Call of Cthulhu is the kind of experience that I don’t really see anymore. A mid-level game that, while not the best looking or most polished thing out there, makes savvy use of what it can. It also fully tackles the challenge of translating Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game, and by extension the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu Mythos, into a video game. A challenge that many developers have tried with… interesting results.
Cyanide Studios’ final product is a fascinating crack at the material. Alternating between a restrained, atmospheric slow boil and an open-ended RPG; all while set in a limited number of locations and scenarios. While the lack of polish and scope can be due to the game’s modest production, what does make it on-disc is an intriguing descent into madness destined to become a cult hit.
One Last Case
Call of Cthulhu opens with a disturbing dream sequence. Private detective Edward Pierce is surrounded by the corpses and viscera of deep sea life, a haunting disembodied voice ominously declaring the dawning of a new age. Faceless people in robes slowly come into focus, performing some arcane ritual around some squirming tentacled horror. The vividness of the dream horrifies Pierce, until he finally wakes up in his office. It’s 1924, he chalks up the dreams to the horrors he suffered from fighting in the Great War, grumbles that the sleeping pills his doctor gave him haven’t exactly been working, and is in need of a case or risk losing his license.
Unfortunately, Pierce gets what he wanted. A concerned man tells him about a tragedy that hit the Hawkins family on the small island of Darkwater out on the coast of Boston. Their mansion caught fire, the family burned alive. But it seems that Sarah Hawkins was a prolific painter, and several of her pieces have started popping up throughout the island, pieces that should have been lost in the fire. Something doesn’t seem right, so Pierce is hired to travel to Darkwater to uncover the truth about the Hawkins. But the island holds many dark secrets that will push Pierce’s mind to its utter limits.
It is in these opening ten minutes that Call of Cthulhu firmly plants its flag. The phantasmagoria of the dream sequence is haunting. Pierce’s office is a solid example of visual storytelling with elements like a glass of scotch on the desk, hundreds of books on various skills and studies littering his book shelf, and a photograph of his Lost Battalion paints a striking picture of Pierce’s history and current mental state. The hook of what is going on in Darkwater handled expertly with a proper mix of uneasy foreboding and reluctance on Pierce’s part.
It also prepares you for what you’ll be doing during most of your time in Darkwater. The gameplay consists of you talking with various characters, either to get information or form brief alliances, finding clues, and making deductions based on what you have discovered. With discoveries you make and clues you discover opening new branching dialogue options with key characters.
This particular form of detective work is most prominent in the recreation system. Whenever you come across a key scene in the investigation, Pierce will attempt to mentally reassemble the scene with what he has learned. This mostly amounts to you finding key items or spots in the area and holding a button, but it also helps give clarity to how the investigation is proceeding. There are even hidden objects tucked away in these scenes that can completely change how Pierce puts together the scene, changing who or what he can trust.
It reminds me a lot of the old point-and-click adventure games from the 1990s. The focus on deductive reasoning, figuring out certain characters’ ulterior motives, and just letting a murder mystery play out at its own content pace. There is no map or checkpoints you can use to mark your way, but the locations you’re in are small and defined enough that you get familiar with them very quickly. It is also entirely possible to miss key information about the case and keep going all the way to the end.
It’s a radical departure from the modern design philosophy of accessibility and information overload that actually works in the game’s favor, amplifying immersion and making it feel like you’re never fully grasping what is going on.
My only real major issues come from the game’s technical hiccups and noticeable drags in production. When everything comes together, this game drips with dread, lighting and weather effects invoking a sickening and unsettling air of horror. Then certain characters talk and it ranges from good to cringe-inducing. Edward Pierce in particular pulls off a convincing grizzled detective affect, complete with low growls and the occasional sardonic barb, then it gets compared to several fishermen characters early on in the game that sound less like drunken Bostonians and more like awkward non-English speakers trying to read the lines for community theater.
There’s also some inconsistency in cutscenes and character model quality. Certain characters look great in-engine, emoting and moving around convincingly, then those same characters have this rigid mannequin quality during the “better” looking premade cinematics. The less said about the generic fishermen and security guard characters, the better.
Man Who Has Seen Too Much
Since Call of Cthulhu is based on an RPG, you do have access to various skills to help aid your investigation. Eloquence makes you able to smooth talk and mollify people. Investigation makes you more perceptive in crime scenes and makes it easier to pick locks. Strength makes you more intimidating and physical against certain characters and situations. And Psychology lets you figure out and manipulate people better. Most of these skills simply amount to having certain dialogue options available to you, but there is some limited application in other parts of the game. For example, being able to lockpick your way into certain rooms with a high enough Investigation can lead to certain plot revelations or horrific sights to be discovered early or skipped altogether. Or if your Strength is high enough, you can overwhelm or force your way through locked doors.
