Call of Cthulhu Review – Calling Decency
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release: 30th October 2018
I love Lovecraft, I love him a lot. While I adored his short stories and novels long before games like Bloodborne took his cosmic horror as their main inspirational sources, I found a whole new love through them. So Call of Cthulhu has quite a hefty goal: Delivering an official video-game to one of his greatest works and a great Pen and Paper game at the same time without a giant budget. Now let me tell you, why I completed this game in 3 days and found myself actually impressed.
1924, private detective Aiden Pierce wakes up from yet another nightmare about his past military life. However, little does he know, the next investigation he will accept out of disparity could very well be his last. When the father of the deceased Sarah Hawkins, who supposedly murdered her whole family in a fire as well as herself, tasks Pierce to clear the honour of his daughter, the journey to Blackwater island soon becomes one into his own maddening mind, an obscure cult and about a giant, all-mighty creature in the sea.
As you might expect from an adaption of a pen and paper RPG, Call of Cthulhu focuses primarily on its plot. As a result, the gameplay pretty much consists of simply walking around in the different areas of each chapter. From the abandoned Hawkins’ house to Blackwater city or mysterious caves. Most of the time, interacting and talking with the people or world are your primary sources for new information. Naturally, the game also features dialogue options, which are influenced by the number of clues or points spent on Pierce´s abilities, after all every RPG needs character abilities in some way or another.
This time, you can invest points in attributes like “psychology” or alike, which occasionally unlock new questions in specific situations very similar to Fallout 3. Honestly, I never really saw many benefits from them and wasn´t a fan of the Fallout system, to begin with, so this whole trait system feels somehow unnecessary, as well as the hundreds of clues Pierce collects by looking at things since I never quite saw any of them having an impact.
Call of Cthulhu wants the player to think he has freedom and his dialogue options influence the story in a meaningful way, instead of seeing through the fact you basically chose the ending of the game in the last option. So, in all honesty, it feels like a Telltale game in terms of freedom of choice or gameplay most of the time. Additionally, when the game actually tries its hands at more “gripping” gameplay, it fails horribly.
Apart from the quite cool scripted “escape the collapsing level” moments, especially the “boss fights”, the whole two of them, were a chore. The first consisted of guessing the right dagger from 15 available, while a monster chases you, the other was also an even more random guessing game. It was just annoying when the only way of progressing was through trial and error. On the other hand, the only big stealth level was surprisingly decent, offering a very simply system in a big interesting environment with multiple ways of progressing and was just the right execution to carry the 20-30 minutes it took to complete. Otherwise, there were some more neat ideas but none of them contributed to the game in any way, simply offering super simple, almost boring systems. There even is a “Madness” meter similar to Fahrenheit and it´s … well, it´s almost without any impact and heavily guided by the game itself, making it pretty obsolete.
So, is the story amazing enough to carry all these mediocre elements? To a certain degree. Honestly, I really like the first two-thirds of Call of Cthulhu, I really do. While it never really does anything unique with its premise and thematizes only very classic elements of Lovecraft´s cosmic horror, it does it in a really nice way. From the crazy doctor who experiments on his patients to obscure meat being eaten by the citizens or alike, it capitalizes on the proven things and that´s not particularly bad considering how few games even bother with them.
In general, the whole plot is often what one would expect from such a game, never really delivering surprising twists or new ideas but more of giving a worthy adaption of this material. The first two thirds, in particular, do a great job at presenting many angles, always bringing new areas or mechanics to the table and generally creating a great pacing between story and gameplay.
The thing it absolutely nails in my eyes and is responsible for most of my enjoyment was the always lurking terror of the beast in the sea, who shall not be named. At every corner are new hints concerning the almighty cosmic power, and with every hour those get more clear, with more and more visions, monsters and clues appearing. The slow burn of Lovecraft´s writing is simply well executed and Call of Cthulhu never ever relies on jumpscares or on showing Cthulhu, that it´s a surprisingly great adaption in terms of horror and themes.
However, the reason why I enjoyed this game so much was definitely the pacing: Even though there were multiple pretty rough sections gameplay-wise and a really, really fast told last third, Call of Cthulhu never spent much time with its bad or mediocre aspects, in favour of a really well told main story. Even though I hated the boss fights, they took around 20 minutes in total, actually, nothing took longer than that. They´re thrown in as new ways to alter the ever-same exploration and linear experience and do it well enough, that I never got too annoyed. In general, the whole thing is paced so well, that there´s only rarely any boredom, resulting in a game you can´t quite put down, despite its many flaws, which I find very fascinating.
Visually, it´s also quite a two-handed experience, with its mid-budget graphics. Naturally, many of the textures and models are mediocre at best, sometimes tending to be really mushy when the particular asset isn´t really important too. Luckily most of the time, the game looks good enough to make its rotten fish cadavers and mythical creatures work and actually handles the realistic style quite well. However, my biggest criticism lies in the animations: They´re just not good enough. Call of Cthulhu is an incredibly character- and dialogue-driven experience and the accompanying animations in conversations and such are just too clumsy and stiff to carry those sequences in many ways. Combine that with an almost underwhelming depiction of Leviathan and you get something that clearly suffers from its restrictions and may even be too ambitious.
Call of Cthulhu isn´t as good as it could´ve been, due to its many technical constraints. Still, beneath its stiff animations or mediocre gameplay, I see something worthy of its name, delivering exactly what a fan would expect, from start to finish.
[A Review Copy was provided by Koch Media]