Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBOX One, PC
The works of H.P. Lovecraft have been adapted with varying degrees of success in a number of video games over the years. Truly Lovecraftian horror can be a challenge for games, because if a developer wants to truly, accurately reflect the author's style, stories are going to unfold gradually, with heavy doses of mood-building and little in the way of overt scares until the story's climax. And while that's a type of slow pacing that can work well in the form of short written horror fiction, it's tougher to make it engaging and entertaining in a game.
In facing this challenge 2018's Call of Cthulhu, developed by Cyanide Studio, has the advantage of actually being an adaptation of the tabletop roleplaying game of the same name, rather than a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft's works. It's a mystery-solving RPG, not an action game like other, less authentic adaptations of the Cthulhu Mythos have been in the past. And while the game struggles to get going, and might not be the immediate scare-fest players could be hoping for from a horror title released the day before Halloween, it builds to a climax soaked in insanity and worthy of the Lovecraft name.
A slow burn, doused in green
Call of Cthulhu will take a typical player about 12 to 15 hours to complete, and players should expect the game's first few hours to be on the slow side. You take the role of private detective Edward Pierce, who arrives on the isolated island of Darkwater tasked with looking into the mysterious death of a family. That investigation reveals the deaths to be much more complicated and sinister than they first appeared, and nobody with any passing familiarity with Lovecraft will be shocked to find out that a cult is involved.
Taking your time to explore the spaces around you and to listen in on conversations in the game's opening hours provides hints of the horrors to come. The game deserves credit for taking its time and letting its spooky atmosphere build, and while it can feel a bit too slow at times during these opening hours, it does a good job of delivering on its big scary moments. This is a game that earns its fights, and it doesn't feature many cheap-feeling jump scares.
I found myself quickly growing tired of the relentless green tint in Call of Cthulhu, and was frustrated at times with the extra visual challenge it presented. A little bit of spooky atmosphere is a good thing, but when I'm searching for clues and trying to make visual sense of the world around me in a game built on mysteries and secrets, I don't like feeling as though I'm doing the whole thing through layers of blue-green foil. I sometimes found myself pulling out my lighter or lantern to illuminate my surroundings not because it was especially dark, but just so I could see different colors in the world.
Call of Cthulhu has a strong, appropriately sinister soundtrack, but its visuals don't reach the same heights. Playing on PS4 I sometimes encountered odd hand animations in conversations that were distracting and undercut the mood. The facial textures sometimes felt a bit primitive too, and body animations during the game's rare action scenes are very bare-bones. I also ran into a few texture issues and flickers that left me wondering whether I was seeing unintentional bugs or some kind of purposeful, Alan Wake-style interface breakdown (since insanity plays such a major role in the game).
Solving mysteries and advancing stats
Most of the actual gameplay in Call of Cthulhu is made up of exploring your environment, discovering clues, and overcoming puzzles, enemies, and other obstacles. There are some rudimentary stealth sections that aren't challenging enough to be frustrating or interesting, and eventually some gunplay that's so bare bones it borders on laughable. The game is at its best when you're guiding Pierce through creepy environments or you're reconstructing the scene of a murder or sinister ritual, though even those sequences never really reach heights of quality above "fine."
Call of Cthulhu strips down the collection of stats available in the tabletop roleplaying game to a manageable seven. Five of those stats can be improved by spending Character Points you earn as you progress, while two (Occultism and Medicine) can only be improved by finding books and other relevant objects in the environment, providing a significant gameplay reward for exploring every dark corner of every room you come across.
Eloquence and Psychology most often play out through dialogue, unlocking conversation options which allow you to progress in different ways. Investigation determines lockpicking and similar skills, while Spot Hidden literally determines whether or not you can interact with certain hidden objects in your environment. Call of Cthulhu isn't a very broad game, so in practice it often feels like there isn't a ton of room for distinct, alternate solutions, no matter which way you've allocated your skill points, but when your stats do pay off it can be satisfying.
The Occultism stat, in particular, interacts with the game's Sanity system in interesting ways. Edward Pierce is going to witness mind-shaking terrors during his investigation, no matter what you do, but there are some key choices that you'll make as a player that can tip the scales from Stable to Psychotic in the game's disappointingly binary Sanity system. Reading certain texts in the game world will grant you expanded knowledge of the occult, unlocking dialogue options written in indecipherable runes that will in turn often lead you further down the path of madness.
Like a lot of the systems at work in Call of Cthulhu, I was left wishing the game were a bit more explicit about what was going on under the hood with Sanity. I leaned in to the madness in my playthrough, so Pierce spent the game's last few hours firmly on the "Psychotic" side of the ledger, but I couldn't be totally sure what effects that was having. I noticed Pierce struggling in dark and enclosed places, having panic attacks, and generally becoming more frantic and wild in his speech, but after the events he endures over the course of the game, all of those would have made sense even if he had remained sane.
I appreciated the uncertainty that came with not knowing, during the game's final hours, if I was actually shooting murderous cultists or if I might be slaughtering innocent people, but the game never really gave me enough of a reason to doubt the literal reality of that sequence. A second playthrough spent resisting madness would answer some of these lingering questions, but the basic gameplay just isn't entertaining enough to sustain a return visit to Darkwater.
A linear journey through some of the best of the Cthulhu Mythos
Call of Cthulhu's linear nature is one of its biggest weaknesses. Though there are a few different endings you can reach, and certain sequences will play out differently depending on choices you make throughout the game, you'll be very aware of the rails that guide your exploration throughout the length of the game. Low walls and locked doors keep you from wandering off the path, and you'll never find yourself at a loss as to where you need to go next to advance the story. This prevents the game from ever getting too frustrating, but the lack of freedom also leaves you feeling a bit disconnected from the consequences of your actions.
But as linear as it ends up being, the game takes satisfying twists as the story unfolds, and even a seasoned Lovecraft fan won't always feel sure of where the story is going. Cults, insane asylums, mutations, invisible monsters, and sinister paintings all play significant roles in the story, and those who are more familiar with the Mythos will appreciate all the references, big and small.