Before you ask, no, I’m not reviewing H.P. Lovecraft’s classic short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” I’m not even talking about the popular Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG.
No, today I’m going to review the video game Call of Cthulhu that is based on those two pieces of work. It was made by developers Cyanide, and I recently played it on my Xbox. (I finished it ages ago, but since work has been freakin’ piling on me, I haven’t had a chance to write about it until now.)
Call of Cthulhu takes light RPG elements and tries blending them with a survival horror experience. Does it succeed? Kind of.
Well, no, not really.
But that did not stop me from enjoying the game immensely.
However, if you’re looking for meaningful scares, you might want to look elsewhere.
I was first introduced to the game thanks to my handy dandy Xbox Live Gold membership. Every month, a couple of games are given to members for free, and Call of Cthulhu was one of them. I eagerly downloaded it and approached my D&D buddies with the news. “Guess what I’m going to be playing,” I half-boasted.
After proclaiming that I was, in fact, going to be diving into Call of Cthulhu, one of them, Chris, chortled. “Good luck,” he said. With those two words and a tone full of mirth, he dashed my hopes that I’d be getting a serious Cthulhu experience.
Side note: I’m getting a bit nervous typing “Cthulhu” so often. Maybe I should stop.
Chris’ manner of wishing me luck led me to believe that I’d be playing a bad video game, so when I first started it up, that’s how I approached it. I decided to be patient with any game foibles I encountered, laugh good-humoredly any time something corny or lame happened, and I also decided wholeheartedly to join Cthulhu cultists if the game gave me the opportunity.
Side note: I normally take the white hat route in any and every video game I play. I don’t like being the bad guy. But, you know, it’s fun to let loose every once in a while. Especially if you’re looking for giggles.
The game is played from the first-person perspective, which is ideal for a horror game in my opinion. Makes you feel like your face is right up in the danger. The basic gameplay mechanics consist of walking around, picking up items, reading a few stray documents, and holding up a light source to guide you through the very green darkness.
You can also talk to non-playable characters when so prompted, but I’ll go more in-depth on that in a bit.
Your character is the delightfully stereotypical drunken detective, Edward Pierce. He possesses skills for Investigation and Occultism and a few others, and you can upgrade these skills with points. You earn points by progressing through the game.
The story starts with Pierce being contacted to investigate the mysterious death of a family in a place called Darkwater. (Like, if that name doesn’t set off alarm bells for H.P. Lovecraft fans, I don’t know what will. It just sounds like it’s about to be inhabited by Cthulhu worshipers.) As Pierce uncovers a vast conspiracy on the island, he must traverse through an abandoned mansion, an insane asylum, and dark caves, all places you’d expect to see in a game like this.
The graphics are serviceable, and I have to give a tip of my hat to whoever decided to make the lighting eternally green. No matter where you go on Darkwater Island, there’s greenish lighting everywhere. Sets up the tone of the game quite nicely.
However, facial animations look a bit stiff, which matches the voice acting in certain places at least. Conversations can become downright hilarious when a character’s facial expressions do not match what you’d expect to see given the circumstances. Plus, since conversations are such an important aspect of the game, you can expect to be off-put by these animations frequently.
Conversations give players a chance to pick from a few dialogue options. Though none of them match the side-splitting non sequiturs from Life is Strange, if you get Pierce to go insane, new choices are available to you that are incredibly funny.
Another important aspect of the game is puzzle solving, and I’m happy to say that Call of Cthulhu does have some pretty nifty puzzles for players to work through. I especially enjoyed the one in which you have to open a safe by picking up various clues from a man’s bookstore.
However, Pierce’s “detective” skills verge on magical. The game sets you into a sort of flashback when Pierce enters detecting mode. Clues become highlighted on the ground, and as you pick them up, a scene starts rebuilding itself. Despite its departure from realism, those are actually cool moments. In fact, they’re way more serviceable than the combat and chase sequences.
At one point, madness enters the minds of all the denizens on the island. Pierce must finally use his gun to escape from these zombie-esque islanders wandering around. The thing is, these guys are all one-shot kills. As soon as you tap them with a bullet, they’re down. It doesn’t even have to be a headshot. At first, hesitant to down innocent townspeople, I started shooting people in the arms and legs to try and nonlethally get past them. Imagine my dismay when each and every one of them went down like a sack of concrete.
Combat is laughably easy. The mind-controlled people move slower than a George Romero zombie. You can pick them off with ease once you get over your qualms about shooting them. (Which you do because if they get near you, you are instantly killed.) Calling these sections “combat” feels a bit like a lie.
There are also chase sequences, and while they are as straightforward as the “combat” ones, they are more frustrating. You see, mind-controlled persons aren’t the only threats you face. Cthulhu throws some monsters at you, particularly one called the Shambler. You cannot really kill this thing; you can only run from it. And these moments are either hilarious marathons as you keep the monster forever on your trail or frustrating insta-kills.
My favorite parts of Call of Cthulhu were any conversation I had with this cop named Bradley. He never really reacted in ways I would expect. Toward the end of the game, you’re faced with a choice regarding Bradley’s fate. However, it’s never revealed whether your choice had any lasting consequences.
This leads into what is one of Call of Cthulhu’s greatest flaws. Your choices in the game do not feel like they have much of an impact, and with a game that possesses RPG elements, that’s not a good thing. I can’t even say whether it mattered or not that I placed more skill points in one skill over another because I’m not entirely certain I could have gotten different results with different skills.
To prove my point, the ending seems to give you various options a la Mass Effect 3, each of which gives you a different ending cutscene.
I, of course, chose to complete the ritual that would allow Cthulhu to enter this world, and I do believe it is the best choice. Why? It gives you a half-second glimpse of Cthulhu as you call it forth.
None of the other endings give you that. The other endings just give you a drunk and depressed Pierce back at his apartment, in an asylum, or dead.
Clearly, I chose the best option.
Don’t play Call of Cthulhu if you’re looking for a horror experience. You’d be much better off playing something like Outlast. And if you want to dive into a good RPG, Call of Cthulhu is also one to avoid.
However, if you want to spend a little time goofing around in a Lovecraftian mystery, it’s actually not that bad of a game.
I rate Call of Cthulhu an enjoyable-romp-through-Eldritch-cosmic-horror-that-remains-hilariously-down-to-earth.