Review: Call of Cthulhu

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t aware of Call of Cthulhu by Cyanide Studio until around 1 month before it was released, and even when I did discover it I wasn’t particularly interested – I’m sorry Cyanide, please don’t hate me, let me explain!

You see, Call of Cthulhu was one of 2 Lovecraftian games that came out in roughly the same time period – give or take a few months – and out of the two I had my heart firmly set on The Sinking City, thanks to its Bioshock meets Fallout vibe, so I didn’t really take the time to look beyond the surface of the Cyanide game. What I saw of Cthulhu looked like a pure horror game, and frankly I’m a bit of a wuss in games, and combined with the fact that I also have an epic back catalogue of games still to be played, I’m not buying many games at the moment. You can blame my love-hate relationship with The Division 2 for the sizeable increase of unplayed new games, by the way, but I digress.

For that matter, I still haven’t bought The Sinking City. Call of Cthulhu, however, is on Xbox Game Pass – no purchase required, and a convenient free loop hole to Lovecraftian goodness? Heck yeah, sign me up.

And so, I installed it.

© Cyanide Studio

In Cthulhu you play as Edward Pierce, an alcoholic private investigator and contractor of the Wentworth Detective Agency, although the game is quick to inform us that he hasn’t been taking many cases of late. This is one example of the ham-fisted exposition flung in the player’s direction in the first 10 minutes of the game, and it’s flung with such ferocity and volume that it might be the most jarring opening 10 minutes of any game that I’ve played. The game stumbles repeatedly as it tries to find its footing as both investigative and cosmic horror in style, and while it doesn’t quite sell either of them at first it does set the scene. Thankfully, the opening Chapter is a blip in terms of quality, and the rest of the game is enjoyable and tense in equal measures.

The underwhelming first Chapter starts with a nightmare sequence as the player traverses caves filled with decaying whale corpses, this location also serving as the tutorial for basic game mechanics such as movement, object interaction, running, you know, the usual. I understand why they went for this kind of ‘cold opener’ start for the game – it is Eldritch Horror after all, kind of need something macabre – but it isn’t all that interesting to explore. If anything, I’d say it’s boring and predictable, and this feeling only increases as you progress through the thankfully short opener. There’s a particularly egregious moment at the end of the starting level where the game UI gives you the button prompt to RUN! – but there’s no danger to the player. It’s jarring, and breaks the immersion completely which is a shame because the opening level is revisited later in the game in a very satisfying way, so the player really needs to be fully engrossed this first time around.

Escaping the nightmare, the player wakes up in Pierce’s office; here, you can explore and interact with objects to listen to snippets of dialogue. Again, pretty standard mechanics. The writing quality in his office isn’t representative of the rest of the game however, so don’t be put off by some of the more asinine comments that Pierce makes. One of the objects you can interact with is the glass of whiskey on Pierce’s desk. When you do, you’re given the simple choice of ‘DRINK’ or ‘DON’T DRINK’. Once started, you can’t back out of this screen or change your mind later, and making a decision prompts an oh-so-cheerful message proclaiming ‘This will change your destiny’ to pop up in the corner of the screen, leaving you bewildered as to the invisible pact that you’ve seemingly entered into without warning. Some players may not like it, but I found it refreshing to be held immediately accountable for my actions; most games hand hold the player to avoid frustration, but Call of Cthulhu is unapologetically stubborn in it’s attitude that whatever you do has an impact, so y’all better believe me when I say you need be ready for this when you start poking your nose into every nook and cranny! Without spoiling anything, they aren’t kidding when they say the choice whether or not will affect your destiny. It affects your destiny in a big goddamn way.

Before being thrust into the main plot, the player is given a character sheet and character points – or ‘CP’ – to allocate across a variety of attributes: Eloquence, Psychology, Medicine, Occultism, Investigation, Strength, and Spot Hidden, although you do start out with points in all of them. In game, these skills take the form of either investigative skill checks as the player interacts with the environment, or as dialogue checks as Pierce tries to understand what’s going on in the increasingly chaotic world. Interestingly, although you’re given the option to use some of these skills in conversation with other characters, using one doesn’t always guarantee a good result. It may feel frustrating at first, but it’s arguably more realistic than other games where you can brow beat anyone into doing anything with just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, no matter how out of character it may be. Honestly, there’s nothing worse than when a character goes against their core characteristics. Yes I am looking at you Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I will never forgive what you did to My Lara.

