Game name: Call of Cthulhu
Release date: October 30, 2018
Price: US$ 44.99
Available on: Steam
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
When I first heard about Call of Cthulhu, I was immediately drawn to it as if the Old Ones themselves were twisting invisible strings in my brain. As a fan of Cyanide Studio‘s work, this was a great opportunity to see the French developer tackle a completely different beast from their usual RPG/strategy work. It was also a chance to experience a new Lovecraftian adventure that focused on detective work instead of trying to become a balls to the wall first person shooter midway through (don’t take it personally, Dark Corners of the Earth fans, I love that game.in spite of its flaws).
Now that I’ve played through Call of Cthulhu‘s 10 hours long campaign, I can confidently say that I’m both happy and incredibly sad with the results, for reasons that will be explored in the coming paragraphs. Part of the game is exactly as I thought it would be, and it plays to the developers’ strengths marvelously, but then you get other segments that seem to have been created in order to appeal to a completely different audience, and in my opinion, bring down the overall experience in ways that are hard to describe.
Based on a well known pen and paper RPG, Cyanide‘s take on the Cthulhu mythos will almost immediately present us with a character creation screen, where we’ll be able to adjust our hero’s stats, distributing points among several categories that will affect the way we see the world and some of the options we’ll get when talking to other people. As expected from a role-playing game, these stats will also grow according to our actions ingame, so whatever we choose to do with the initial allotment of points won’t define our character for the duration of the story.
We play as Edward Pierce, a detective suffering from PTSD caused by his WW1 service. As most noir heroes do, our man drinks a lot in order to escape from his personal demons and forget his current situation, which isn’t very good, as there aren’t many good cases coming his way, and the agency who keeps him employed is running out of patience. Of course things will quickly change, as a weird man approaches our hero with a case that will make or break him, and after some well presented chit-chat that also serves as an introduction to some of the game’s systems, we’ll be off to a remote island with tons of snooping to do.
It’s during this part of the game that I felt Cyanide had delivered the experience I’d craved for so long, an adventure where the horrors of the unknown are very real, but at the same time understated enough to make me doubt my character’s sanity (admittedly, not a hard thing, since the beginning of our journey is a nightmarish scenario that plays out in our mind, and everyone we meet seems to know that Edward has a drinking problem, further casting a shadow of doubt into his mental fitness). Exploring the small town of Darkwater and learning of its past, I felt like a real detective, gathering clues that would give me more conversation options when approaching the locals and learning about the village’s storied past along the way.
Sadly, even though I tried to exhaust all possible options when talking to the inhabitants of Darkwater, it seems that the game is actually far more linear than it looks, and for all the detective work we can do, we’ll always be rewarded with the same outcome. This becomes more and more evident as the adventure progresses, with seemingly important choices barely altering a few lines of dialogue and not much else. As a side-effect of this approach, the game doesn’t fully utilize its RPG systems, or at least not in a “non-cosmetic” way. Getting new dialogue options or being able to detect clues that would otherwise be hidden feels great in the short term, but once we realize that there is no long term gain, it’s not hard to go into “robot mode” and advance the story mindlessly. Strangely enough, the final section of the game (which doesn’t really feature as much detective work as the beginning) will force us to make far more important choices than anything we’ve done until then, going as far as blocking off certain endings.
As the story progresses, the situation quickly deteriorates, and Mr. Pierce ends up doing far more than he signed up for. Indescribable horrors lurk in the shadows, forcing us to dispel the darkness with light sources, and horrific monsters give chase during segments that felt a bit less unforgiving than Outlast 2‘s fast paced “run and hide or it’s game over” segments, but still weren’t completely up to the task. Other sections involve classic stealth puzzles, where our hero must assess the situation and learn the patrol routes AI controlled enemies will take in order to avoid them and reach the end unscathed. While this at first felt eerily familiar, Cyanide didn’t take Dark Corners of the Earth‘s “gun everything down” approach, and, with one particular exception, we won’t be shooting at anything for the duration of Edward’s ten hours long journey through Hell.
Although this mix of exploration, detective work and stealth segments seems to work on paper, in practice it often feels as if the game was made by two very different teams vying for control of the whole project in a weird race against the clock. On the one hand, the sections where we play detective are lavishly detailed, and benefit from the enthusiasm of the voice actors (Edward particularly comes to mind, as the man who brings him to life is none other than Anthony Howell, the voice of Jonathan Reid in DONTNOD‘s excellent Vampyr). As we explained a few paragraphs ago, they don’t offer much in the way of depth, but most players should feel immersed in the story while they hunt for clues and interrogate the islanders, something that is no mean feat, once we stop and realize that during all this time we won’t have engaged in any sort of combat, platforming, sneaking, etc.
On the other hand, the stealth segments are quite formulaic and rely on the player’s basic survival instincts, as we identify patrol routes and work to avoid sentries. The same thing can be said for the chases that ensue during certain levels, as they not only feel like something we’ve done a hundred times before, but will also often make us grit our teeth in frustration as some creature snatches us because we didn’t follow the exact path we were supposed to take. This is particularly annoying during a certain boss encounter, up to the point where I had to quit the game, calm down a bit and continue the adventure the next day.
It’s thanks to this divide that Call of Cthulhu never manages to live up to the hype, but at the same time it doesn’t entirely throw away the excitement of its rather unique premise. Talking to villagers and uncovering clues feels great, but a lack of real consequences to our actions and cookie-cutter stealth segments coupled with annoying chase sequences bring the experience down to Earth. There is an enjoyable story hidden under all the busywork, however, so Lovecraft fans looking for a new fix won’t look back with regret in their eyes should they choose to part with their hard earned cash in exchange for a copy of Cyanide Studio‘s latest.