[writer’s note: With the earlier releases of the tabletop game Call of Cthulhu, the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and the original short story from which they all take their name, here I’ll be using the term Call of Cthulhu in reference to the 2018 video game I’m reviewing, except where noted. Thanks! -j.L.]
With their latest release – Call of Cthulhu on ps4, XBox One and PC – developer Cyanide Studios has willingly taken on two Herculean tasks: Faithfully adapting the works of author H.P. Lovecraft and making a consistently exciting and engaging video game out of 100-year-old literature that progressed at a drastically different pace than today’s gaming industry. The stakes are high here for a number of reasons that are vital to the game’s successes, so sit tight and give me a paragraph on each of these two hurdles.
First, faithfully adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s unique writing is no easy task. If you haven’t read any of his works…wait a second, what’s wrong with you?! Seriously, the man’s influence on modern sci-fi and horror is immeasurable. The X-Files, Stranger Things, Ghostbusters, Supernatural and Gravity Falls wouldn’t exist without him, just to name a few. You’re embarrassing geeks everywhere. Go read and think about what you’ve done. Okay, I’m sorry; come back. If you haven’t read any of Lovecraft’s works, he was a major figure in the subgenre of “weird fiction,” which contains elements of sci-fi and horror – weird fiction even anticipated hard-boiled fiction and noir. Often in his writing, Lovecraft eschewed an abundance of violent action in favor of sending less combative protagonists on a trail of clues leading to the occult, evil cosmic deities (he created Cthulhu, after all) and other unspeakable horrors. It’s haunting, eerie, really terrific stuff – but it comes with such a distinct flavor that any adaptation of his work in any medium has to replicate it with great care. Otherwise it comes across as merely slapping a famous name onto something unrelated, like when Dole started putting Stormtrooper stickers on bananas.
Second, a lot of literary classics of sci-fi and horror – Dracula, War of the Worlds, etc – are thrilling works but they proceed at a far different speed than modern video games. With fast-action franchises like WipEout and Call of Duty on the market, slow burns like Last of the Mohicans – in which it takes six pages for an American Indian to walk around a tree – would really struggle to find a place in the gaming industry. There have been some successes – Far Cry 2 is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, while Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is an adaptation of a 16th-century Chinese classical novel – but usually, adapting legendary books to video games is a tall order. Lovecraft’s writing is no exception. As I mentioned earlier, many of his protagonists/narrators are neither cops nor robbers, neither tough guys nor veterans. Most are slender, frail academics who piece together mysteries by following paper trails and interviewing people connected to the story. Many of them, silly as it may sound to some, end up fainting at the sight of the ancient evils they pursue, leaving the reader with the unease that the creatures or cultists in his stories are out there, roaming around unchecked. Great reading, but rarely “action-packed” and instead more likely to play like a “walking simulator” – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is very Lovecraftian. At the same time, if Cyanide spiced it up too much, we’d end up with something like Dante’s Inferno, in which the timid protagonist bearing melancholy witness through the nine levels of Hell is replaced with, basically, Kratos.
Fortunately, Call of Cthulhu is a victory for Cyanide almost across the board, walking the line of respecting the source material and staying exciting for a 21st-century audience. It feels like Lovecraft in every aspect, bringing his worlds of sickly creatures and unholy cults and increasingly unstable investigators to life. While based on the tabletop game of the same name, this title also wears its literary roots with pride. Fans will recognize shades of Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow over Innsmouth and also his classic stories “Pickman’s Model,” “The Call of Cthulhu” and even hints of “The Strange High House in the Mist” and “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Anyone completely unfamiliar with these works or the Cthulhu Mythos in general may confuse the source material presented in the game with some random or newly-created universe, but to be honest, that’s their loss.
Okay. Call of Cthulhu is a first-person horror and adventure title with RPG elements (more on that later), plenty of decision-making and a bit of stealth. Set in 1924, players take on the role of Private Investigator and WWI vet Edward Pierce, who is hired to look into the mysterious death of a painter named Sarah Hawkins. Sarah, a painter with a husband and son, lived on the (fictional) New England coastal whaling island of Darkwater. At first glance, a house fire appears to have claimed the lives of all three of the Hawkinses, but of course things aren’t so simple. A gang of bootleggers coerces the island with booze and causes trouble for the whalers, a cult worshiping an ancient and malevolent deity has infiltrated Darkwater, the whaling captain knows far more about them than he lets on, the head of the hospital conducts illegal experiments, the locals don’t care much for Pierce and I don’t think I need to explain to you the conditions of a Prohibition-era mental institution, which features prominently as well. Through more than a dozen chapters, Pierce investigates the town and its inhabitants, slowly losing his sanity and uncovering a terrible and eldritch mystery lurking beneath the island’s surface that involves immortality, mutation and doomsday – and at the center of it all, Lovecraft’s iconic monster deity Cthulhu.
