H.P. Lovecraft’s most well-known creation makes its return to the video game genre with the release of Cyanide Studios’ Call Of Cthulhu. The game draws inspiration from both Lovecraft’s short and Chaosium’s table-top RPG of the same name; set in 1920s Massachusetts, Call Of Cthulhu charts one man’s descent into madness as he becomes irrecoverably entangled in a sinister plot involving murder, arson and the occult.
Call Of Cthulhu begins with a veteran of The Great War-turned-private eye Edward Pierce in the midst of a nightmare, as he finds himself trapped in a dank underground catacomb surrounded by the rotting, decayed carcasses of marine life. Pierce stumbles across a cabal of mysterious figures invoking a bizarre ritual before waking in the safety of his office; Pierce quickly dismisses the vision as the combined result of his PTSD and chronic alcohol abuse. Moments later he’s visited by Stephen Weaver, a gentleman wishing to know more of the circumstances surrounding the death of his daughter Sarah Hawkins and her family, all of whom died in a mysterious fire at their home on Darkwater Island, just off the Bostonian coast.
Weaver presents Pierce with an oil painting his daughter had sent him prior to her death – a twisted portrait depicting a hooded, yet somehow inhuman figure threatening a woman and child; with his agency failing and no other commitments Pierce agrees to take up the case and travels to Darkwater Island. Upon setting foot on the island Pierce begins his enquiries into Sarah’s death, slowly uncovering a conspiracy to bring Cthulhu – an ancient, malevolent cosmic entity – into our world, marking the end of life as we know it.
Call Of Cthulhu is experienced in first-person through Edward’s eyes, switching to third-person perspective during cutscenes. The environments are incredibly detailed, from the derelict shell of the Hawkins’ mansion to networks of dark, dripping caves; each location feels quintessentially Lovecraftian in style and tone. The game has similarities to the pulp detective novels of the era, with Pierce as the psychologically broken, yet morally sound protagonist. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the NPCs that Pierce encounters throughout the game. During cutscenes, the characters are well rendered and animated, yet in gameplay, they feel a tad robotic – mainly due to each gesticulating unnecessarily whilst conversing with Edward, which I found really distracting.
Call Of Cthulhu’s story unfolds over the course of fourteen chapters, which equate to around fifteen hours’ worth of gameplay; each chapter is bookended with a load screen-come-title card as the next loads. These screens recount Pierce’s investigation thus far and what potentially awaits him at his next destination, though the load bar underneath the text seems to take an age to fill. As you would expect for a game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there are some genuinely creepy set-pieces and encounters with hideous creatures including The Dimensional Shambler and Leviathan.
Exploration takes up a vast portion of Call Of Cthulhu’s plot, with any interactable objects highlighted with a hand symbol. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to uncover, though the environments are quite linear, with the game forcing you in one particular direction or another. There are a few brief stealth sequences, though these feel a little crude when compared to pure stealth titles with Pierce only needing to crouch to avoid detection most of the time. From time to time Pierce will encounter puzzles which require a little bit lateral thinking to solve, with a few verging on frustration. Pierce is also able to reconstruct scenes to give a better insight into past events, investigating a restricted environment to link a chain of events together.
Throughout the game, Pierce interacts with the locals and uncovers clues and documents which help to shape his investigation. As with any other RPG worth its salt, the player is able to level up Pierce’s abilities including eloquence, his investigative skills and strength amongst others. Pierce can also improve his knowledge of medicine and occultism by locating certain documents and artefacts. Drawing inspiration from its table-top forefather Call Of Cthulhu also includes sanity points, which are slowly ebb away as Pierce encounters the true horror the Darkwater Island hides.
Interactions with the island’s inhabitants more often than not lead to multiple choice conversations, though some of the options are locked dependant on which skills you’ve chosen to upgrade; should you need to placate an angry fisherman intent on breaking Edward’s nose having a higher level of eloquence may allow you the option to talk them down. Certain responses will also impact on Pierce’s destiny with a pop-up notification in the top corner of the screen.
By the time the concluding chapter begins Pierce’s sanity is hanging by a thread, as he’s unable to discern what is real and what isn’t. There’s an either/or decision to make at the chapter’s climax, though one feels a little lacklustre in comparison to the more obvious choice; though this does give the game a little replayability if you’re intent on seeing how both play out.
Call Of Cthulhu will definitely appeal to anyone familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft or the table-top version; if you only have a rudimentary knowledge of Cthulhu through pop culture references you may find the plot too drawn out, though I would encourage you to bear with it as the well-told plot is filled with twists, turns and more than a few scares that will please most action-RPG fans. As long as you’re willing to put up with NPCs that act like wacky, waving, inflatable, arm-flailing tube men and lengthy load times, Call Of Cthulhu is a solid update to the decades-old tabletop format.