Although the dialogue skills checks are a pass/fail situation, the investigative skill checks are more dynamic; whilst the player can always interact with the object or scene in front of them, Pierce’s reaction changes based on the games determination of how much understanding the game calculates he should have about the situation at hand. The first example of this is when the game moves from Pierce’s office to the mysterious island of Darkwater, just off the coast of Boston. On first glance, the island is average; small, rundown with nothing of real significance – oh, aside from the bloody corpse of a whale that islanders are arguing over, a whale that looks suspiciously similar to the ones you ran past in the first level. Hmm. Further down the docks there’s a statue that’s been vandalised, and the player can inspect it using their Occultism skill, which really should ring alarm bells in any player’s mind. What kind of vandalism is occult in nature?! A high enough skill determines the age and rough locality of the dialect, but a low skill leaves Pierce shrugging his shoulders, mystified by the whole thing. Again, this style of unabated player accountability means that you really ought to think about every choice you make, both in gameplay and in character progression.

Welcome to Darkwater
© Cyanide Studio

However, before you can get to the statue you need information about the location of a warehouse nearby. You can try talking to the local policemen, which I did, but my choices resulted in a passive aggressive response. Once you exhaust your options you ultimately have to go speak to the harbor master, Fitzroy, and it’s at this point where my interest in the game truly piqued. Talking to the Fitzroy isn’t anything special in and of itself, it’s just a conversation and, to be honest, whilst the writing is good, the character models leave a lot to be desired. During the conversation Fitzroy reveals that the warehouse you’re looking for is on the docks itself, a few meters in front of the policeman you spoke to. See, maybe it’s just me, but that made me feel a bit sour – why did the game insist on making me jump through hoops for something that was right there?

After the conversation with Fitzroy finished, I marched Pierce back over to the policeman, complaining in real life to anyone who would listen about the unnecessary back and forth of the whole endeavor. It’s frustrating, and feels pointless. When I got to the policeman, I mashed the A button furiously, expecting to get nothing but maybe a bark in return. Well, colour me surprised when Pierce called the policeman out on his contrary, unhelpful nature, almost word for word what I had said only a few moments before. For me, that was a genuine OH SNAP moment, but it also renewed my interest in the whole game. Suddenly, everything had potential to surprise and intrigue me, and I had a reason to carry on playing. One of the biggest ways a game can hook a player is by aligning player and character goals, and in that moment Pierce and I were fully aligned in our singular frustration at that bloody policeman.

It wasn’t just the dynamic nature of NPC interactions that impressed me; after the conversation with Fitzroy the entire environment had changed. Some changes were obvious – such as the whale carcass moving closer to the sea – but other were more subtle, like NPC’s moving around, or the big ol’ blood smear leading up to the whale carcass. Yes, maybe a blood smear isn’t that subtle, but it is a nice touch that sells the theme of the game – and I was lapping it up. Pierce, you son of a bitch, I’m in.

Pierce himself doesn’t have much of a personality beyond ‘gruff veteran who’s had enough of this shit’, but it works in this context. I’d wager a good percentage of the population isn’t au fait with the Mythps. H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu, or Eldritch Horror, so he’s acts as a vehicle for the player to express themselves through the dialogue options. There are moments when genuine personality comes creeping through, and the actors performance improves throughout the course of the game, but it’s not going to leave a lasting impression on you. That being said, I did like him and I did grow fond of his eccentricities by the end of the game.

© Cyanide Studio

The dialogue is enjoyable and has enough variety to keep you interested throughout the story, and although I don’t want to touch too much on the story itself to avoid spoilers, I can safely tell you that it delights in taking you on twists and turns. There are Chapters that start predictably and you get an inkling of what might happen, and it’s usually these moments when the game pulls the rug from under you with a cry of ‘Aha! You didn’t see that coming did you!’. Even with a few stumbles and occasionally strange pacing, it’s a lot of good fun throughout. Honestly, I can’t count the number of times I turned to my husband who was watching me play and told him as much, but I know it was a heck of a lot.

One of the core game mechanics are ‘Reconstructions’; these are detective investigative sections peppered across the whole game where Pierce comes across a scene which he suspects – or has been told – has valuable information, and it’s up to the player to piece it all together. Starting one creates a self contained micro-environment within the existing level and blocks the player from leaving until they discover the bare minimum. As the player investigates deeper, Pierce reconstructs events to understand what’s happened and while each one moves the story along a good chunk the real worth is in the fact they reveal enough to the player for them to make educated guesses even beyond what Pierce learns. It’s good for the player and for their characterisation of Pierce; Cthulhu shows you that he’s good at his job, it doesn’t settle for just telling you. After the first investigation, I was hooked and looking for more. Thankfully, the Reconstructions are plentiful and arguably make up the majority of gameplay.

