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Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

Platform(s): PC, Xbox
Genre: Action
Publisher: Bethesda/Take Two
Developer: Headfirst Productions


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Xbox Review - 'Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth'

by Thomas Wilde on Dec. 27, 2005 @ 12:03 a.m. PST

Call of Cthulhu is a psychological survival/horror game based on H.P. Lovecraft's disturbing universe. Featuring a blend of action, mystery and adventure, Call of Cthulhu puts the player in the shoes of Private Eye Jack Walters, an investigator looking into the dark mysteries of the town of Innsmouth. With a first-person gameplay perspective, the game pulls the player into Lovecraft's nightmarish world of demons, demi-gods and ghouls.

Genre: Survival/Horror
Publisher: Bethesda
Developer: Headfirst
Release Date: October 25, 2005

Buy 'CALL OF CTHULHU: Dark Corners of the Earth': Xbox

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has been in development for quite some time, and I've been interested in it for just about as long. The Call of Cthulhu brand name represents the longest-running and arguably most effective horror series in pop culture. After titles like Eternal Darkness strip-mined H.P. Lovecraft's universe for ideas, filing off the serial numbers and putting their own spin on the same plots and themes, I was looking forward to seeing how Lovecraft's original universe would translate to a game.

The answer, unfortunately, is very well… as long as you don't mind enough jumping puzzles to drive you crazy.

Dark Corners of the Earth is a first-person game; calling it a "shooter" is a bit of a misnomer, since you don't actually pick up a gun until you're a third of the way through the game, and you don't do a lot of shooting anyway. It's got a lot of stealth and a touch of old-fashioned puzzle solving, wrapped in an elaborate sanity system that will occasionally scare you half to death.

There's also platforming, which I wasn't expecting.

The game begins in 1915, as Detective Jack Walters – who's tormented by insomnia, but also gifted with bizarre precognitive visions that've helped him solve a few cases – arrives at the New England headquarters of a bizarre cult. In the ensuing shootout, Walters discovers something no human should have ever seen in the cult's basement.

Six years later, after a long fugue state, Walters wakes up in an asylum. He proceeds to set up shop as a private investigator, but he's very selective about what cases he takes. The first case he takes in a while is to find a boy named Brian Burnham, who's disappeared in the sleepy and xenophobic little town of Innsmouth.

Lovecraft fanatics just raised an eyebrow. Yes. That is bad.

Dark Corners of the Earth is set up like a first-person adventure game, with the combat element as a sort of secondary consideration. Jack's up against an assortment of enemies that usually aren't easy to kill; Lovecraft's mythology is populated mostly by creatures that aren't particularly bothered by shotgun blasts. You'll solve puzzles, outrun mad townspeople, hide in shadows, outwit guards, collect information, navigate mazes, crash a truck into people, hallucinate wildly, and leap from platform to platform inside a burning house well before Jack so much as touches a gun.

Whenever you see something shocking or disturbing, like a dead body or a monster, Jack will take a hit to his sanity. When he's a little nuts, the effects will range from him constantly muttering to himself to outright hallucinations, as he suddenly finds himself back in the asylum or in the grips of some unknown nightmare.

He'll also start experiencing weird visual distortions, which is a neat effect but works against Dark Corners of the Earth to some extent. If a first-person shooter has ever made you motion-sick, don't play this one. When Jack is dizzy, injured, or out of breath, the onscreen action will blur, distort, or slow down to represent it. It's an effective visual, but it can really cause a few headaches.

Speaking of horrible segues headaches, Dark Corners of the Earth uses kind of an odd health system. Rather than saddling Jack with a standard-issue health meter, he takes damage in the form of specific injuries. As he's injured, appropriate wounds will appear on his body, as seen on your inventory screen. You can then use medical supplies to close the wounds and keep him going, although you'll need time for him to treat himself.

It's a neat system, but if Headfirst's aim was realism, it… didn't exactly work. When Jack can fall two stories and break both legs, but retain full mobility after a few seconds of strapping on some splints, realism has been tossed out the window. It winds up being a little odd and cumbersome.

All told, though, Dark Corners of the Earth is a reasonably effective horror game, all the moreso because of its setting and the visual tricks it's willing to pull. Unlike a lot of horror games, it's perfectly willing to make you helpless and prevent you from effectively fighting back against your enemies. This definitely heightens the feelings of suspense and dread, especially when you're outnumbered and have no obvious way to escape.

The big stumbling block, really, is that while Dark Corners of the Earth has fairly decent puzzle and level design, making it so it's never too difficult to figure out what you're supposed to do… it also has a metric ton of platforming action, particularly once the natives of Innsmouth start hunting for Jack. You'll get to leap across streets, bounce from ladder to crate, and make delicate jumps from thin planks to unsafe footing.

As we all know, this does not and should not fly in a first-person action game. It's frustrating and unnecessary, and has been since Half-Life.

That, to my mind, is the only real flaw in Dark Corners of the Earth. It's an atmospheric and genuinely frightening horror game set against a proven and popular background. It's not for twitch junkies, but gamers with a certain amount of patience will be rewarded with an engrossing game. I just wish that Headfirst hadn't thrown in so much jumping and climbing, and that the sanity effects weren't so detrimental to seeing what's going on onscreen.

Score: 7.9/10

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