Call of Cthulhu was always the thinking person’s tabletop RPG; the one with less orc-slaying and chest-looting and more detective work, research and reading long-hidden texts until your sanity degraded and eldritch horrors nibbled at your vitals. Cyanide’s new official adaptation – the first since 2005’s Dark Corners of the Earth – respects that legacy, not to mention that of Lovecraft’s fiction. While it has its own misshapen horrors to contend with, it’s a game that any fan of weird tales will want to love.
Call of Cthulhu is presented in first-person and labelled as an RPG, but don’t come in expecting Call of Duty: Zombies with extra tentacles, a Lovecraft-themed The Elder Scrolls or even Resident Evil 7 with added cosmic, misanthropic horror. Instead, Cyanide has built something closer to an investigative graphic adventure, with echoes of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the more obscure Murdered: Soul Suspect.
Your protagonist is Edward Pierce, a drunk, down-at-heel detective hired by a rich man to investigate the death of his daughter. Sarah Hawkins and her family have perished in a fire in their mansion on a remote island off the New England coast. But was the blaze accidental, or does it have something to do with her macabre paintings? Are there darker forces lurking beneath Darkwater’s somewhat grey and gloomy surface?
Related: Best PC games
The only way to unravel this mystery is to follow the game from chapter to chapter, each exploring or revisiting an area of the island, from its rain-soaked harbour to its decaying mansions and sinister institutions. Within each location you’ll hunt for clues and secrets, your eyes trained on the screen for glowing icons that indicate something to be read, grabbed or manipulated. You’ll talk to those who knew the Hawkins family, plus a whole bunch of other folk. You’ll also solve simple puzzles, some of which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a graphic adventure 25-odd years ago.
At times the action pauses for a reconstruction, as Pierce uses his sleuth’s intuition to work out who was standing where and doing what, and his psychological insight to piece together what they might have been thinking or feeling at the time. These are done through rather stylish tableau in the style of Ethan Carter or the Batman: Arkham games, doing a similar job of making you feel like you’re digging ever deeper into the real story and getting to know the characters involved.
Is there action? Occasionally, though not in the sense of rushing around and shooting monsters. Instead, you’ll help Pierce master his fear and run bravely away from Darkwater’s horrors. Plot-wise, Call of Cthulhu is anything but slow-moving, but this is a game of observation and balancing gains in knowledge with losses of sanity. Like with the original RPG, what you see and what you read can deal your poor brain damage, and the game delights in taking you down the scale from relatively sane to worryingly psychotic.
Related: Best PS4 Games
Other RPG elements are present, but their effects aren’t always obvious. Skill points gained in your adventures can be used to boost your strength or psychology, as well as helping you spot hidden skills, but these are more about giving you additional options in a particular situation rather than affecting anything that will make the game noticeably easier. In particular, you’ll see new dialogue options once you master certain skills, gain occult knowledge or lose sanity, and the decisions you make could change what happens once you reach the story’s end. As Telltale might have put it, the Great Old Ones will remember that.
Now, to say that Call of Cthulhu has some rough edges is putting it mildly. The scenery isn’t bad looking at all, but the character models look dated (hello rubber skin and uncanny valley eyes) and the facial animation worse. Lip-syncing is far from flawless, and there’s often a weird disconnect between the intensity of the on-screen performances and the more restrained nature of the English voicework.
The storytelling itself is patchy. Some characters are clearly designed to be ambiguous, but instead twist suddenly from hostile to friendly within a single scene. The narrative as a whole just about makes sense, but there are some odd, sudden shifts and a handful of elements that can be extremely jarring and nonsensical.
And much the same goes for your investigations. Sometimes they’re depressingly humdrum; surely we’re past the days of finding tools to move a stuck valve or objects hidden in a bust. At other times you’re struggling with a puzzle that seems wilfully obscure or – in the worst case – has been reduced to trial and error because you missed another puzzle before the big set-piece kicked off. As you can only load the last checkpoint, that’s your tough luck. When finding the specific, right instance of a particular object is all that stands between you and certain death, having to try them all out while avoiding extra-dimensional predators isn’t that much fun.
Related: Best Xbox One Games
At times you can see the game trying out ideas only to waste them. You can recruit companions and have them work through some of the chapters with you, but then they’re forgotten, ignored or just dispensed with ignominiously. Sequences that shift you to another character’s perspective are great, but there’s not much sense to them. Really, it’s all about what’s going on with Ed. Don’t expect it to last strange aeons, either. Ten to twelve hours should see you through.
Yet, here’s the thing: the more I got into Call of Cthulhu, the less these issues mattered. Partly it’s a question of atmosphere. For all its slightly ramshackle nature, the game captures something of the paranoid, brooding feel of Lovercraft’s tales and the RPG. While never all that scary bar a few outstanding moments, Cyanide’s work can be strangely unsettling. At its best, it plays with Pierce’s dwindling sanity with the same gonzo psychodrama as The Evil Within games. Those, if you remember, also didn’t always make sense, but they packed in some superbly effective moments, nonetheless. Same deal here.
Sound, as always in such games, does a lot of the heavy lifting, but there are some strong details in Darkwater’s settings and oddball cast. And after all, Lovecraft himself wasn’t immune to poor characterisation or sudden, seemingly motiveless shifts in direction. We treasure the tales for the overall atmosphere, not so much the style or the details of the telling.
Related: The Evil Within 2 review
Most of all, Call of Cthulhu comes closer than any previous adaptation – from Dark Corners all the way back to Shadow of the Comet and Prisoner of Ice – in replicating the substance of the Chaosium RPG. While it could be more sophisticated in its handling of research and detective work, Cyanide’s effort keeps both front and centre, always resisting the temptation to just say blow it and start the gunplay. There’s stuff going on here that’s far from perfect, but that could be fantastic with a bit more care and polish.
Is this the season’s must-have horror game? Nope, but there’s a lot here that fans of Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu will appreciate. Sure, there’s still a sense that the truly great Lovecraft adaptation has yet to push back the door of dread R’lyeh and rise to the surface, but until it does – or a sequel brings improvements – this will more than do.