Yes, two of the skills basically amount to being able to open doors in a different way. It’s one of the more glaring problems with the skill system itself, both in how restricted they are (four of the seven skills are dedicated to dialogue options) and how much they overlap with one another. There’s a Spot Hidden skill that makes it easier to find hidden objects in certain areas and recreation locations, but the base level of the skill is so helpful, using a combination of highlighting the object in green and a flashing icon on the screen showing how close you are to the object, I never felt the need to put character points into it. There are Medicine and Occult skills which can only be improved by finding weird relics or reading medical books scattered throughout the game’s multiple chapters, but their actual function is mostly flavor text.
On the surface it reads as a sloppy, poorly conceived system compared to more robust skill systems out there in more traditional RPGs. Even for an investigation-heavy experience, how you choose to role-play Edward Pierce mostly comes down to aesthetic preference more than trying to master the game’s elaborate systems. In fact, the only spots in the game that you can really fail at are the stealth sections. Specific chapters where you have to avoid being detected while collecting key items or fixing some plot-relevant machine. It would be impressively intense if it didn’t rely on some inept enemy AI. At least when it comes to human enemies….
And yet I can’t fully hate the skill system or how it is used in Call of Cthulhu. There are just enough branching decisions in the narrative that are only possible if you have the right skill level, making your investment feel meaningful in the moment. Things like using your strength to open a grate leading into a secret tunnel or using your Eloquence to talk your way into a secure location aren’t exactly original, but they work. The Illusion of Choice, the design trick of having your big important decisions not amount to much to the greater narrative, has become a bit of a four-letter word when it comes to games like these, especially after Telltale Games drove the formula into the ground, but here it actually ties into one of the biggest themes of the source material: the feeling of being insignificant in the face of forces greater than you.
The Mountains of Madness
Which finally brings me to the big topic I’ve been dancing around: Call of Cthulhu’s eldritch horrors and sanity system. After a truly creepy slow boil of a first act with Pierce assembling leads, getting allies, and delving into the secrets of Darkwater Island, unsettling phenomena start to occur. Pierce’s memory starts to become unreliable as people he saw die show up perfectly fine later, or clues and leads go in completely unexpected directions. The arcane and unnatural start to become commonplace, taking its toll on the protagonist’s mind.
And once certain details like the shady history of Darkwater, the cult of the great Cthulhu, and the presence of other alien entities like Dimensional Shamblers enter the mix, it puts the otherwise human intellect and skillset of Pierce into stark contrast.
It’s a level of dedication that absolutely shows in how the game expresses Pierce’s sanity. Treated as an overall health bar of sorts, the sanity meter in the game starts off as stable, with Pierce able to make logical decisions and reasonable leaps of intuition. But since this is a cosmic horror story, that healthy state will not last long. After a traumatic first encounter with the cult and their goings on, Call of Cthulhu starts throwing scenarios and situations that will chip away at Pierce’s sanity. Reading arcane books like the Necronomicon, watching characters die horribly, or doing cruel actions will make him less sane and reliable. It even gets to the point where it affects the recreation scenes, representing Pierce’s mind breaking down, or perhaps being awakened to some great cosmic truth.
This is used to fantastic effect in one of the game’s highlight moments: an Alien: Isolation style stealth sequence against a horrific monster. While the set piece itself amounts to a prolonged puzzle, the introduction of certain phobias make it a lot more harrowing than in other games. It’s a lot harder to hide in a closet from a monster if you have a phobia of the dark after all.
It’s thanks to this more in-depth system that the game can start playing around with genre in the second half. Hopping back and forth between walking-simulator style hallucination sequences, environmental puzzle-solving sections, and even a short-lived gun battle when the crap has truly hit the fan in the third act. All culminating in one of three possible endings depending on Pierce’s final mental state that are each fulfilling in their own right.
But it only barely hides the slight of hand developer Cyanide Studios has been playing since the start. What started as an open-ended RPG inevitably gets bottle-necked into a more scripted experience by the end. Decisions are paid off and consequences happen, sure, but I can easily imagine a lot of players feeling betrayed by such a change in direction. Thankfully, the way the game handles its own inherent themes of free will, destiny, and losing control of what you thought was real makes this thematic change not just tolerable, but close to brilliant.
Call of Cthulhu is a case of the whole being better than the sum of its parts. The gameplay can be described as workman like with some novelty. The characters and murder mystery are decent but undercut by mediocre performances and inconsistent production values. The atmosphere and portrayal of the iconic Cthulhu Mythos is so haunting and all-encompassing it distracts from plain level design and half-baked RPG elements. Yet, after two playthroughs of the game’s ten hour long story, I kept enjoying myself. Thanks to an understanding of the material, a reasonable sense of scale and escalation, and not being afraid to get a little messy, Cyanide Studios has created one of the better translations of Lovecraft’s work into a video game experience. A lot of it is noticeably held together with twine and positive thinking, but in the end, it hits more than misses.