With Cyanide Studios’ upcoming RPG Call of Cthulhu, the iconic short story of the same name is once again being transformed into an interactive and immersive world. We entered the world of this influential H.P. Lovecraft piece once before, with the 2006 video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, but that game tended to lean too heavily into first-person shooter gameplay and survival action to accurately depict the slow, sad and decrepit nature of the source material. Cyanide Studios seems to have a better idea of the style of video game that would fit this piece of fiction, but while the ideas and execution of this atmospheric detective adventure are solid, there are a lot of rough edges and not much time to polish them out before release.
In Call of Cthulhu, you play as Edward Pierce, an alcoholic freelance investigator struggling to find work shortly after the end of World War 1. After having bizarre dreams of a grotesque cavern and a cult of faceless men, you’re visited by a reluctant client who has a job for you. So you’re sent off to Darkwater Island to investigate the death of a wealthy businessman, and the haunting painting she produced just before perishing.
The opening moments take place in a pretty regular, disheveled detective office, but once the story shipped me off to Boston and brought me to Darkwater island, I was blown away. The island is massive, gloomy, and just dreadful in the most hauntingly beautiful way. Cyanide Studios have done masterful work with the color and lighting design of this island, and perfectly rendered a depressing island town where sailors have nothing to do but drink and die. Further environments are equally picturesque, and even though the path to progression in these areas was mostly linear, I had a wonderful time going through them and exploring the rare unbeaten path I was presented with.
Investigation and exploration are key in this game. The bulk of your work in this game is spent not on shooting creatures or hiding in closets, but in simple conversation. Talking to the townsfolk and piecing together clues is how you’ll progress the story and get to the heart of the island’s mystery, and this is where your skill tree comes into play. Rather than putting points into health or defence, your robust RPG-style skill tree is made up of different areas of investigational expertise. You can put points into psychology so you can talk your way out of a sticky situation, or you can invest in Spot Hidden to uncover clues and items that would be otherwise concealed.
The detective skills create an inventive and really interesting system. It’s a lot to take in at first glance, but once you figure it out, it’s a charming way to customise your play style and do your detective work with a method that best suits you. Regardless of your choices, you’ll rarely find yourself cornered in investigations or failing major story requirements. You’ll find clues to the investigation no matter your skillset, and while that was helpful in these beginning chapters, I hope the skill tree introduces significant changes to the way the story progresses later in the game.
As engaging as the investigative experience is, it’s going to be majorly hindered by the lacking technical presentation of the game. Color design and lighting in the world is beautiful, yes, but everything else needs more polish, with the caveat that we were playing a build for Gamescom and the game due out at the end of this month. Character models have exaggerated angles and wrinkles that aren’t very well designed, and many of their animations are quite sloppy for a game so close to release. Most of the voice acting in the game is hammy and goofy in a way that I appreciated at first, but it’s hard to become embroiled in the dark psychological horrors of the story when I spend my entire time laughing at how a police officer barked at me for identification like an offended space alien reading from a Martian-to-English dictionary.
Call of Cthulhu is an incredibly promising game, but the level of polish they can put into fixing their technical snafus before it releases will dictate whether or not the game is successful. I truly loved the detective skill system, and the emphasis on piecing together conversations and investigating crime-scenes evoked some of the same love I have for investigation games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. If the full release can iron out some issues and make the skills system feel a little more important to the progression, Cyanide Studios might just have a Halloween hit on their hands.