When it comes to horror and gaming, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is perhaps the most popular source material to draw upon. The existential horror, cosmic threats, and tentacled Elder Gods have influenced games from 2005’s Dark Corners of the Earth to Bloodborne. Call of Cthulhu is very much in the style of the earlier title, sharing its first person perspective and adventuring. Whilst Dark Corners is fondly remembered despite its glaring flaws because of its ambition and originality, this modern take feels overly familiar.
The early parts of Call of Cthulhu are encouragingly atmospheric, offering an effective blend of fever dream and disorientation. Finding yourself in a mysterious cave surrounded by the viscous innards of marine creatures, you stumble towards the sound of eerie chanting and witness an occult ritual before waking up in a dingy office. Your character is Edward Pierce, a struggling private investigator with a penchant for the occult and a taste for scotch (unless you are playing him as a teetotaller for an achievement). Employed to investigate the strange death of an artist and her family, you set sail for the forbidding harbour town of Darkwater.
All of this is entirely in keeping with the Lovecraftian atmosphere; so much so, in fact, that it all feels like a retread of many other stories. Fortunately, the more unpleasant aspects of Lovecraft’s writing are not present, such as his extreme racism, the degree of which was remarkable even during his lifetime.
For the majority of the time, Call of Cthulhu is a slow paced adventure game complete with dialogue trees and object hunting. Whilst that may sound uninspiring, it’s actually where the game is most successful. Exploring the warehouses and caves of Darkwater feels like being in a Lovecraft story, although it is a shame that so little of the environment is interactive. At one point during the game Pierce has to look for clues in an esoteric book shop, complete with occult texts and mysterious objects. Unfortunately, only a few items exist beyond the background and the result is a disappointingly old fashioned feeling experience.
There are some interesting mechanics within Call of Cthulhu that go some way to elevating it, however. Pierce has the ability to replay events through his investigations, piecing together the evidence to reveal what has happened. This psychic detective aspect provides some of the most atmospheric moments, but is largely smoke and mirrors hiding some linear exposition. Whilst diverting at the time, in reality you simply walk to the next interaction point and press the action button. As with much in the game, the atmosphere goes a long way to conceal the simplicity of the mechanics.
Alongside the basic adventure template there is also the unwelcome spectre of dodgy stealth sections. It is fortunate that these are relatively infrequent and kept short, mainly serving to break up the rest of the game. As with most other aspects of the game, there is nothing fundamentally broken about these sneaking parts, but it all just feels pretty low-rent and basic.
Call of Cthulhu’s predecessor from 2005 was particularly groundbreaking in its treatment of physical damage to the player. Individual body parts could be broken and would require medical intervention that took precious time when you were being attacked. 2018’s version has none of this innovation, with physical peril being largely absent. Failing stealth sections requires a checkpoint restart, but there is no damage or health to manage and environments are walled in so you cannot fall. The result of this is that there is no sense of danger or consequence, a somewhat damning indictment for a horror game, but one that feels appropriate given the overarching themes of destiny and fate.
There are RPG elements at play here, as Pierce is rewarded with character points throughout the game. These can be applied to a range of investigative abilities, but none of these seem essential to progression. I maxed out the general investigation tab and made it through with no real trouble. Other skills mainly seemed to open up different dialogue options rather than anything more substantial. The effect here is to make the whole mechanic feel tacked on.
The expected sanity system is somewhat more successful, as a more comprehensive take than that of the sublime Eternal Darkness. The multiple game-breaking effects of the GameCube classic are replaced by a general diminishing of sanity in Call of Cthulhu, a diminishing that eventually results in hallucinations and dialogue options in R’lyehian – Lovecraft’s invented language.
Sanity effects are also involved in the various alternative endings to the game. I deliberately played through as a classic Lovecraftian protagonist, taking every opportunity to drink and embrace the madness. The resultant ending would normally be seen as a ‘bad’ one, but was entirely in keeping with the themes and mood of the game. Given the issues I had with the game as a whole, I’m not sure that I’d want to replay and discover the alternatives any time soon, although skipping the dialogue would make it a fairly quick process. I finished a pretty comprehensive insane play-through in a little over 8 hours.
Technically, Call of Cthulhu is functional at best. The voice acting is fine, with no real stand out or terrible performances, but textures and facial animations are dated and while appropriate, the colour palette is awash with greens and browns. Performance was largely smooth on my mid-range PC with only very occasional framerate drops. There were initial problems setting keyboard controls but this issue should have been patched out for the launch version. To be honest, a controller seems more suited to its design, as it has clearly been put together with console versions in mind.
Call of Cthulhu is not a particularly good game. It looks and feels dated, contains some frustratingly realised mechanics and has possibly the worst gun combat I’ve ever experienced (luckily this is only a short section). What it does do well, however, is capture the feel of a Lovecraft story. Fans of the mythos, or the tabletop RPG this game is loosely based on, will find much about the atmosphere and setting to enjoy, and the narrative builds to a climax that is more effective than many of the original stories. You do have to be prepared to get through a lot of mediocrity to get to this and many players will justifiably conclude that there are too many other better games with which to pass their time. You don’t have to be mad to play this, but you may end up disappointed.
PC version tested. Also Available on PS4 and Xbox One.