The Cthulhu Mythos is plastered everywhere across pop culture these days. The grand cosmic horrors imagined by H.P. Lovecraft are the basis for board games, card games, statues, artworks, and even cute plushie toys. Even people who have never read a single Lovecraft story know of the The Sleeper. What so few properly convey is just how horrific Eldritch abominations can be. Whereas most storytellers use Lovecraft’s creatures as set dressing or disposable enemies, Cyanide Studios dials into what makes the original works so compelling. Call of Cthulhu is their effort, and it’s a damn fine one.
A Proper Adaptation
Edward Pierce is our down-on-his-luck protagonist, as any good Lovecraft lead would be. It’s October 1924, and there’s been a death on Darkwater Isle. What once looked to be an unfortunate accident is revealing itself as something much more sinister. Lacking patience, but packing whiskey, our detective finds himself heading to Darkwater. It doesn’t take long to see there’s more going on here than murder. The townsfolk are strange, nothing is as it seems, and there’s a sinister cult operating behind the scenes.
On the surface, this seems like many psychological horror setups, and it largely is. Even many of the characters important to the story are tropes, though that’s kind of what you want out of a Lovecraftian tale. These people are just pawns in a much more cosmic game, after all. As you inch closer to the Elder Gods, things get more intense, but what’s truly compelling is how active a participant you are in investigating Darkwater. This game takes its license from the pen-and-paper RPG, Call of Cthulhu. As such, various stats are vital to Edward’s abilities. Eloquence may allow you to charm your way past conversations; Psychology would allow you to study the minds of people to see what they might do next.
For Every Choice, A Consequence
There are several of these stats in the game, all allowing you to discover different things during your investigations. You will absolutely miss stuff at the various crime scenes throughout the game. That’s what makes the stats so compelling. There’s a tension in entering a hospital knowing your Medicine stat is only at a 2 out of 5. This exciting push-and-pull is further expanded upon by the fact that these clues will lead to different conversations with other characters. I can’t ask about the improper medical prescriptions if my Edward simply doesn’t understand what it would mean.
Call of Cthulhu presents a game where your choices matter. There’s simply not enough experience points (referred to as CP by the game) to max out more than a handful of stats by game’s end. You must be considered with what you choose. On top of this is the many moral decisions you’re faced with in the game. Even something as innocuous as drinking whiskey could make the game prompt you with, “This will affect your destiny.” The stats combined with these choices, coupled to the fact that the game autosaves after almost everything (in a single save slot), ensures that you won’t see everything in one playthrough. A lot of games promise branching narratives and this is one that delivers on that promise.
Beware the Madness
It’s a good thing the investigations are so tense, as that’s what most of Call of Cthulhu is. Every few hours the game will force a laughably bad stealth mission your way, but thankfully these are brief. The brain-dead AI will almost always allow you to just run past enemies anyway. There are a few “boss” style encounters with a creature that are just trial-and-error, however. The creature is an auto-kill, and the resolutions will require you to just click around the environment. The idea is very cool on paper, repeating only one creature and having it stalk Edward throughout the story, but it frustrates in execution. Similar to the stealth levels, these sections are also scattered and brief.
Before I can wrap up this review, there are some technical woes. It’s obvious that this game didn’t have the biggest budget of the year. I can get past the stiff animations, but it’s much harder to look past the audio problems the game has. Many of the principle cast deliver solid work acting out their characters, but the side characters are noticeably weak. It’s distracting when you’re walking around Darkwater’s port, and hearing what sounds like a first-take line read. They even have the audacity to loop those lines of dialogue, too. Worse still is the bizarre audio levels. One line could have Edward be barely audible, and the next could almost blow out your speaker. The majority of the game is fine, but every now and then it sounds like it just jumped five levels. It’s truly jarring.
A Careful Hand
My biggest takeaway with Call of Cthulhu was Cyanide’s exercise of restraint. Lovecraft always wrote these entities as too horrific to even look upon. That their existence was so incomprehensible to the human mind, to even look at them would cause the witness to go mad. That’s true here as well. There’s remarkably little in the way of Cthulhu himself, which is refreshing. Glancing at the few abominations you do encounter will make the camera shake uncontrollably as your finite sanity dwindles away. Sanity is truly finite in the game. There’s one meter for it, and it only ever goes down. There’s no way to ever recover any. Lovecraft wasn’t much known for letting his protagonists have happy endings, after all.
I went into Call of Cthulhu with cautious optimism. I was impressed with preview coverage, but the Cthulhu Mythos is a difficult thing to translate off the page and into the interactive medium. Look at how few have tried adapting any stories directly. It’s clear Cyanide Studios had a lot of respect for both the author and his works. It’s refreshing to see, and easy to recommend to any thriller, horror, or adventure game fan.
This review is based on a PS4 code provided by Evolve PR for coverage purchases and is also available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows for $59.99.