Call of Cthulhu is a deeply unsettling investigation that perfectly captures the spirit of the source material and the pen-and-paper RPG.
It’s no secret horror fans love a good Lovecraftian story. It’s also not much of a secret that video games have been trying to capitalize on that love far too many times, often unsuccessfully.
The latest game to channel the influence of the Great Old Ones is Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game. However, unlike many that came before it, Call of Cthulhu is an official adaptation of the pen-and-paper RPG by the same name, rather than a particular story.
The result is a slow, unsettling descent into madness that immediately feels like a part of the Cthulhu Mythos.
The Case of Sarah Hawkins
You are private investigator Edward Pierce, hired to look into the mysterious death of Sarah Hawkins and her family. All you have to go on is a creepy painting of a hooded figure and a strange symbol.
Your investigation takes you to Darkwater Island, the home of a small community of fishermen governed by a few “old families.” As you talk to the people there and delve deeper into their history and folklore, it becomes clear that there the death of the Hawkins family, and everything that goes on on the island, is driven by forces beyond your understanding.
The game’s story is Call of Cthulhu through and through. It takes a very basic Lovecraftian tale and elevates it with original and terrifying ideas.
The game strikes a right balance between catering to fans like me and welcoming newcomers. By playing on those familiar elements fans come to expect from a Lovecraftian setting, the plot appeals to both those well-versed in the Mythos and novices alike. Fans will enjoy all the subtle (and not so subtle) references to the fictional works they love, and newcomers will get an intense introduction into one of horror’s most iconic setting.
Edward Pierce – Investigator
At its heart, Call of Cthulhu is an investigation. There are a few action and stealth sequences, but they feel like more of an afterthought by the developers and are generally laughably easy. For the most part, you explore your surroundings, talk to people and search for clues.
How you go about doing so is determined by your determination, keen senses, and skills.
Skills are where the game’s RPG elements come into play. Since it’s based on an actual RPG, character development plays a significant role in how you play the game; or at least on what you can do. Edward has several “standard” skills at his disposal, like Investigation, Strength, and Psychology, and he can use them when exploring the environment or during conversations. The Investigation skill, for example, lets you analyze clues better and confront people about what you discover, but it is also responsible for your lockpicking success rate.
Naturally, you can invest skill points into those skills and improve your chances of a “successful roll” during gameplay or conversations. However, some skills, like Medicine and Occult can only be upgraded by finding and reading tomes in each location. It’s a game mechanic I really like, as it encourages you to explore and presents a nice risk-versus-reward when it comes to reading occult books.
Why risk? Because reading occult books or witnessing supernatural occurrences can directly affect Edward’s sanity.
The Road to Madness
Since this is a game based deep in the Cthulhu Mythos, you won’t always like what your investigation brings up. In fact, that’s one of the best things about Call of Cthulhu. You still want to keep going and reveal the mysteries of Darkwater Island and the Hawkins family, but at the same time, you fear what you might uncover. The more you find out, the more disturbing the game become, and the more you risk losing your sanity.
Edward’s sanity ties directly into the outcome of your story. I really don’t want to go into too much detail, and frankly, it’s a little bit difficult to determine the degree in which it dictates your ultimate fate (yes, the game has multiple endings). However, I will say that letting your sanity levels drop a bit can open new paths for you, and expose you to even more knowledge and story bits.
It’s not only your sanity that affects how the story progresses. Call of Cthulhu is relatively linear most of the time, but your choices, detective skills and curiosity above all, can open new route with different outcomes. Decisions can be as small as reading a book or drinking a glass of whiskey, or as big as sparing someone’s life. You can even choose to remain in the dark, so to speak, and try to protect your sanity. Not seeing everything the game has to offer is a valid choice when the truth can lead to a padded cell.
So while the story remains pretty much the same, how deep you’re willing to dig to find out more information and see everything there is to see is what changes the overall experience. The more information you have and the more you know, the more you lose yourself – a staple of any good Lovecraftian game.
The Lurking Fear
Another staple of any work based on the Cthulhu Mythos is horror, and Call of Cthulhu nails that part as well. It’s a slow-burning kind of horror, fueled by uncertainty and a constant sense of dread. There are a few surprisingly effective jump scares, but most of the terror comes from slowly revealing the terrible truths about Darkwater island and its inhabitants.
Sadly, the game goes into overdrive towards the end, and as a result, the entire third act feels very rushed. Don’t get me wrong, I really like what Call of Cthulhu delivers, but I think it could have been more creative with its puzzles and gameplay in the later stages. Instead, the game races towards an unsatisfying ending, eager to just “get it over with.”
I was also pretty annoyed by the fact that you can’t take a look at your notebook in the final moments of the game and go over everything you discovered one last time. It’s where you keep track of all the events, people, places, and secrets you encountered, and it would have nice to be able to look back and see how you got there.
The Color Out of Space
Unfortunately, Call of Cthulhu doesn’t look its best. Graphics are generally outdated, especially during cutscenes, and there are a few jarring visual transitions that could have used a little more polish.
That said, I do like the art direction. Character models are all a bit grotesque, appropriately enough, with many of them having a sort of “Innsmouth look.” The color green is also very dominant in the game’s palette, and not just to make us think of the sea and what lurks beneath the waves. It’s also a way of connecting the game’s real world with the disturbing paintings by Sarah Hawkins.
These paintings are a vital part of the game’s story and serve as a narrative tool that bridges the normal world and that of the Mythos. However, they are also my favorite visual element in the game. The art will stick with way beyond the boundaries of the story.
Sarah Hawkin’s paintings are just one of the highlights of Call of Cthulhu. It’s been a while since I’ve played a horror game that captures everything fans love about Lovecraft’s fictional world, and this one is probably the first to do it so well since Dark Corners of the Earth.
The focus on story and investigation pays off and makes Call of Cthulhu a memorable experience you’d want to play through multiple times. Long-time fans of the Mythos and those who appreciate slow-paced psychological horror wouldn’t want to miss this call.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.