The horror genre is quite possibly one of the most divisive genres in entertainment as people either love it or hate it. To those of us who enjoy it, there’s a massive subsection of horror ranging from gore and slashers to the psychological or demonic. However, there’s nothing quite like H.P. Lovecraft’s invention. A sort of psychological, dark, mysterious and occult horror hybrid that’s become a cult obsession over the decades. I’ve never been attracted to his work per se, but I know enough to hold conversation, that and my review of Bloodborne. So when an opportunity to guest review Call of Cthulhu was offered to me, I was excited to dive deep into Lovecraft lore.
Unexpectedly, my excitement for the game dwindled quite quickly as the game I thought I was going to play became a game that was very clearly half-baked or at least a game no one knew what to do with. But before I move on to the inner workings of the game, let me indulge you on what the game is actually about.
Welcome to Darkwater, home to the humble and dilapidated
Nestled in the black waters off the coast of Boston lies a small, ageing fishing village covered in mist, drunk sailors, smoke and rot. Darkwater is the most apt and fitting name for the setting of this unique murder mystery. You are Edward Pierce, a former military veteran who now occupies his time working as a private detective, drowning himself in small cases and the very occasional whiskey. He’s sent to Darkwater to solve the mysterious death of the famous but reclusive artist, Sarah Hawkins and her husband and son. Officially, the three died in a fire that occurred in their home in Darkwater, however, Sarah Hawkin’s father believes foul-play is at hand. Knowing little else, Pierce heads off to a creepy former whaling island that’s more abandoned than anything else.
As with all mysteries, nothing is quite as it seems, but one thing is very clear Darkwater is the kind of place that is definitely hiding a secret. Call of Cthulhu has such a terrific start that you can’t do anything but take it all in. The dust and ruin of this harbour town are beyond words, there is a true beauty in its tragedy. From the eerie sounds to the late night atmosphere, it’s terrifically unwelcoming that it screams a great horror is on the horizon. There’s a half-eaten whale washed up on shore that electrifies the superstitious sailors, an open bar serving illegal alcohol during a period of prohibition and a collection of ruined warehouses and boats to really nail that “forgotten town” vibe.
Regrettably, the stunning start turns sour once the story starts to pick up, and the once solid bucket is now filled with holes.
Real madness or just incoherent mumbling?
A great calling card for the game is the idea of descending into madness. It’s a theme that has been done many times before in video games and has proven to be quite effective. However, because it’s been done so successfully, something truly remarkable needs to be explored in order to make a mark. This is where Call of Cthulhu fails hard. Unlike games like Layers of Fear and Amnesia, where the madness comes on organically over time, in CoC, it’s very forced and often times Edward will do completely sane things and suddenly react like a lunatic. He’ll see something truly horrific and have a very blasé reaction, but the in-game sanity meter will go down a notch, indicating that he’s closer to losing his marbles despite never sounding paranoid, scared or traumatised. But jump into a closet and he will start to panic. Simply saying he is going mad is very different to actually making him look like he is going mad.
He’ll see something truly horrific and have a very blasé reaction, but the in-game sanity meter will go down a notch, indicating that he’s closer to losing his marbles despite never sounding paranoid, scared or traumatised.
It’s not just his miss-matched madness that is in question, but the entire plot of the game. I had to play it twice just to make sense of what had happened. This is due to two big problems, its terrible pacing and a serious disregard for characters. There will be people that you meet at the start of the game who seem important, have long strings of dialogue that you’ll never see again. Then there are characters who completely fall to the wayside and others that are misused. Almost none of the characters are developed and despite playing two other characters for a brief period, most are almost completely inconsequential. Then there is the issue with pacing, this is both a narrative and technical problem. The story often goes from a brief linear exploration section to a sloppy stealth area to a long-winded discussion about whatever Edward is looking into. Parts that should be long are short, and parts that should be short are often dragged out. On a technical standpoint, the loading sections between chapters are very long, often lasting up to a minute. While I wouldn’t be fussed, these loading screens are often between two very dramatic scenes, so your sense of urgency at the end of the chapter comes to a screeching halt.
Darkwater could use a Sherlock
Another prominent problem is that everything that the game is a diluted version of some of the best games in the horror and puzzle genres. When I first started playing the game I thought of it as a lovechild of Dishonored, Sherlock Holmes and Outlast. Visually it was pleasing as it looked like I was going back to the dirty streets of Dunwall or Whitechapel, to solve a murder and thwart a cult. However, the veil was quickly lifted and what I saw was a very shallow husk of a game. As a detective, Edward does very little detecting. Most of it is reduced to interacting with a few actionable items, him commenting on the item and then using that knowledge to unlock dialogue options to progress the story. Unlike in Sherlock Holmes or Murdered: Soul Suspect, there’s no stringing together the clues to solve the mystery of the room. The best you get is a reconstruction sequence, which, again, is just you pressing A on the glowing object and Edward will narrate what’s going on.
As disappointing as that was, nothing compared to the bare bones gameplay this game offers. There’s practically no action – there are two stealth sections, featuring the dumbest detection AI in an enemy I’ve ever seen. I will give credit where credit is due, aside from chapter 2 (the harbour scene), there is one section which I thought was genius, atmospheric and sublime. You’re running around in a sort of Silent Hill-ish version of a hospital with nothing but a hand lamp and you need to solve a puzzle of sorts. If the lamp runs out of oil the beasts in the darkness kill you. It’s also the only section in the entire 15-ish hour campaign that featured a jump scare that got me on both my playthroughs of this game. It’s one of those perfect moments I just wish the game was filled with. And of all my niggles, that’s the biggest one, the number of missed opportunities in the game.
“Of all my niggles, that’s the biggest one, the number of missed opportunities in the game.”
So many missed opportunities
Many times it felt like the writers, creators or developers knew how to start the game and end it, but didn’t really know what to put in the middle. Many of the features were redundant. The sanity meter was practically useless as I landed up psychotic by the end despite trying my best to stay sane or avoid sanity reducing activities. The perk chart, which is the RPG section of the game, was cool at first as certain strengths unlock unique dialogue during conversations or even when looking at objects. But that’s it. It almost has no effect on the end narrative, just the short moment to moment things. It gives off the illusion of diversion, not actual change.
Despite playing the game twice, which I often think of as great replayability, I didn’t do it because I wanted to. I did it because I wanted this review to be as fair as I could make it. In order to judge it, I had to at least understand what was going on. I did see a few things that I had not noticed the first time, which added a little more depth to the game, but sadly, if you need to play a game twice to understand what you should have the first time… well, that’s very telling, isn’t it?
All I can say is that Call of Cthulhu should fall on deaf ears. I wouldn’t say it’s a rough game that can be fixed with patches (though the terrible lip-syncing surely could use some help) as most of its issues can’t be fixed. It needed another year in development to sort itself out. It needed to flesh out the story and characters and trim the useless features. I find this a very difficult game to recommend as I don’t think it does any service to Lovecraft fans, horror fans, mystery fans or people who spend money. If you’re looking for Lovecraft, play Bloodborne. If you’re looking for occult mystery, play Murdered Soul Suspect. If you’re looking for horror, play Outlast or Resident Evil 7. There’s no reason you should spend 15 hours playing a game with diluted features when there are superior games already out in the open and at a fraction of the cost.