Arts video game review

Descending into madness

‘Call of Cthulhu’ attempts to bring an iconic tabletop experience to video games

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Edward Pierce and Officer Bradley begin their expedition into the mysterious Hawkins Manor.

Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game
Developed by Cyanide
Published by Focus Home Interactive
Rated PEGI 18
Available on Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

As a reviewer, I know that it’s dangerous to get excited for content before it comes out. This was one of those times that I got excited, and I don’t think unreasonably so: the game promised to bring the tabletop system Call of Cthulhu to the world of video games, complete with a madness mechanic, some of the Lovecraftian mythos, and Call of Cthulhu-style customisable character sheet. In a basic sense, the game delivered on each of these aspects, but the implementation ultimately fell through at every turn.

In the game, we play as Edward Pierce, a veteran of WWI and private investigator living in his Boston office, sleeping on his couch in a failed attempt to avoid his vivid nightmares (one of which opens the game). The year is 1924, prohibition has just passed (not that Pierce has noticed), and our intrepid investigator is at the end of his rope; he hasn’t taken a case in months and thereby risks having his license revoked. Luckily for him, one of the wealthiest industrialists in Boston, a Mr. Weber, comes with what seems to be an open-and-shut case: his daughter, a famous painter, son-in-law, head of a wealthy family, and grandson recently died in an accidental house fire on the island of Darkwater (a whaling island off the coast of Boston, whose existence is not well-known). The evidence, however, does not add up: the police report is vague at best, and the daughter had sent her father a painting, which arrived two weeks after her death, whose sole contents were a robed figure with a vibrant green symbol on its chest — one that matched exactly the one we see in his nightmare at the beginning of the game. Compelled to take the case, Pierce takes a boat out to Darkwater — a fog-covered, half-abandoned whaling island, which still remembers their last great catch nearly 80 years ago.

We spend the first act trying to get basic information, which, in Pierce’s eyes is sparse, but to the aware player, it gives away a bit too much. It felt that Pierce’s monologue-style descriptions of clues gave strictly less information than what one can read in the same documents. This works to some extent, but it means that Pierce feels a bit slow to catch onto the nature of the plot. That said, on one hand, I appreciate the writers providing hints to the plot twist from the beginning of the game, but these hints gave far too much information for the attentive player, who, if having read some occult fiction, as I have, can piece together much of the cult that we find in the at the end of the first act.

Story aside, there were a few graphically impressive moments in the game that were  washed out in a grey-green fog. Throughout the game, the only light source that produces yellowish or reddish light is Pierce’s lighter (and a specific lamp for a puzzle); everything else carries the same eerie, green-grey colour that the island’s fog casts upon everything. This, coupled with the game being very dark, made much of the game feel washed out and sickly. That said, the paintings which the story centers around are absolutely fantastic and perfectly capture the aesthetic of the Cthulhu mythos in disturbing and fantastic ways.

In the way of gameplay, its roots in tabletop-style systems can be very much felt, but actually make the game more frustrating than fun. Having played through the game with a balanced build, I felt that I essentially never failed an important ability check, so I pretty much found out all that I could want to know — even restarting with lopsided builds, I was only able to elicit two or three different lines of monologue and fail a few more checks, which ended up only marginally impacting the story, and ultimately just made progression feel more like a grind than a detective story. Similarly, like its tabletop counterpart, the game follows the philosophy that you can’t really fight Lovecraftian monsters with a gun, and so instead, it has the players solve puzzles. In some ways, this is done pretty well. There are three ways to progress — one that’s always there, one that requires you to succeed at some checks, and one that can be solved by being clever (and not failing a critical check) — and in others, you have no idea what you’re meant to be doing and die fifteen times until you happen upon the solution by chance.

And then there’s the sanity mechanic. In the tabletop game, having the GM slowly drive your character insane as they learn more of the occult, means being able to do much more while losing their grip on reality. This is what makes Call of Cthulhu unique. Everything has a cost. In the video game, however, losing sanity is more like a collectable than a consequence. There is virtually no mechanical penalty for being driven near completely insane by the events of the game, other than unlocking some new dialogue options and locking you into a single outcome of the third act.

All in all, it was an OK game. Personally, I feel that it suffered from trying to be both a modern mystery-horror video game and a tabletop port in the same space and missed the mark on both goals. When trying to make the more distinctive aspects of the tabletop experience, like spotting hidden checks, the way that it was ported into a ‘find-the-green-dot-to-make-the-flashing-question-mark-go-away mechanic’ got in the way of the game itself. To be fair, I enjoyed the game. It had some fun puzzles, it definitely had its moments, but with limited replay value, lackluster lore, and frustrating mechanics, I wouldn’t pay the $60 price tag for its eight-hour playtime.