Release Date: October 30, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Cyanide StudiosPublisher: Focus Home InteractiveGenre: Horror RPG
From French developer Cyanide Studios (Styx), Call of Cthulhu faithfully captures the distinctly macabre atmosphere of its source material, Chaosium’s Lovecraftian tabletop game of the same name, which released in the early ‘80s. It’s a first-person detective game requiring sharp focus and a cerebral approach rather than quick reflexes, and while its inky, morbid aesthetic suggests heavy survival horror gameplay, the experience falls squarely in the psychological horror category, with your character’s sanity constantly threatening to unspool as you confront the main story’s cavalcade of horrors.
It’s 1924 and you play as Edward Pierce, a troubled, substance-abusing P.I. who travels to Darkwater Island near Boston to investigate the deaths of the Hawkins family, affluent socialites who met their demise in a fire that all but consumed their sprawling mansion, the remains of which loom over the dingy harbor town below. The presentation of Darkwater and its various vistas and environments are a mixed bag, graphically. Low-res, slow-loading textures, herky-jerky animation, and low-poly character models are pervasive and distracting, at least initially. But as you progress through the story, the larger strokes of artistic design conspire to create a moody, intoxicating atmosphere that, when combined with the dark appeal of classic Lovecraftian imagery and lore, helps smooth out the minor graphical hitches.
For those with a proclivity for the Cthulhu Mythos and its grisly, netherworldly art style will be pleased to find that Cyanide shares the same passion. From gutted killer whales washed up on Darkwater’s moonlit shores to the slimy, tentacled beasts that stalk after you down long, dark hallways, the game is steeped in the unmistakable feeling of desolation, deterioration, and bleakness Lovecraftian works are known for.
In essence, gameplay is about performing a psychological balancing act as you navigate Pierce through the terrors and tragedies of the campaign. One of Cthulhu’s great strengths is that virtually every element of gameplay is tied into Pierce’s teetering mental state. Certain decisions you make, like abstaining from imbibing alcohol, help to preserve your sanity, while other actions, like hiding in confined spaces for too long or starting drama with the locals, push you closer to the brink of madness. The game boasts over a dozen endings, which play out depending on how damaged Pierce’s psyche is by the tale’s conclusion.
The game’s three pillars of gameplay — conversation, exploration/investigation, and stealth –make for a varied experience, if not a consistently enthralling one. Interacting with the denizens of Darkwater feels terrific, as the dialogue trees are well thought-out and the vocal performances are uniformly solid. Getting a sense of the island community’s social dynamics is fun, and with some verbal finesse, you’ll be able to uncover clues and open up new narrative possibilities that could change your “destiny” in a big way. None of the NPCs you meet along your journey are especially unique for this kind of game but the writing is cohesive, so the overall character work does a good job of helping create a seamless game world.
Most of your time playing Cthulhu will no doubt be spent scouring isolated environments for clues as you unravel the mystery of the Hawkins family, uncovering a bedrock of truth involving cults, otherworldly creatures, and some of the shadiest medical practices you can imagine. When entering certain areas you’ll be triggered to scour your surroundings for anything that could help your case, and you’ll often enter into “reconstruction scenes,” in which you use clues to piece together events from the past, a low-tech version of a similar detective mechanic from Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. These moments are incredibly engaging and go a long way to immerse you in the narrative, putting you in the mind space of the deceased to better understand their motivations (which can often negatively affect Pierce’s sanity). There’s a neat visual cue employed in the reconstruction scenes as well, in which all color in the environment is desaturated, save for points of interest that could help you mentally re-assemble the scenario.
Certain sections of the game involving extensive scouring and key-item collecting require a measure of patience to get through, which can be a good or bad thing depending on whether you like this kind of slow-burn gameplay or not. Cthulhu is by no measure a fast-paced, action-packed horror game the likes of Resident Evil. But its deliberate pacing is a treat if, like me, you enjoy suspenseful, mind-bending horror. Combat is essentially a non-factor here, but the lack of conventional action opens up bigger opportunities for the story and thick, demonic atmosphere to seep into your mind, putting you firmly in Pierce’s headspace (especially if you play with the lights off).
While Cthulhu is light on reflex-based gameplay, the campaign is punctuated by stealth-based sections that see you ducking into and out of claustrophobic spaces as cultists and security guards attempt to sniff you out. The stealth mechanics are as rudimentary as they get and the AI is similarly bare-bones. These moments are the weakest in the game, mostly because unlike the other mechanics, stealth doesn’t enrich the theme of psychological imbalance, which is to say, the stealth sections feel the most video game-y and the least artistically inspired.
Even less frequent than the stealth sections are a handful of action set pieces that see Pierce running for his life from all manner of cosmic terrors. Cyanide has done a fine job of making these scenes frightening, tense, and trippy as all hell, and these short bursts of action, whether you’re sprinting to escape an imploding cave, getting into a fistfight with a local mob boss-lady, or wrestling to free yourself from a slimy tendril in a hidden underground passage, act as a sort of storytelling lubricant that helps break up the narrative pace and keep things moving. Pierce will often have panic attacks, too, which like the set pieces, mix up gameplay in a nice way. The screen warbles and goes hazy as you scramble to get to safety and calm Pierce down, and this can happen at incredibly inopportune moments, which is always a wickedly fun challenge to overcome.
One of the most intriguing aspects of gameplay is a light RPG-style skill system, divided into seven categories: Investigation, Strength, Eloquence, Spot Hidden (odd name), Psychology, Medicine, and Occultism. You’re awarded Character Points when you get past certain sections in the story or collect key items, and these can be spent in five of the seven categories (Medicine and Occultism improve as you find items scattered throughout the game world), which each open up new gameplay opportunities. Work on your Eloquence skill, for example, and you’ll be more likely to deceive, charm, and manipulate NPC’s into helping you with your case. Improve your Investigation skill, and you’ll begin to notice granular clues you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to sleuth before. While straightforward and a little thin, the skill system is actually a welcome feature that breathes life into the game, which can at times feel incredibly linear. The added layer of character customization is integral and elevates the core gameplay beautifully.
Call of Cthulhu has some glaring flaws in its presentation and lacks a certain level of polish that would have elevated the game considerably. At times, it can look more like a last-gen title, with grainy pre-rendered cutscenes and low-res, low-poly models all abound. But there’s a good chance that the game’s strong art style and richly detailed lore will be absorbing enough that you’ll forgive its audio-visual weaknesses. This is a decidedly narrative-based experience, and while you’ll encounter far more chills than thrills throughout the campaign, the story is genuinely engaging from beginning to end, and the nightmarish visions Cyanide has concocted are sure to get under your skin.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.