Although the game is largely non-combat, one shouldn’t mistake it for a “walking simulator” – a term I’m not crazy about but I can understand. From the outset, players are given a stat sheet and a handful of skill points to assign to various categories. Categories include eloquence, which opens new dialogue options to persuade NPC’s in conversation; strength, which raises the frequency and success of skill checks related to coercion and violence; investigation, which increases the odds of successful lockpicking; and so on. With the exception of two skills – occultism and medicine, which are leveled up by finding certain objects and books throughout the game – players earn more skill points as they complete events throughout the game. It sounds familiar, I know, but Cyanide has included a great twist on this formula by their inclusion of a sanity meter. The meter itself isn’t a brand new concept – see the GameCube’s Eternal Darkness for a great execution of it – but Call of Cthulhu incorporates it in a terrific way. As Pierce conducts his investigation, which should be done thoroughly and carefully by players to unlock skill points and trophies and to understand the story better, some of the items that can be picked up or read lower his sanity. Now, there are unavoidable major events in the game that lower Pierce’s sanity as well (a major encounter with a monster, etc.), but in true Lovecraftian fashion, players will have to decide how much forbidden knowledge of the occult they can bring themselves to look at – or look away from – in order to maintain Pierce’s stability or drive him into psychosis. It’s the apple in the Garden of Eden – partake and lose a piece of yourself or avoid and never know.
Call of Cthulhu features a dialogue wheel that adapts to both the player’s current stats and things they’ve found in their investigation. The more clues you find, the more you can discuss with (and interrogate) Darkwater’s bevy of witnesses and weirdos. And I can’t bring myself to spoil it for you, but when the player goes the route of insanity, a fantastic new mechanic is added to conversations in the second half of the game, resulting in some brilliant and bizarre dialogue. Whichever way you decide to play, you can progress your investigation through threats (tied to the strength stat), subtle persuasion and flattery (eloquence), an analytical angle (the psychology stat) and more. Pierce also regularly enters “reconstruction scenes,” in which interacting with an object will trigger a short reenactment of a scene or a point of interest, both of which lead to other interactive objects. It helps move the exposition of the narrative along to see, for example, a burnt-out room but then look at its clocks, the lamp that started the fire and so on in order to see still models of the characters in question and what led them to their fates.
So what about stealth and combat? There are multiple chapters in the game in which Pierce is on the run from various people who want to get him for various reasons. The stealth is light, especially compared to Cyanide’s Styx series or the Thief games, but it’s not bad. Mostly it consists of hiding behind objects, waiting for a prowling bad guy to pass, then walking to the next spot. Like the reconstruction scenes, it changes up the flow and pace of the investigation and also helps the game steer away from “walking simulator” territory. Same with the combat. I can’t say much about it because of the really spoiler-y nature of why (and against whom) the majority of the fighting takes place, but there is a good section of gun combat that’s very simple (no iron sights or headshots or ducking for cover) and fun, especially because of those spoiler-y elements.
I’m glad that Call of Cthulhu really has just one problem in my opinion, but unfortunately it’s a noticeable one. The problem is with the character models and animation in-game. The character models are visibly last-gen, and when they speak to you, their animations are rigid and wooden and – sadly – on a very short loop. It doesn’t help matters that when the characters speak, their mouth movements are a little ahead of the dialogue. The game sounds great in general – an ambient score throbs and pulses ominously, caves drip, whispers haunt your ears – but the spoken lines are out of sync with the animation by just enough to notice. And I’d love to chalk these animation issues up to the game’s charm, since some of its elements pleasantly took me back to last-gen greats like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 and 3, but there are some things better left in yesteryear – the stiff movement of the character models is one of them.
Finally, the game absolutely demands one or two replays if not more. Clocking in at about 10-12 hours for one run, Call of Cthulhu presents the player with countless choices that affect which ending s/he receives and which scenes and interactions arise. There are also skill checks throughout the game that can only be passed if you’ve poured your character points into the right stats, and you can’t see them all in one game. These skill checks result in more hidden clues and collectibles, varying relationships with NPC’s and so on.
Cyanide Studios has an eclectic catalog, and I’m sorry to say that some of their titles have struggled to receive better than mixed reviews. However, they’ve released several real gems and Call of Cthulhu is absolutely one of them. Respecting its source material while keeping the pace up to gaming standards is a masochistic endeavor, as is balancing modern gameplay elements with the works on which it’s based, but Cyanide pulled it off at every turn, bringing great American literature to life in a game. The entire experience is a love letter to one of the best American writers of the last two centuries and the weird, frightening worlds he created. Players unfamiliar with Lovecraft are missing out on a lot of the Easter eggs, references and even some parts of the subplots, but – speaking frankly – if you haven’t read “The Call of Cthulhu” or The Shadow over Innsmouth by now, that’s on you. Virtually all his works are available to read online, so get caught up. To everyone else, this is the Lovecraft game we’ve been waiting for and we’re lucky to have it because it is spot-on, only dragged down by persistent – but not game-breaking – character animations. I’m giving Call of Cthulhu an 8.5 out of 10. Books rock, sucka!
Disclaimer: Publisher Focus Home Interactive provided AIR Entertainment with a review copy of this game.
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