In Call of Cthulhu, you are tasked with learning more about a famous artist by the name of Sarah Hawkins whose family supposedly died in a fire at their mansion. Your investigation takes you all over (and under) the island of Darkwater, through the local hospital, mysterious caves, and even into the minds of the citizens of Darkwater themselves. Many of these places have unholy texts or interactive trinkets scattered throughout, and this is where the game shines brightest.
The island of Darkwater is home to more than the story of Call of Cthulhu; the island of Darkwater is a stand-in for Innsmouth; it’s just up the Miskatonic from Dunwich; it’s floating over the ancient, unknown ruins of R’lyeh. Darkwater exists as a catch-all for the Cthulhu mythos, and each philosophical text and occult medallion makes the world feel larger than what you see. Unfortunately, the snippet of the world that you can see is quite limited. The characters that call Darkwater home are uninspired, and not one of them grows or changes in any meaningful way through the story. This includes Darkwater’s newest addition: your character, Detective Edward Pierce.
After overcoming the initial disappointment of not being able to create my own character, I was looking forward to seeing how the game built itself around my decisions as Pierce. But his narrative is non-existent, as he merely serves as a window for the player into the already murky waters of the island. I would have felt more invested in the mystery had I played my own character rather than the bland (and far too talkative) detective.
The game’s cutscenes (which were not rendered in-engine for some reason) that served as transitions between each level had Pierce take control and force the story forward. The narrative was set, and he made decisions that I otherwise would not have made for him, decisions that often did not align with my understanding of who he was supposed to be as a character. When you are in control, the skills that develop as you dive into the mysteries of Darkwater are the closest to customization that you have access to.
Completing various milestones earns you Character Points (CP) which you can use to build Pierce’s stats: Eloquence, Strength, Investigation, Spot Hidden, and Psychology. While Strength serves as a device for intimidation, the game has no combat mechanics, so it seemed like a throwaway stat. The others are fairly straightforward, except for Spot Hidden. Increasing your skill level in Spot Hidden means that secret objects in the room that would otherwise not be present are revealed.
While missing out on a few paragraphs of lore for the sake of building up your interaction-based skills might not be the worst thing, without immediately investing CP into Spot Hidden, you cannot level up two of your abilities: Occultism and Medicine. Both of these skills require you to find texts on various bookshelves rather than upgrading them with points, and these books are easily overlooked, or outright invisible, collectibles. Their esoteric nature fills you with knowledge untouched by generations, and arcane learning is at the heart of the worlds of Cthulhu. Learning truly comes about in the form of Pierce’s hidden, eighth ability: Sanity.
Sanity seems like a sensible staple for a mythos developed around madness, but it’s not until you’ve completed more than half of the game that you are prompted to use a dialogue option written in an indecipherable script, bookended by a parenthetical: (Valid SAN Requirement). I spent the remainder of the game exclusively selecting these options in the hopes that it would make Pierce do… something. It did not. Rather, insanity manifested through claustrophobia or while staring at the horrid visage of a creature. The screen turned green and made the camera shake, only serving to nauseate me and otherwise not impacting gameplay. The monstrosities themselves were horrifying enough to see on screen, but interacting with them was altogether uninspiring.
In fact, the most engaging parts of the game came before the mythical horrors. Looking around Pierce’s office and beginning the investigation on Darkwater established a clear style: gather information to open up new dialogue options and areas to explore. Some mechanics, like the surreal and poorly designed “Reconstruction” ability that lets Pierce (and several other characters) magically see and hear echoes of past events, were clearly out of place, but the pacing and the world were interesting.
One or two puzzles that actually required some thought and investigation on my part blended the atmosphere, mechanics, and characters fluidly, and they made for fantastic gameplay moments. It was in those moments that the game almost felt like the RPG that it wanted to be. In most others it felt like a point-and-click action adventure. At no point was this more apparent than when Pierce is finally given a weapon. When the citizens of Darkwater turn (or your mind finally snaps) you are able to defend yourself with a pistol. Using the pistol feels unnatural. You can miss by a wide margin and still take down a target. Ammo isn’t tracked but can run out. It did not feel intentional. It felt like someone decided it had to be there.
Firing a gun in Call of Cthulhu was an afterthought in development. It was built in knowing it would only occupy a small part of the game. This thinking seemed to permeate every design decision. Facial and body animations range from rigid to ragdoll; the stylizing of investigation sequences and memories felt forgotten in more ways than one; missions that required stealth were nothing more than crouching and walking forward. With many of the game’s more interesting abilities and options hidden away and the story itself being confusing and not at all compelling, there is little left other than to submit your will to the Leviathan. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Free Him.
+ Draws on decades worth of stories to create a particularly eerie place
+ When the best elements of the game come together, it provides a dark, fun, puzzle-based RPG
+ Depicts the esoteric nature of the Cthulhu mythos well (whether that is intentional or not is TBD)
– Feels incomplete
– Character choices and dialogue decisions hardly have an impact on the play experience
– Weak writing and poor voice acting leads to an incoherent plot and uninteresting characters
– Linear level design discourages exploration but has elements that require it
Call of Cthulhu is available for purchase in the Humble Store.