Aside from the Reconstructions, there are also a number of stealth sections. Frankly, these are my least favourite parts of Cthulhu, but that’s more to do with my dislike of stealth in general than the game, although I won’t pretend that’s it’s revolutionary. It’s a basic ‘avoid the enemies eye line, and run away if you get spotted’ type of stealth, forgiving of mistakes and easy to master, and the stealth sections are short enough not to ruin the overall pacing of the game. Aside from one long chapter dedicated entirely to stealth, it’s relegated to a bit part in the myriad of gameplay mechanics that the game chooses to dabble in. Call of Cthulhu isn’t afraid to mix things up, and although the gameplay revolves around the stronger elements of detective work and dialogue, it occasionally introduces new, short lived mechanics to surprise the player. Combat, chases sequences, and even a couple of boss fights; just when you think you’ve seen everything, the game brings something else to the plate.

© Cyanide Studio

I’m the first to admit that I’m terrible at both horror and stealth, but even I can appreciate the effective way they’re implemented in the boss fights of Call of Cthulhu. They all take place against the same enemy: The Shambler, a supernatural entity who has been summoned to our world and seems more than a bit peeved by that. The first time you encounter the Shambler is in the private art gallery of an island citizen, a gallery which also happens to be absolutely stuffed to the brim with foreboding Lovecraftian-esque memorabilia. If you take the time to explore, you’ll see a variety of intricate daggers dotted around the large room in display cases which are coincidentally relevant for the boss fight to come. In the centre of the room is a very large, very menacing painting of what looks like the jaws of a monster – naturally, it’s Pierce’s raison d’être to go poke it. What follows is a cat and mouse ‘fight’ where it’s painfully clear Pierce is a particularly neutered mouse; like many boss fights, if you get too close to the monster it’s an instant game over. Pierce is woefully outmatched and has to resort to sneaking around, looking for the right dagger (told you) to put an end to the Shambler.

Or at least, you’re meant to sneak around. Like I said, I am terrible at stealth so although I tried to do it properly, it became a painful chore after a few restarts. I ended up brute forcing my way through by literally running to the right dagger, smashing the display case and then sprinting back to the painting with it. Jokes on the Shambler though, because it worked. For me, this made a huge difference to how much I enjoyed the game in that moment and gave me the motivation to continue, all too often when the going gets tough – or in my case, sneaky and scary – the tough stop and the game gets uninstalled. It was refreshing to be able to work around it, even if it’s not how the developers intended the scene to go.

Later encounters with the Shambler are focused less on stealth, instead choosing to ramp up the horror aspect of the creature to great effect. As a whole, the game has a good tempo in this regard so I never felt bored or thought there was a lack of progression. There were undoubtedly moments where I wondered how close to the end I was, mainly because it felt like I’d been playing for a long time and single player, story based games these days don’t usually have such a long campaign. For the most part these moments passed quickly, again thanks to the surprising narrative.

© Cyanide Studio

Although the game is mainly from Pierce’s perspective, there are a couple of Chapters where the game gives you control of a different character. These are refreshing to the player, and seem to be placed strategically at points where the player might be getting fatigued by the continuously onslaught of the Mythos. Seeing different perspectives help the player – and Pierce, for reasons that you’ll see in game – know more than they should, so it works as an effective story telling device too.

The narrative twists and turns throughout, keeping the player on their toes until the very end, of which there are 4. I saw 2 out of the 4 (bit of cheeky save scumming there, but I have no regrets) and I enjoyed the diversity of the conclusions. SPOILERS – Yes, one of them lets you summon Cthulhu. It was flipping sweet, and I chose to make it my canonical ending because why the hell not. Sometimes the good guys don’t win, and that’s okay in my book.

For a game that I knew less than nothing about before installing it, I’m impressed with the range of mechanics and how they worked surprisingly well together. Yes, there are areas that could be improved but Call of Cthulhu made a lasting impression on me. I’ve spent a good chunk of time since finishing telling people about the game and trying to convince them to give it a go, and I hope the fun I had whilst playing comes across in this review. It won’t be a game for everyone, but I’d wager that anyone who tries it will be at least pleasantly surprised.

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