29 Oct 2018

Call of Cthulhu Review

When I hear the name Howard Phillips Lovecraft, I picture otherworldly abominations terrorising small town inhabitants, terrified sailors doing battle with extra-terrestrial species, and religious cultists unlocking forbidden knowledge through their unrelenting devotion. These are the most important ingredients for adapting one of his stories to another medium, and despite the controversy a lot of his work generates – especially when viewed through a modern lens – there are still many I’ve enjoyed reading over the years.

Cyanide Studio – the French developer behind Blood Bowl and Styx - delivers the latest effort to adapt "The Call of Cthulhu". Loosely based on the 1981 tabletop role-playing game by Chaosium, which itself was greatly inspired by Lovecraft’s mythos, the game follows private investigator Edward Pierce as he is hired to investigate the suspicious deaths of the Hawkins family on the isolated Darkwater Island. Soon after arriving on the isle, Pierce is plunged into a world of horrors beyond his understanding.
It has to be said: this is a psychological horror, so it doesn’t rely on forced jump scares, but instead toys with your imagination. Cyanide has aimed for replicating the atmosphere of the old Lovecraft tales, but it was also up to the studio to look to other sources for inspiration. “The overall dramatic aspects of the island and landscapes are strongly inspired by 19th century romantic landscape painters, especially Caspar David Friedrich,” a recent developer blog stated, “Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was referenced for the idea of a menacing Victorian mansion on top of a hill […] Apart from the mansion, we have tried to avoid as much as possible any gothic inspiration. Partly because they are at risk of seeming corny, as we have seen them countless times in horror games and movies. Another artist that comes to my mind for his crazy stuff is Zdzisław Beksiński.”

Most of your time in Call of Cthulhu is going to be spent investigating the unnerving locales of Darkwater whilst speaking to the weird inhabitants of the island. There are several stats affecting how you interact with the world, and you can level these up as the game progresses. For example if you need to use force to break through a door, the game will do a check on your Strength stat to determine if it’s high enough to let you through. There are moments where Edward will need to use a speech or psychological check when in dialogue with another character, and this can affect how certain conversations are driven. The most interesting stat is Occult, which cannot be levelled normally but rather by Edward’s interactions with mystical objects such as religious texts and symbols.

To break up the pace of these investigations, there are also puzzle sections for Edward to complete, as well as an occasional stealth level. The puzzles are usually as simple as gathering hidden objects to solve a problem, however there are also some that involve a bit of thinking and basic code-breaking skills. The stealth sequences are probably the most annoying part of the game, owing to how unpredictable enemy line of sight is as well as how easily they can detect you, even when they’re located a whole room away from you. Despite that, these sections fill the game’s pacing well when they appear, but are sadly not used enough to make a large enough impact.
I think one of the most commendable aspects of Call of Cthulhu is how its protagonist is written. Being a veteran of the First World War, Edward suffers heavily from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt. This results in him being heavily dependent on alcohol, and the fragile state of his mind also leaves him vulnerable to the cosmic horrors of Darkwater. Part of what I liked about this is that he’s also not great in a fight and gets easily scared. Despite being initially presented as an archetypal hardboiled detective, the game spends its first few hours proving that he is not a walking stereotype. It also carries over into the gameplay where Edward will have periodic panic attacks when in stressful situations such as navigating tight spaces or facing an enemy. When this happens, the screen will become distorted and he’ll begin to hyperventilate, which may draw the attention of any potential foes.

Although the writing is mostly superb, there does come a point where it begins to feel like the story is rushing along faster than it should be, particularly in its final act. I’d say I was playing it at a moderately slow pace, but even then I finished with around 8 hours logged, which was a huge step down from Cyanide’s 12-15 hour estimate. The game gets around this by confronting you with several alternative choices, some of which are done consciously whereas others will be made for you due to your stats. This almost solves the problem of length, and considering Call of Cthulhu heavily utilises elements from tabletop RPGs, it makes sense that choice-based gameplay would drive the story along, but this also presents another issue.
While there are many choices to be made in Call of Cthulhu, there aren’t many that feel meaningful. Once you’ve made an impactful decision, the game will throw a “This will affect your destiny” message at you in a similar vein to Telltale’s “They will remember that” prompts. And while there are multiple endings to the story, much of the impact is made in the final chapter. As an example of why I wasn’t a fan of these choices, there are many times where you’ll have to decide whether to kill or spare a character, but the consequences of either are barely realised and don’t make a lasting impact on anything that follows. In the end, it feels like a pointless system and not as interactive as it could have been, but considering this is based on a mythos about cosmic unimportance, maybe that's the point Cyanide was trying to make here.

As it is mostly an original story, instead borrowing themes and other elements from Lovecraft’s work, being an expert on the mythos is not a pre-requisite to enjoying the game. With that said, from the achievement names to the appearance of a specific character, there are many references that be recognisable to fans. As the devblog states: “Our biggest challenge in the development of the game has been to stay as true as possible to the key ideas of Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft has to be gloomy and oppressive, but not outwardly horrific in an on the nose manner. It has to be fantastic but not fantasy. It has to instil fear through unease, expectation and the feeling of helplessness, not through jump scares, direct confrontation and violence. The biggest challenge was to translate this vision of cosmic horror specific to Lovecraft into a game experience.”
Time will tell how Cyanide wants to proceed with this universe, but considering its source material, it is entirely conceivable that the studio could expand this beyond one game and flesh out a new Cthulhu mythos in the form of a videogame saga. I would love to see adaptations of stories such as At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow over Innsmouth as possible future instalments.

I think the fairest critique the game can receive is that while it isn’t a bad game, the grouping of different gameplay mechanics can lead it to becoming a jack of many trades but a master of none. Despite this, it still stands well on its own two feet, and if you’re just after an unsettling eight hour descent into cosmic horror, Call of Cthulhu is an example of that type of storytelling done well.

Disclosure: code for this game was supplied by Focus Home Interactive.

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