An ever-looming sense of dread, knowledge beyond human comprehension, indescribable monstrosities carved in bas-relief, antediluvian cities with Non-Euclidean angles and characters with a slipping grip on their sanity- There might not be easier ways to define Lovecraftian horror. The contributions of Lovecraft towards literature and movies are innumerable both in direct and indirect form. From August Derleth to Stephen King to John Carpenter to Ridley Scott, the signature elements of Lovecraftian fiction, or Cthulhu mythos to be precise, is evident as stars on a warm, clear night. But that is not the case when it comes to video games. Aside from a handful of titles like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Darkest Dungeon and Bloodborne, there aren’t many “good” games with a penchant for Lovecraftian horror. This is the blind spot Cyanide Studio aims to fill with their latest game Call of Cthulhu, the official adaptation of Chaosium’s classic PnP RPG of the same name. That’s a big shoe Call of Cthulhu has to fill. So without further rambling, let’s head on and see if Cyanide’s big undertaking is worth buying or not.
Call of Cthulhu is a psychological horror-adventure game developed by Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive. The game was released for PS4, Xbox One and PC on 30 October 2018. The review is based on the PC version which is available to purchase via Steam for ₹ 1,499 or $ 40.49.
CALL OF CTHULHU
Story & Narrative
In true Chaosium fashion, you are put into the shoes of one Edward Pierce, a former world war veteran turned private dick suffering from PTSD and strange hallucinogenic dreams. Drenching himself in booze and sleeping pills, Pierce seems to be the last one to call when someone’s kitty goes missing or if you want to find out whom your ball and chain is fooling around with. But higher-ups aren’t having this and he reluctantly agrees to take on a new case that will turn his world upside down, literally and figuratively. The gist of the story is that Pierce is sent into Darkwater Island, a dark and moody place ripped straight out of the mind of Lovecraft. Sarah Hawkins, a renowned painter who lives in Blackwater, her husband and her son has been supposedly killed in a fire. But nothing is ordinary in this world. Soon enough, Pierce is on a boat to the murky port of Blackwater as per the request of Sarah’s father who seems to think that there is something shady behind the death of his daughter. It goes without saying that things get pretty weird and strange once Pierce starts unravelling the mystery behind Sarah’s death and that of Blackwater itself.
It’s really hard to talk about the story of Call of Cthulhu without going to the spoiler territory. Without a doubt, the story is the biggest selling point of the game. Just as you’d expect from a Lovecraftian tale, the story here is dark, macabre, strange (often confusing), engaging and full of twists and turns. Just as one would expect, the story starts simple enough but soon begins to tackle questions like mankind’s place on the earth, survival, the price of power and many more. Think Dagon meets Shadow Over Innsmouth meets the Pickman Model. The linearity of the storytelling helps Call of Cthulhu keep up its momentum and when the story finally comes to a full circle, the player is left satisfied and bewildered at the depiction of cosmic horror.
The solid story is backed up by a set of characters faithful to the source material. Aside from the trainwreck that is Pierce, players will get to meet a bizarre cast of characters with their own personalities and motivations. It’s a shame that players don’t really get to bond that well with the Pierce and the supporting cast or get to know their final outcome. But in the world of Lovecraft, what does a mere mortal life matter? After all, we’re all just pawns in someone else’s game. This right there is another benefit Cyanide has gained due to the nature of the source material. By adapting the RPG, rather than the literary works, allowing the developers a lot of wriggle room in terms of storytelling. If it was just another game, the flaws in the story could have easily been used against it, but in the world of Lovecraft, humans are nothing but small planktons in a sea of killer whales.
