Ever get that creeping feeling that something cold, wet and horrific is shambling towards you in the dark? Well either the cat fell in the toilet again or you’ve been reading an Unholy tome and have unleashed a sleeping terror from the deep. For me I’m more likely to have awakened an Elder God as I don’t have a cat and at the first opportunity to read an Unholy tome in Cyanide Studio and Focus Home Interactive’s Call of Cthulhu I said hell yes to flicking through the forbidden pages and descending deeper into madness and insanity.
Based on a beloved role playing game and in turn based on the works of the horror genius and creator of the Cthulhu Mythos H. P. Lovecraft, I’m sure you can imagine Call of Cthulhu is a dark and unsettling tale. Lovecraft’s works were all about unbalancing the psyche and delving into a dark space where reality and nightmares collided to make a twisted new reality. Call of Cthulhu taps into this with a character who is already in some way shattered and consequently vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation.
Private detective Edward Pierce is a survivor, a veteran and a victim of the First World War. He’s already seen enough horrors to terrify the strongest of us. Now he’s taken a job investigating the death of an artist on the island of Darkwater. You’ll get one battered boot on this island before you realise it’s typical Lovecraft and your least favourite holiday destination. Just off the shore of Boston, Darkwater once had a thriving whaling industry. Now it’s a decaying community with out of work, drunk and starving sailors, rotting homes, corrupt police and one very dodgy looking hospital.
Darkwater is ripe for madness. It’s a perfect setting. It’s unnerving, unsettling and occasionally slightly terrifying. Call of Cthulhu is very much an adventure horror. It’s all about investigating, exploring, talking to the island’s residents and trying to make sense about what’s happening to you. It has a slow pace that’s fitting with the game’s ambience. There’s plenty of time to have a good look round and have a chat with the residents. Talking to people will produce different results depending on what you decide to say to them. Some dialogue options will be locked if you don’t have high enough skills. Call of Cthulhu has an RPG system that lets you pump points into skills sets such as Investigation, Psychology and Eloquence. Other skills such as Occult and Medicine will progress as you find items throughout the world. The option to build your character doesn’t feel particularly deep and it’s difficult to tell how much you are affecting the game with your dialogue and skill choices. There is also a Sanity gauge which will not only alter as the game progresses but it keeps track of potential incidents that could alter your levels. My Edward was stable for quite some time until I spotted opportunities to send myself insane, which I obviously jumped at because it’s not Lovecraft without at least some babbling, drooling madness. As a result my sanity level went from Stable to Psychotic with astonishing swiftness and I felt rather pleased with myself.
Further into the game, your choices will begin to affect your Destiny and you will find there are some much bigger choices to make at the end of the game. I won’t get into the specifics but there’s an interesting narrative throughout the game that toys with the idea of both a pre-written destiny and a destiny that you create yourself.
Graphically Call of Cthulhu has some lovely moments. Many of the cut scenes look gorgeous and in particular the last twenty minutes or so got me very excited for reasons I shall not reveal. It’s worth remembering that this isn’t a AAA game. It’s very much AA and that’s reflected in some of the character models. It does occasionally feel like you’re playing a PS3 game. Characters feel stiff and their hair looks decidedly fuzzy. The environments, however, are a score. Nice textures, creepy corridors, atmospheric lighting and very realistic fish guts! Framerate is smooth and I didn’t notice a single bug. As long as you’re not expecting God of War, you should be okay.
Alongside the talking, exploring and investigating there’s also plenty of horror. The game blends what is already a horrible reality with nightmarish visions that meld into one horrific nightmare. What is real? I couldn’t confidently say, which is great because that’s exactly how Edward Pierce feels. Expect some Arkham Asylum style delusions and moments when you’ll feel completely flummoxed about what’s happened. I can’t say there was ever a moment when I felt truly frightened. Yes I jumped out of my skin and into the kitchen sink a couple of times but truthfully the horror aspects are quite tame, which again is in keeping with this style of Lovecraftian horror. It does hark back to a time when sensitivities to such tales were much more likely to lead to tossing and turning under the bedsheets and suspicious glances at the goldfish bowl. Call of Cthulhu is very tame by today’s standards of horror but it has bags and bags of foreboding atmosphere.
A single playthrough will take around ten hours. You’re given a single save file which autosaves frequently. At the end you can reload the same save and experience an alternate ending. There’s plenty of full replayability here though, bearing in mind that both my endings occurred when I was pretty much completely insane. There’s another 10 hours here if you want to try the sane route.
Call of Cthulhu has a whale’s belly full of atmosphere. It’s dark, sometimes disorientating and very faithful to Lovecraft’s idea of reality and insanity being sometimes one and the same. Terrific.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10
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