Call of Cthulhu Review
by Dylan Blight (PS4)
1924. Private Investigator Pierce is sent to look into the tragic death of the Hawkins family. Plunge into a world of creeping madness and cosmic horror. Cryptic clues, shadowy figures, and pure terror bar your way as you fight to retain your sanity and solve an otherworldly mystery.
The works of H.P Lovecraft have seen something of a resurgence of late and not just inspiring games like Bloodborne, but more direct adaptations as well. Call of Cthulhu is a video game adaptation of the board game more than the book of the same name directly, but the Cthulhu mythos created by Lovecraft is everywhere.
Edward Pierce, a private investigator, awakens a hungover mess having just experienced a vivid and terrifying dream involving the occult and monsters deep in some caves. Springing to life at his desk to a client banging at his office door, Edward jumps to the welcome surprise of a client, a happy sight given work has dried up for the war veteran who struggles to deal with what he’s seen in battle. But the case he’s presented with, that of the Hawkins and their Mansion going up in flames mysteriously, along with the fact Sarah Hawkins has painted very vivid, creepy paintings that ring out to Edward is enough to send him on a boat to Darkwater Island to investigate the case.
Your arrival in Darkwater and the beginnings of the investigation in the Hawkins are some of the best parts of Call of Cthulhu. You’re given a small open-town to explore, talk to inhabitants and take in the 1920’s post-war era and it feels like the conversation choices you're making -- talking to the shipping master, police and local gang leader -- are all going to make a difference down the line in what happens to not only Edward, but also the island itself. This may be because as you begin the game the RPG system that is introduced wants to wear the board-game that helped inspire it very closely, but as the story progresses it feels more and more useless and empty. You receive points to assign to several different skills -- eloquence, strength, spot hidden, investigation, psychology -- which when beginning the game makes you feel like you’re shaping Edward and have a hand in shaping the game's potential outcome. But by the games end, I felt like none of the points I assigned to anything really mattered and I could have ignored the system completely, rendering the RPG aspects dismissable. Call of Cthulhu does feature four different endings, but it’s more about ticking certain boxes to achieve them and not the freedom of the RPG system the game is trying to emulate from the board game.
Call of Cthulhu is at its best when it makes you feel like a true detective; talking to potential suspects; discovering clues and, of course, using some sort of detective vision to reconstruct scenes while trying to work out what happened. All of this makes the game’s first couple hours and more open structure much more enjoyable, but also feeling like a different game to the later sections.
As you get deeper into the weird and occult happenings on Darkwater Island (and it does get weird) you’ll be funneled into more of a typical first-person horror game reminiscent of Outlast or Amnesia. There is one path for you to head and along the way you’ll experience the weird oddities and psychological trauma the game has set-up for Edward. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have a great stealth system for some of these particular segments that require it, it’s clunky and the ability to lean around corners and hide in a different cupboard was never necessary and felt like additions not fully fleshed out. In fact, one ‘boss fight’ that has you sneaking around a room and trying to find the right item to deal with it was so tedious and frustrating that by the time I finally beat it I wondered how many players might just quit playing the game then and there.
The weirdest system chucked in last minute is when a gun is placed in Edward's hands for a short section. You don’t even aim like a normal FPS, you just press a button and the game either hits or doesn’t. I would have said it had something to do with your strength stat, but I never put any points into strength in my playthrough and only missed once.
For the most part, the writing and performances in Call of Cthulhu are good, only being let down by some bad lip-syncing and animation at times. There is some uncanny valley happening when having conversations with characters, but from a distance, the character models definitely look better. The world itself, the location of Darkwater Island, is designed really well from the creepy deserted mansion of the Hawkings to underground tunnels where evil lurks around every corner. Detailed environments help bring Darkwater to life and make it feel like a real place; the creepy small island with a secret society beneath.
At times I had to sit through load times upwards of one minute which was ridiculous. It was only when entering a new chapter luckily and any reloading of a checkpoint wasn’t a problem, but still, I was making cups of tea between chapters.
With all that said, however, I enjoyed my time with Call of Cthulhu. It has issues and it definitely could have used much more development time, but it’s still the highest quality straight-up Cthulhu game you can play in a world where searching Cthulhu on Steam will bring up hundreds, if not thousands of games claiming to be inspired or based upon the works of H.P Lovecraft. Call of Cthulhu most importantly lives up to its name and for fans of the Lovecraft creation or the board game, they will undoubtedly enjoy Call of Cthulhu. There are references galore I’m sure went straight over my head and I’d guess that's going to fun for super-fans.
Call of Cthulhu doesn’t want to talk about any of H.P Lovecraft's racist or misogynistic history that is very much a huge part of his works. Call of Cthulhu is a horror/monster movie. But we have lots of similar properties these days that have taken elements of Lovecraft and tackled it in new and interesting ways in both games and even movie and TV, just look at True Detective which is heavily inspired by Lovecraft. I don’t think everything inspired by H.P Lovecraft's works needs to be aware of his past and make sure to say something about it, but when your game is called ‘Call of Cthulhu’ there is no escaping the figure of H.P Lovecraft and all that comes with him and if you’re not willing to address the figure behind the creation who’s name has become more famous than his creations at this point, you’re not bringing anything new or interesting to the conversation.
Telling Lovecraft's stories without bringing anything new or interesting to the conversation begs the question about how relevant the works of H.P Lovecraft are right now outside of inspiring other creations.
Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game had me engrossed start to finish, even if it’s ending was predictable. Unfortunately it is held back by not having a unique story direction or a commitment to more consistent and fulfilling gameplay mechanics. It’s undercooked but an easily digestible Cthulhu adventure for fans of the genre. A fun Saturday afternoon in a psychological horror show.
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Windows, Xbox One
(A review code for Call of Cthulhu was provided)