Call of the Sea has been turning heads for a while now, its preview footage promising beautiful, almost cel-shaded exploration and an emotional and mature story that takes influence from HP Lovecraft in an original way. Rather than focusing on the usual aspects of a descent into madness and evil tentacled deities working behind the scenes, Call of the Sea is billed as a story about an awakening from delirium and the acceptance of one’s true nature.
Set in the isolated Pacific islands of the 1930s, Call of the Sea makes good use of this novel environment to create a sense of loneliness that seems at odds with the lush and fertile surroundings. Your character, Norah, travels to the island in search of her missing husband, Harry, who is looking for the cure to her mysterious illness. As you progress through the island you move from tropical paradise to stormy beaches and weird structures too large to be made by human hand. Whilst this would normally set the metaphorical scene for a character’s increasing madness, here Norah instead begins to feel more at ease and physically recuperated as she delves further into the island’s mystery.
Aesthetically, Call of the Sea is gorgeous. Everything is bright and bold with an organic style that looks like a cross between hand-painted and cel-shaded. In a year where new consoles and powerful graphics cards can push fidelity further than ever, it is great to see a game that makes full use of visual design rather than throwing extra textures at the screen to create its effect.
The voiceovers are excellent as well, with both Cissy Jones and Yuri Lowenthal bringing a real feeling of emotion to their performances as Norah and Harry respectively. Their recurring use of ‘dear old pal’ as a term of endearment gives an intimacy to their letters and voiceovers that really connects you to their story. The original music is a genuine highlight too and composer Eduardo de la Iglesia has done a fantastic job at matching the tunes to the setting and feel of the game.
Call of the Sea is a hybrid of walking simulator and environmental puzzles inspired by the likes of Myst and The Witness. Some of these involve finding objects to open up doors while others are far more elaborate and involve collecting clues from several locations to work out what to do. There were several occasions where I felt stuck enough to stop playing, but then went back after mulling them over and having an epiphany. The sense of satisfaction from solving a difficult puzzle is always great, and it really added to my enjoyment that I couldn’t lean on a walkthrough as a crutch to get through. I would definitely recommend working through this with as few spoilers as possible, although it has to be said that it would be a shame to leave the story unfinished if you find yourself irrevocably stuck.
My only real niggle with the puzzles was that, with some of the more complex examples, it wasn’t made clear that I hadn’t yet discovered all the clues. A simple voiceover of ‘I have everything I need’, or ‘I need to find out more’ would have helped alleviate the frustration in at least one of my examples.
While it breaks out of the homogenisation of so many other Lovecraft adaptations, I was still a little apprehensive going into this game. Its use of a Polynesian setting could have resulted in a simplistic white saviour or noble savage narrative. Developers Out of the Blue made sure to bring in a consultant from the la Ora Tahiti International School, a foundation whose goal is to teach and promote Polynesian culture. As a result, the setting feels sensitively treated and the mystery aspects are not simply colonial fantasies.
Lovecraft’s own bigoted representation of racial difference is well known by now and I shudder to think how this story would have worked in his hands. The fact that Call of the Sea features a female lead character feels like a substantial step forward and the game makes it clear that the primitive civilisation hidden on the island predates the human residents. Rather than a damsel in distress, Norah is an active protagonist who shows remarkable bravery and self-control throughout her story. The final decision of the game is unusual in that it cannot be simply reduced to a good or bad choice, and even after playing through both endings I couldn’t tell you which I preferred or felt more true to the character.
I finished my playthrough after a little more than eight hours and was initially a little surprised at how soon the ending came. Looking back, the narrative is so well paced that it doesn’t need to be stretched out and my surprise was more because of how much I was enjoying the game.