booze – but they work within the context of the story.
With the central mechanic built around the investigation of a particular case, that mystery must hold the attention of the player to sustain the experience and it is here where the game excels. After investigating the Hawkins mansion, we stumble across some sinister goings on below ground involving cults, human sacrifice and a truly extraordinary number of candles. These opening chapters give us a hint of things to come as characters, seemingly disembowelled in front of our eyes, come back to life with nary a memory of the previous night’s violence. We soon uncover an island-wide epidemic whilst the more occult elements of the story gradually unfold and the horrific details of the cult and its hold on the inhabitants soon become clear.
For the most part, voice acting is excellent throughout. Pierce in particular has a lot to handle and his stoic, controlled voiceover provides a firm basis for the more unhinged elements he faces later in the story. Other characters can be, by necessity, somewhat one dimensional by comparison, serving a purpose in moving the narrative forward. Your own character aside, the background of the Hawkins family and their role in the unfolding mystery provide the most material to explore but even in the incidental characters, there is a sufficient level of information to uncover to leave you feeling that these are well realised characters and provide a believable representation of an island populace.
Honestly though I found the story somewhat confusing. Whilst not familiar with Lovecraft, the concept of an everyman experiencing the supernatural and bizarre is familiar to me as a fan of James Herbert. The juxtaposition of a rational mind, encountering that which is irrational provides the basis for a compelling narrative. Pierce though seemed at times too quick to accept the more occult elements of the tale. I found myself wanting to pull back, to question reality and find a rational explanation but instead Pierce seemed ready to push forward with the mythos despite clear signs around him that he was experiencing a psychological threat perhaps more than a physical reality. I felt as though I was missing a chapter. Unfamiliar with the source material, talks of cults, mythos and truth seekers just left me confused, the three endings I explored each, in their own way, dissatisfying.
This also manifested in some of the conversations with island inhabitants. There were occasions where characters would talk about an event or observation that I hadn’t seen, perhaps because I had engaged in conversation before reaching the point they were talking about, or because I had not triggered that particular event. Speaking of characters, models are somewhat on the wobbly side, limbs flapping around with little regard to the context of the conversation happening around them whilst the repetition of lines, when you repeatedly question the same person, slightly undercuts the lived-in, realistic atmosphere the game otherwise strives for. This isn’t helped by some disappointing typos in on screen text, far from a deal breaker in its own right but needlessly sloppy all the same.
None of these factors detract though from what is a supremely crafted atmosphere. There is little in the way of true horror or jump scares but rather an atmosphere of foreboding menace, enhanced by well drawn locations and effective use of music. Key scenes late in the game are particularly strong as the occult elements begin to take shape. One scene through the hospital, revisiting a past location, is a lesson in tension and underlying threat, your fading light your only weapon against the advancing darkness, bodyless voices mocking you as you try to pick your way through.
Brooding atmosphere combines with a compelling story to create a satisfying investigative mystery. There are some missteps where the game tries to crowbar in action and stealth elements, and some of the concepts, such as the sanity meter, feel under developed. But when it concentrates on its core mechanics of detection and character development, Cthulhu excels.