**CONTENT WARNING: Some images used in this review contain various levels of gore and decaying whale carcasses. If you have a weak stomach or do not wish to see such images, I apologize beforehand.**
Cthulhu ah mythos Y’ kind ot ahmgshugnah.
I’ve always found the figure of Cthulhu to be interesting but never enveloping. I mean, you can only go so far with a mass of tentacles, and that’s without the Hentai jokes, so where do you go from there? Still, as a mythical being of horror, it’s always nice to sit down and wrap those greasy tentacles around you for a nice, uncomfortable story. Answer the Call of Cthulhu.
This is the latest role-playing title from French studio Cyanide, which is one of the few good things about France, save for frog-legs and whenever you get them on your team in Call of Duty. Cyanide are responsible for the heavily-underrated Styx titles, which are the reason why I fell in love with stealth, and together with the equally-French Focus Home Interactive, they’ve worked together to bring this product back from the depths.
You play as Edward Pierce, a WW1 veteran with many a talent, the most distinct of which is sounding like he’s always about to fall asleep while speaking. On the risk of losing his cushy private detective job, he’s suddenly recruited by a man who asks if Edward can help with the mystery case of her daughter’s death, which also claimed the life of her husband and son. With his only leads being a warehouse number and a mysterious painting, he now heads to the isolated island of Darkwater to find out what’s going on.
Now, if you’re looking for a horror experience that’s more in line with jump scares and your loud noises, this won’t be your cup of tea, unfortunately. Call of Cthulhu is looking to breathe air with new life behind it, rejuvenating the genre with things like atmospheres, snail-crawl pacing, murky environments, that sort of thing. You couldn’t get a slower burn unless you were trying to cook a spit roast with a single matchstick.
I’d say it’s a good hour out of your six-hour journey before you manage to get anything ranging within a scare. Your first steps in Darkwater Harbour will be educational, perusing the town for information and new acquaintances, along with seeing just how well Cyanide can detail an environment. This is something that was also a thing in Styx, where you have these beautifully expansive levels, so thickly defined and detailed that it’s a wonder the game isn’t fifty gigabytes with the amount of shit rendered.
The art direction is easily my favorite part of the game. Not the environments themselves, because they look like they were ripped straight from a Resident Evil game before being dumped in methane, but the art in-game. Sarah Hawkins, the woman you’re attempting to piece together the life of, was an artist before her demise, and some of the paintings dotted around the island of Darkwater are genuinely unnerving, and contrast in a brilliant way against everything else.
There’s a wonderful sense of coziness, even after the horrors start trying to take over Pierce and Co. Bars, houses, hospital receptions, small rooms with nothing important in them except one unrelated collectible; they add to this tone of oppression and home at the same time. It’s eerily reminiscent of a horror version of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, and I wish the gameplay was reminiscent of it as well.
This is where Cyanide fumble the ball around for a few seconds. Pierce doesn’t really have any outstanding skills, bar one which is the skill of reconstruction. For some reason that is never actually explained, Daniel has the ability to completely zone out of human reality and piece together a crime scene without directly involving himself in it. It’s literally just a blockade until you find everything, with there being no actual detective work.
Pierce will mostly just bum around the island, asking people random shit that amounts to nothing, with some of his stats slowly being upgraded if you’re incredibly lucky. You can find items relating to medicine and the occult around Darkwater, and these will upgrade those two skills in the slowest manner possible. Even after sniffing out everything I could possibly see, I still couldn’t get them past 3/5 each, so maybe I’m crap at this.
The other skills are upgraded via Character Points, which are handed to you throughout the narrative and nowhere else, meaning there’s a set limit. There might be a few more that are available if you interact with the world and convince NPCs to do stuff relating to the story, but a massive bulk of the Character Points are set to be given to you at the beginning of chapters, or completion of objectives. There also isn’t enough to max out everything, so you’ll need to be strategic and consider what’s important.
If there’s one Character Skill that should’ve been removed entirely, it’s the “Hidden Spot” skill, which only counts towards collectibles, with objective-related hidden items always being forseen by the player. It’s a red herring of a Skill, and its only purpose is to get you some sweet gamerscore if you find all of the special books about how a pastors wife stopped watching Eastenders… or something.
If you keep the Limited Skill Points mechanic in mind, then your first playthrough might be a lot better than going in blind, because you know beforehand that you’re going to have to optimize and leave behind certain skills. The third-place problem this game has is that despite all of this attention to detail, Call of Cthulhu still feels aggressively rail-roaded in sections, especially in the atypical horror sections with no weapons and monsters roaming the halls. Nevertheless, it is here where the game still attempts to shine.
