Available on: Xbox One, PS4, Switch & PC
Version Played: Xbox One (on Xbox One X)
Developed by: Cyanide Studios
Published by: Focus Home Interactive
Though I’m an absolute lightweight when it comes to scary games, the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories has always appealed to me. My first exposure to Lovecraft’s concepts was in the early 90s, when I observed a group of teenagers playing Chaosium’s classic TTRPG Call of Cthulhu at school one lunchtime. I was intrigued by the game – which trod similar ground to the stories – with ordinary mortals being driven insane (or to their doom, or both) by creatures and concepts beyond their comprehension.
It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that I managed to get hold of a book of Lovecraft’s stories myself though. And I was hooked – not necessarily by Lovecraft’s writing, which is overwrought and hyperbolic at best – but by his weaving of stories into a big tapestry, where humans are as insignificant as ants in the cosmic order, with the Great Old Ones – nightmarish titans of varying size and influence – being the true power in the universe. The Call of Cthulhu – despite horrendous racial stereotyping (you can’t write about Lovecraft without acknowledging his racism – and though he is very of his time, his racism is extremely deep-seated and repellent even by the general standards of his day), remains a powerfully evocative piece of fiction – and his stories as a whole have proven to be influential on a great many famous and infamous horror writers to this day.
Current gen game Call of Cthulhu is the latest in a long line of Lovecraft video games; in this instance, it’s based on Chaosium’s TTRPG of the same name. This is most obvious when you start, as you’re given character points to spend on raising different stats, such as Psychology, Medicine and Occultism. Each of these then has a percentage chance of success when used in relevant situations, with a behind-the-scenes dice roll determining the outcome of your attempt. It works well, but could definitely do with a bit more hand holding at the outset of the game – it’s not particularly well explained to those new to the system.
In any case, the game concerns Jack Pierce, a Private Investigator in 1920s New England, who’s hired to dig up details on the horrific deaths of a family on a small island community just off the coast. While there, he talks to locals, pieces together clues and generally makes a nuisance of himself in order to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a far bigger – and weirder – story than he ever could have anticipated.
Being as story-based as it is, I don’t want to give away any details of the plot, suffice to say that it starts out creepy before venturing into some very tense and suitably horrific areas as the narrative reaches its climax.
The game doesn’t appear to have been particularly well received, critically. There’s certainly the feeling that the first person exploration and investigation gameplay is pretty dumbed down; you’ll mostly be searching rooms and buildings for clues, which – once you’ve found the relevant ones – are generally pieced together into evidence and plot points automatically. There are some more complex puzzles on occasion; these never felt impossible or overwhelming to solve – I found them pretty logical and enjoyable to overcome – but they’re very few and far between.
You’ll occasionally find a clue that triggers a sort of reconstruction of the scene you’re in, but again this will just mean hunting for specific icons to be selectable within the environment. It’s a very simple system but – looking at it from a positive point of view – it does mean that the story can be told with little chance of the player missing anything of significance (though there are ‘hidden’ clues and objects to find, that glow green, rather than white, with a visibility determined by your proficiency in Investigation).
And the story is great. It’s a slow burner, with some excellent writing – though the voice acting is variable and the character models are at times somewhat stiff, as is the facial animation. Pierce himself, however, is brilliantly acted by Anthony Howell (who has appeared prominently in some high profile games, such as Alien Isolation, Horizon Zero Dawn and cult horror game Vampyr) and well realised when seen in cut scenes; these are a highlight too, with some superb visual touches – in fact, the overall look of the game even outside cutscenes is very strong, especially in the solid-looking environments. There’s a sickly green pallor hanging over much of the island and its inhabitants; the scenery and accompanying touches give the game a wonderfully tangible, creepy and evocative atmosphere, in contrast to the sometimes awkward characters that inhabit the game world. This green pallor changes to a frosty white glow during reconstruction scenes and the rippling, distortion effects to signify sanity loss or stress also add to the well designed visuals.
There’s some brilliant creature design (apologies – the fact that creatures appear at all is a very slight spoiler), but these are spotted only sporadically – which does add to their impact when they finally make an appearance.
Another aspect of the game I found really well done was the music, which is present – but subtle and unobtrusive – for much of the proceedings, kicking into gear and making you panic when things have truly gone south.
There’s a lot that doesn’t quite work, however. There’s the odd stealth section, with one particular level being almost entirely based around stealth, but the first person viewpoint and distinct lack of visual aids renders this much more frustrating than it should be. It’s one of those games that’s a challenge for the wrong reasons – and you’ll end up using trial and error in order to proceed, rather than relying on your skill. With this section, there’s some frustratingly obtuse environmental puzzle solving too. There are a few attempts at shocking you with gore that end up being unintentionally funny due to the unimpressive, awkward animation and models used, but these are thankfully rare; there’s enough moments of horror that do work well that these few instances are forgiven.
It does seem, at times, that you could make life a lot more difficult for yourself by unwittingly spending your skill points on the wrong categories right at the beginning of the game – I certainly made the mid-game stealth section a lot harder by not having a stronger Investigation skill level, for example.
Load times are particularly maddening as well (perhaps aptly – especially as, when the game has loaded, instead of telling you to press start it instead says ‘Enter Madness’); it does feel like the game has been rushed to meet a deadline without being optimised, unfortunately.
There’s a somewhat linear feel to the proceedings – most levels are fairly small in terms of where you can go and what you can interact with – but it’s all in service of telling the story, as I’ve mentioned above. There’s no denying, though, the powerful and foreboding sense of atmosphere that hangs over the game, which is to the developers’ credit. Everything does feel suitably Lovecraftian and – annoyingly tacked-on stealth sections aside – it’s relatively straightforward to progress without getting too stuck on any one level.
Despite some technical issues and a few niggles with the gameplay, I’ve really enjoyed playing through Call of Cthulhu. It’s a game that – eventually – really gets under your skin. Though the conversation and investigation system may be a more simplistic than you’d expect, the few puzzles that do pop up are well implemented and satisfying to solve. There’s the odd jump scare and some moments of outright terror, but these are generally quite sparse, befitting the creeping – rather than overt – horror of the source material.
It takes around 10-12 hours to get through the main story, which may seem quite short – but for me it’s the perfect length. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t outstay its welcome, but its cosmic horror does linger in the mind long after you switch off your console or computer.
This may be the longtime fan of the Cthulhu Mythos in me speaking, but it was a game – and story – I’m glad I experienced.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this – or any of my other content – it’d be much appreciated if you’re able to share this article via social media. I’d also be forever grateful if you’re able to support me via: Ko-Fi.com/geekmid or PayPal – all of my work is provided for free and I earn no income from the blog, so any donations are gratefully received and assist me in keeping my writing dream alive. Above all else though, thanks for reading – I truly appreciate it!