The adventures of Edward Pierce in Call of Cthulhu is an immersive, unsettling one that shows the development team has a firm grasp on creating a memorable setting and story. The tale begins strong, and though it loses some steam down the stretch, Call of Cthulhu is the perfect game to explore right around Halloween.
So much of what made Lovecraft’s written works so memorable is how they played with the minds of his protagonists – and by extension the reader. While the phrase Call of Cthulhu is used somewhat often, the relationship for this game is tied to the tabletop RPG. That makes sense then, when you start to leverage some RPG elements into putting points into our protagonist’s abilities. We follow private detective, Edward Pierce, to the town of Darkwater. There we see elements of the supernatural combining with just good old fashioned human evils to help create a web of mystery around the events there. As is typical of most Lovecraft-styled horror, it is not long before Edward is starting to question what is real and what is in his head.
This mingles the light RPG elements with an adventure / exploration style that reminds me of L.A. Noire. In certain environments, you are left to explore and look for clues, putting the pieces together to advance the narrative. The earlier stats you put into Edward can help impact things like conversation trees with NPCs or your ability to locate things hidden in the environment. It is an interesting way to implement RPG elements into the game in a fairly friction-free fashion that makes Call of Cthulhu much more than the typical walking simulator.
Gameplay mostly is structured around the exploration and discovery of facts, creating rather organic puzzles that have a pretty solid pacing to them. It is nothing we have not seen in other games before, but it is handled rather well. I wish the stealth aspects were as successful, but games that have segments that rely heavily on stealth have a way of rubbing me wrong, and there were several times Call of Cthulhu did that for me. I appreciate the desire to blend a few different game styles and mechanics into the game, but the enemy AI needs to be good for stealth gameplay modes to work, and here they are pretty inconsistent.
The story can also have a handful of unwelcome hiccups along the way. While most of the characters are pretty well voice acted and most of the narrative notes are appropriate, there are times where things happen and… I just felt as though they were forced, or not clearly defined. A reason to take the story from point A to point B without a really clear transition. There are a couple of clear paths here between sanity and insanity, and that provides some replay value – which is a good thing given the somewhat short run time (less than a dozen hours on the first playthrough). That being said, when the story finds its footing, it is really good. There are a lot of common themes found in other horror games and Lovecraftian works, and there were moments when the developers did a great job of turning my expectations on their ear with some clever narrative twists. This is Call of Cthulhu at its best.
It helps that the presentation is really solid. Outside of the sometimes spotty stealth scenes, immersion was kept up due in large part to the first person perspective and sharp audio design. Ambient sounds and loops really help to build tension, and I have long believed that a first person perspective sells horror in a way that no other perspective can. It has you using the eyes of the protagonist, often with some sort of movement or tease just off to the sides beyond your range of sight, and there were times that absolutely added to the tension and helped to create the atmosphere.
I remember reading an article once that described one of the Resistance games as the ‘most brown game ever’, or something along those lines. Call of Cthulhu may well be the most bluish-green then. It works well, but foggy horizons, clouded skies and pale illuminations take on an unearthly glow that really creates a creepy environment that I enjoyed simply looking around. As good as the environments look however, the characters themselves look far less fluid in their animations. Additionally, the camera angles are a bit rough too, panning all over and focusing on characters during dialog in a somewhat uncomfortable way at times.