Paying homage to the supernatural horror literature of H.P. Lovecraft, and taking inspiration from the classic 1981 pen-and-paper role-playing game of the same name, Call Of Cthulhu is a first-person adventure title from French developer, Cyanide. To say the game has a lot to live up to would be an understatement, but thankfully the experience does capture the essence of its source material respectfully. Nevertheless, though there’s a lot to appreciate about Cyanide’s rich and thoughtful interpretation of the literary works of the troubled American author, it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend, due to a few minor technical and design issues that gradually rack up over the course of its 12 to 15-hour runtime.
The year is 1924 and you play the role of Edward Pierce, a private investigator hired to solve the mysterious death of a famous artist named Sarah Hawkins, who tragically died in a fire on her family estate. What ostensibly begins as a straightforward Holmesian murder case, swiftly unfolds into a much greater existential mystery, which threatens far-reaching consequences that could spell doom for the very fabric of our reality.
Taking place off the coast of Massachusetts, in the affectionately titled Darkwater Island, you are tasked with unraveling a tangled web of secrets and lies, in your bid to uncover the truth at the heart of this enigmatic murder mystery. Nefarious cults, otherworldly beings, along with your very own personal demons, all try their best to stand in your way in exposing the clues needed to bring to light the real, overarching truth. What has happened to this small, isolated whaling community? Why is there a large mutilated whale carcass on its shores? Why is everyone so damn weird? The game’s a-foot dear Watson…
So, let’s start with what Call Of Cthulhu does do right. First and foremost, the twisting and turning narrative is well written and punctuated with a handful of intriguing characters. From the bumbling yet endearing Officer Bradley to the menacing and ominous scientist Dr. Fuller, the roster of personalities brims with authentic and memorable characters. Excellent voice-work and solid dialogue help to breathe life into the myriad of inhabitants that you meet on your adventure.
Further yet, the game’s startlingly oppressive atmosphere is smartly executed and manages to get under your skin with its slow-burning eerie tension. The gloomy ambient audio lends an additional layer of palpable dreadfulness to the horror experience and helps imbue the world with an ethereal, unworldly sense of unease. Put simply, I’m pretty sure Lovecraft would be proud of Call Of Cthulhu’s authentic interpretation of his iconic otherworldly atmosphere. No small feat indeed.
Onto the gameplay, then, and this is unfortunately where Call Of Cthulhu occasionally falters. At times, the gameplay just doesn’t feel particularly engaging and leans heavily into more of a point-and-click style experience. There’s very little traditional combat, so the puzzle-focused gameplay has to do most of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, a handful of the core environmental puzzles feel painfully rote and uninspired.
Following vague clues to pixel-hunt a crank or a key was often recycled ad nauseum. Fortunately, this problem is offset by a modest number of clever and creative puzzle sequences peppered in towards the end of the game. However, some dull, frustrating stealth and puzzle set-pieces — which often relied too much on trial-and-error — frequently rained on my parade and slowed my progress to a slug’s pace. I’m cognizant that frustration can be par for the course in games of this ilk, but Call Of Cthulhu tested my patience a few too many times.
Despite a few wonky puzzles, the moment-to-moment exploration and investigative gameplay are quite compelling. Unearthing secrets and identifying certain clues rely on the level of your specific character skills. Eloquence, Strength, Psychology, Investigation, Occultism, and Medicine can be upgraded with character points, which are earned by completing objectives along your journey.
These skills can affect how you overcome certain puzzles or influence your dialogue options between Darkwater Island’s weird and bizarre residents. In essence, these individual skills help tailor the horror experience to your character’s build. Frankly, I think calling Call Of Cthulhu an RPG is a bit of a misnomer, but it does harbor some welcome RPG elements that add a layer of flexibility to your personal story. Furthermore, there are also multiple unlockable endings, which help bump up the game’s replayability for those on the hunt for a little extra lore.
Presentation-wise, Call Of Cthulhu sports a gritty, realistic art-style that captures the mood and tone of its trans-dimensional horror source material nicely. Though character models are a little stiff, load times can be long, lip-syncing is shaky, and some of the facial animations feel like they’re sometimes recycled across the island’s inhabitants, the game’s gloomy lighting and overall fidelity of the world are, at times, quite impressive. Additionally, its wonderfully atmospheric score gifts the overarching experience with a welcome coat of cosmic horror icing.
Call Of Cthulhu is not an experience for everybody. What it does right, it does really right; its eerie atmosphere and engrossing narrative are the game’s chief modus operandi. However, some polish issues like long load times, wonky facial animations, and uninspired puzzle designs injure the Lovecraftian horror experience, which ultimately holds it back from true greatness.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Focus Home Interactive.