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Call of Cthulhu

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Release Date: Oct. 30, 2018


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PS4 Review - 'Call of Cthulhu'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 30, 2018 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Call of Cthulhu is an RPG-investigation game with psychological horror and stealth mechanics, set in a deeply immersive world.

Buy Call of Cthulhu

It's hard for Cthulhu to be scary anymore. One of the many creatures in H.P. Lovecraft's mythos based on being unknowable and horrifying, it's become so omnipresent that it's predictable. It takes a lot of effort to take the Lovecraftian mythos and give it a timeless sense of horror. Call of Cthulhu, based on the tabletop RPG system of the same name, is a valiant attempt to capture what makes Lovecraft's horrors so scary: the alien thoughts of an otherworldly being. Unfortunately, the attempt is dragged down by some rather glaring flaws.

Call of Cthulhu follows the adventures of Edward Pierce. A World War I vet who suffers from PTSD, Pierce is barely scraping out a living as a private detective. Just before he loses his license, he gets an offer from a rich businessman: Investigate the death of his daughter and her family on the whaling island of Darkwater. Left with the choice between living on the streets and taking the case, Pierce does the latter. It quickly becomes clear that something green, tentacled and unholy is lurking in the waters, and the death that Pierce came to investigate was just the tip of a very, very bad iceberg.

The bulk of the time in Call of Cthulhu is spent exploring various hub areas. Sometimes, the areas are populated, but other places are deserted and often creepy. As you explore, you'll find hidden objects or secrets that can be used to find more mysteries in Darkwater. This isn't a linear game, and a lot of the mysteries and secrets can go entirely undiscovered if you aren't careful. On the other hand, the game is good about allowing careful players to find information that works in their favor. Discover a mysterious photograph, and you can question someone about it. Pick up a hidden piece of information by eavesdropping, and it can be used logically later on. You can speed-run through the game and ignore most of the environments, but doing so leaves you ill-equipped when the tidbits of information become very important at a later point.

As you play the game, you'll gain the ability to level up your character in a few different disciplines. Eloquence lets you talk your way out of situations, Investigation lets you find special clues, Psychology lets you analyze people for little hints or clues, Spot Hidden lets you find hidden artifacts, and Strength lets you threaten and use physical force against troublemakers. You can level up the disciplines as you'd like, but it pays to focus on a particular skill. The higher the skill level, the more dialogue and interaction options are open up to you. In addition, there are also two other skills, Medicine and Occultism, which level up by collecting objects in the environment. A lot of these objects are hidden, so improving your Medicine and Occultism skills is a reward for being fastidious with your exploration.

Sanity is also important in Call of Cthulhu. As players of the pen-and-paper game are aware, your character's sanity is at near-constant risk. The strange creatures of the Lovecraftian mythos can tear apart a mind just by existing. In the game, this is represented by you potentially suffering permanent sanity damage by witnessing certain events, reading certain books, or otherwise coming into contact with the forces of darkness. There are some ways to counter the loss of sanity, but there are inherent risks — and sanity isn't always a good thing. The occult setting doesn't reveal all of its secrets to a sound mind, so choosing to forego every risk potentially blinds you to important clues.

For the most part, I like the sanity system. It's an interesting balance between risk and reward, and it lends an ethereal and otherworldly feel to the game. Questioning what's real, what isn't real, and what you really wish wasn't real is half of the fun of any Cthulhu-based story. I wish the insanity effects were more ambitious, though. The gold standard for this is Eternal Darkness, and I can't shake the feeling that the developers could have taken this further. The game doesn't really play with the player, just the character, and that feels like a missed opportunity.

The neat thing about exploration in Call of Cthulhu is that there are multiple ways to solve puzzles. Not every puzzle has multiple options, but usually one of your leveled skills can provide an alternate solution. Spot Hidden seemed to be the most useful, as it would spawn new objects in the environment that often allowed me to skip puzzles or find hidden valuables. For example, in an early segment, you're investigating a mansion and come across a puzzle where you need to unlock a hidden door. You can attempt to piece together the puzzle, but if you have Spot Hidden, you can find a crowbar and pry open the door.

To me, that's the most appealing part of the title. While it's a mostly linear puzzle game, the fact that you have multiple solutions and outcomes to problems helps make it feel more impactful. I found myself engaged and excited, and I wanted to solve mysteries and explore. The tension, creepy atmosphere, and occasional horrific violence worked better when they felt somewhat within my control. I could tell that there were alternate paths and story segments that I completely missed in my playthrough, and the game seems to have a bucketload of endings based on the choices you made. If not for one significant flaw, I would have gladly played the game multiple times to see everything it offered.

Ironically, where Call of Cthulhu fails is in its desire to be something other than an adventure game. From time to time, the game veers away from the engaging exploration and investigation and moves toward tedious and bare-bones stealth or combat sequences. If you've played any stealth game or shooter in the past decade, you'll recognize the basics, but the major issue is simply that they're not any fun. Nothing about the stealth segments is tense or exciting. After a certain point, I rushed around because the thought of sneaking through areas filled with brain-dead AI was scarier than the thought of the horrible monsters getting me. Combat is clunky and boring, and it lacks even the cathartic feel of overcoming a great challenge.

Call of Cthulhu would be a significantly better game if stealth and combat were either eschewed entirely or given a greater emphasis and polish. Instead, they feel tacked on and hurt the game significantly. Every time I reached one of the segments, I was hoping it would be short, so I could return to the stuff I actually enjoyed. I understand that the original pen-and-paper game included combat, so it was a necessity to properly model it, but half-baked combat and stealth are honestly worse than none at all.

Call of Cthulhu's graphics are a mixed bag. The environments are awesome, haunting, and frequently beautiful. They're not the most detailed, but the environmental design goes a long way and adds atmosphere to almost every location. The character models, on the other hand, are surprisingly low-quality, and the facial animation frequently doesn't keep up. The voice acting is similarly all over the place. Some of it is quite good, some of it is bad, and some of it feels stilted and awkward – which makes sense when the half-human creatures are speaking. For the most part, it does an OK job, but it can feel stilted at the worst possible times.

Call of Cthulhu is a genuinely fun and engaging adventure game that is unfortunately dragged down by everything else. The story is engaging and fun, the mysteries are creative, and it does justice to the sense of otherworldly terror that is at the centerpiece of the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper game. Unfortunately, the stealth and combat sequences pull down the game and prevent it from being an easy recommendation. If you have the patience to sit through some rough patches, there's a lot for CoC aficionados to explore.

Score: 7.0/10

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