One thing that does bug me about the story is the illusion of choice. Call of Cthulhu surely has a lot of talking going on and presents the player with a rather sufficient array of dialogue choices to shape your playthrough with. But other than hearing a different line of dialogue, a lot of these choices just result in the player being railroaded down the same path. I don’t expect every choice I make to branch off into a different path in the story, yet it’d have been nice if a lot of them held a stronger impact or emulate minor changes in the narrative. At the same time, the game uses these choices to let the player figure out loose-ends in the story by themselves and reveal little snippets of lore or backstory that would be inaccessible otherwise. The game does feature multiple endings and decisive points in the story which will affect the endings. So multiple playthroughs are required to access all major endings and their permutations. And yes, they are worth it.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Nailing down Call of Cthulhu to one specific genre is super hard. Like Dark Corners of the Earth before it, Cyanide’s latest outing takes cues from a variety of genres. Call of Cthulhu neatly divides its linear first-person gameplay among exploration, investigation, stealth and scripted set-pieces. But where its predecessor failed, Call of Cthulhu succeeds and that is providing a coat of polish across the different gameplay mechanics. On top of that, the game also features light RPG mechanics such as an upgrade system with six main skills; Investigation (recreating crime scenes), Eloquence (the ability to persuade people), Strength (using strength checks), Psychology (used in conversation), Spot Hidden (self explanatory), Occult and Medicine. Atop of that, there is also a sanity meter which deteriorates as Pierce witnesses unsettling sights and imagery, which in-turn gives you access to different dialgoue options and all that jazz.
The game itself is very linear with each gameplay element having their own section. For example, the first few hours of the game just has you talking to people, exploring and the next area includes conducting an investigation of points of interests and puzzle solving. Then the game switches to scripted set-piece, paving its way to a stealth section. Throughout Call of Cthulhu, these different elements appear one after the other, which provides a nice change of pace from doing the same thing for too long, something which is common in many of the survival horror games these days. You’re not sneaking around or running away from foes the entire game. Instead, the game transitions from one element to another in seamless ways. The constant cycling of game mechanics also means that the game doesn’t overstay its welcome and cleverly hides the drawbacks of an individual mechanic by implementing them in short bursts. However, People who go in expecting an Amnesia or Outlast will be disappointed.
But is the game scary? Almost everyone familiar with Lovecraftian horror knows that the primary emphasis is on fear of the unknown, something which has been carried on to the PnP RPG and in Cyanide’s adaptation. You don’t go in expecting Cthulu or Yog-Sothoth to jump in your face. The horror is mostly atmospheric and creeping. Maybe unsettling is the better word. However, there are a handful of scripted jump scares in the game, one of which legitimately made me jump up from my comfy chair.
But everything is not perfect. Apart from the opening segment which provides you with a variety of ways to complete the primary objective, Call of Cthulhu becomes extremely dependant on its linearity midway through. It’s hard to not feel that many of the upgradable skills feel underused and underdeveloped. The stealth sections also tend to become to stand out like a sore thumb due to the easily-exploitable AI and its sheer simplicity. But like I mentioned before, the switching up of gameplay ensures that a lot of these flaws remain cleverly hidden. As for the length of the game, the first playthrough lasted me about 12 hours, with the next three being somewhere between 4-5 hours, due in no small part to the linear structure of the game.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
Call of Cthulhu, while sporting an excellent art design that oozes out atmosphere, definitely falls short in terms of sheer graphical prowess. The textures aren’t high-res, the facial animations look like they’re ripped straight out of Vampyr, which too, was published by Focus Home Interactive. The lip syncing fails to do justice to the commendable work some of the voice actors put in. Several of the NPC models are copy-pasted throughout the game and it feels weird to see five NPCs who look like identical twins walking around the same place. But if you’re someone who values gameplay over pretty visuals, you’ll have a good time.
The game was running on the following specs at 1080p and ran at 80-200 fps maxed out, with an average fps of 70. However, there are some sections of some maps where the fps would tank to the 40s when looking at a specific point.
- Intel i5 7500 3.40Ghz
- GTX 1070 8 GB
- 8×2 GB 2400Mhz DDR4 Ram
- Windows 10 Pro 64 Bit
Sound design is overall solid across the board. The main character especially is well voice acted and so are rest of the supporting cast. There are a few NPC voice actors whose lines feel phoned in and who definitely doesn’t sound like a 1920’s American fisherman. Music and sound effects are generally well done. The music is eerie, creepy and fits in perfectly with the theme of the game.
Call of Cthulhu is easily the most faithful video game adaptation of both Lovecraft and Chaosium’s work, as well as Cyanide’s most polished title in recent times (if you can forgive the atrocious facial animations). An engaging story, macabre atmosphere and gameplay that doesn’t overstay make Call of Cthulhu a viable candidate for this Halloween season. Just don’t go in expecting a horror experience like Outlast or Amnesia or even Penumbra and you’ll have a good time.