Given the source material of what we’re dealing with here, the biggest enemies plotting against you in Call of Cthulhu aren’t necessarily the monsters, but isolation, restriction, and fear. You can’t stay in one place for too long in this game, especially when the “Dimensional Shambler” starts trying to tickle you with his impaling claws. If you hide in a closet, you draw more attention to yourself after submitting to panic attacks, and if you stare at the beast for too long, he stares right back at you.
This little twists to the formula are great and done much better than say, SOMA, because there are direct consequences for actions without thought, as opposed to the developers just being dickheads. You play it safe, you play it slow, and most importantly, you play it with your eyes closed, which is the greatest way a horror game could go. If only it happened more than once.
Yeah, here comes to the silver medal winner, in that the horror in Call of Cthulhu seems like an obligatory throw-in option, as opposed to the objective front-runner choice. The moments where your sanity gets affected, they’re never outright objects of fear and more odd occurrences that add nothing to the experience. They feel like part of the world as opposed to it being the world morphing due to the Dark One’s influence, and while they may have been the point, the batshit insane last hour of the game disproves that.
Before we get into this, you must know this small piece of information, and that’s the fact that Cyanide wasn’t the original developers for this game. Back in 2014, it was announced that Ukrainian developers Frogwares– Developers of the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes games– would be developing this game, and after two years of radio silence, the project changed hands. This might explain why the game is at odds with itself, narratively and progressively.
You think it’s thematic, at first. Characters motivations get lop-sided, discarded and forgotten about, like the death of Sarah Hawkins child not even being bought up again after an hour, even when the Hawkins case speaks about. Characters who are built up never get their time in the limelight, MacGuffins and plot-critical elements are discarded almost immediately, and Pierce feels like he’s been taken for a ride.
It’s great character building for everyone, bar Edward Pierce himself, who cannot believably convey the emotions of insanity to the player. There’s no easing into it, it’s as if he’s got an on-off switch for sanity and craziness, which detracts from the overall experience, especially when the mechanics of insanity in-game are not expanded upon. It’s about now where you realize the problem with Call of Cthulhu: It feels like a Frankenstein of a project that has no clear direction.
You can see this in the Character Points as well. A smart player would believe that this would affect the case, or have intertwining paths where you can accuse somebody innocent of being a murderer instead of the actual murderer. The Sherlock Holmes games did it, where you could actually make the wrong assumption and put the wrong person behind bars, and even though it’s obvious that we’re dealing with something out of our control, the illusion of choice is still better than no choice at all.
As for progressively, the final hour of Call of Cthulhu is where Cyanide doesn’t even bother to pick up the ball they just dropped. There is so little involving gameplay, with most of it just being simple cutscenes which don’t attempt to explain anything, and just throw whatever at you. There’s an honest-to-god Rambo moment, where Pierce whips out his ol’ Sally 1911 and goes postal on the island inhabitants, and it comes off as some cheap masculine moment, as opposed to a genuine breakdown of the island of Darkwater.
What happened to the subtlety present in the first half? That slow boil that showed signs of intelligence and a narratively-based lack of comfort, the little glimpses of genius that other characters utter, the environments laden with care and precision. Where have all of the moments from the trailers and screenshots gone? where does all of this brilliance go? Why does it go, along with all of the characters who have no presence at all in the story, yet we’re supposed to care for them because… uhh… well, y’know, Cat’s pretty fit, innit.
The endings are awful, by the way. Not the “endings”, mind you, which at least come off as if they were meant to be part of the actual vision Frogwares intended, but the Ending ending. Obviously, there will be no spoilers, but you’ve seen it before, and just as it didn’t work in Realms of The Haunting, it doesn’t work here. That isn’t a fair reward for our efforts, it’s a slap in the face for being involved.
At the end of my playthrough, I wasn’t severely angered by how it all went by. My first playthrough clocked in at just above five hours, and that was while struggling with certain puzzles and elements. It was a depressing anger to see the games life enter and leave as quickly as it did, and I honestly cannot in good conscience recommend this game.
If the game actually followed through with further Sherlock Holmes comparisons, then it’d be great to see, because Devil’s Daughter failed due to it being grounded in reality for all of the last five minutes. It would’ve been great to have been a detective doing detective things in a supernatural world, instead of it simply being a vehicle of mismatched elements of atmospheric horror and action.
In the end, despite a bloody fantastic start that shows uncompromising vision from everyone involved, the wheels on the bus fall off and the vehicle for Call of Cthulhu explodes. While the horror elements exist and serve to be better than most horror games out there at the moment, it’s too short to ponder upon, the writing’s unintentionally confusing to follow, and the ending is an insult. Final words? Y’ don’t kadishtu, ahehyee get llll ehyee yeeogognor ng yeeognge version.
This review of Call of Cthulhu is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
While Call of Cthulhu has the confidence to keep you involved, it never ever leads to anything bountiful, leaving you with a game that doesn't offer enough.
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