Call of Cthulhu Review – Insane in the Membrane
The thing that had me most excited to play Call of Cthulhu was that gamers have felt the influence of this lore for a long time, across dozens of titles. Games such as World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Bioshock and many more have borrowed so heavily from the stories surrounding a deep slumbering evil, covered in tentacles with an insatiable hunger.
I was about 13 when I first read Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft and 16 when I played the tabletop RPG that would further inspire variations of board games and card games. I was hooked. Something about how everyone near to the stories eventually went mad made such compelling tales.
I couldn’t get enough of what is known to fans as Lovecraftian lore. When I learnt back in late 2014 there was going to be a survival horror video game in this world, I was excited but also wary.
I was nervous it would be a high action shooter like DOOM where the protagonist just blasts away Deep Ones and Starspawn with a sawn off shotgun. And whilst that sounds cool, it’s just not Call of Cthulhu.
I’m happy to report that is not the case with Cyanide’s 2018 release of Call of Cthulhu, and that my nervousness has been replaced with a kind of paranoia about dark rooms, mirrors and living so close to the ocean.
Call of Cthulhu Review
Players assume the role of Edward Pierce, a war veteran turned private investigator with an alcohol and sleeping pill problem. As you soon find out, that is the least of his concerns. Approached by an ageing businessman by the name of Stephen Webster, who won’t take no for an answer, you find yourself investigating the mysterious death of Webster’s only daughter, Sarah Hawkins, as well as her family.
Call of Cthulhu paints a brilliant picture of the times, a clear divide between the rich and poor, the fortunate and down trodden, the blessed and the cursed. Sound and lighting soak the player in an atmosphere and you feel entangled in the story unable to escape what is fast becoming a descent into madness.
I immediately become distrusting of any new character on every scene, what nefarious purpose or part to play did they all have? I was determined to get to the bottom of this case, and hopefully rid myself of these nightmares.
The gameplay and mechanics feel very true to the genre as well as tabletop RPG. However, without the dice rolls and arguments about what counts as mental trauma.
I was reminded of a gaming experience similar to those produced by Telltale Games as I was propelled through a story that was mostly on rails, with dialogue and discovery choices to make as I went. With multiple pathways and solutions to most problems, there’s no right or wrong way to approach the puzzles.
You can miss parts of Intel that just make it harder or slower to put together the story, but for the most part, you arrive at the same conclusions.
It’s only the lore objects in your inventory that are missing, and maybe an achievement here or there as well.
Ol’ Tentacle Face
I was suitably impressed with the character sheet as there’s no typical collect experience and increase strength or intellect style character advancement here. Instead, you simply put character points into skills, a few at the beginning to help shape how you want to play and the rest you get along the way.
A very nice touch was restricting both the medical and occult skill advancement, so it only levels up as you learn more about medicine or occult signs. Exposure to these makes you more familiar and more adept at understanding them.
I elected to put most of my points into Investigation as I found that was the most rewarding for my style of play and would encourage others to do the same. Another good idea is to increase the Spot Hidden skill.
Combat usually takes the form of intimidation or the occasional slapping unruly fisherman who wanna talk shit, but strength is useful for forcing open doors or lifting heavy gates. The best thing is I could see myself replaying it and approaching it as a more brutish character.
That’s the sign of a great RPG.
Are You Insane?
Equally impressive was the sanity page, detailing all the mental trauma you’ve experienced so far. Based on your decisions, you may miss some events or not read certain books that others will experience. It all contributes to your sanity score, which I’m none too proud to say began slipping at an alarming rate quite early in the game for me.
But hey, you poke around and read every scrawled note or cursed book, you’re bound to see some shit.
The writing is quite believable, you know for a supernatural occult horror tale set on a fictional island. The characters react appropriately to your actions and words, the dialogue is back and forth with the responses feeling realistic.
I made a joke as soon as I got off the boat about some guys moustache and the bartender still wouldn’t serve me a drink eight chapters later.
Lighten up, man.
With plenty of information to be gained from questioning and listening, as well as decent voice acting, I didn’t feel compelled to skip the dialogue and read my quest log later. The characters and their misfortunes really got to me, and I found myself either looking for an angle to help them or making a note of avoiding them.
How Helpful Are Strangers?
They felt like real people with real struggles. My only criticism was that the animation made everyone out to have some kind of social anxiety where they sought of bobble head around not knowing where to look or what they are meant to do with their hands when they talk.
So everyone kind of just flails about a bit, it’s a small criticism but made me laugh and broke the tension a few times, especially when I’m trying to escape a mental institution and the two guards appear to be having a dance-off conversation.
Without giving too much plot away, the story is a rather simple tale with an eldritch twist. Explore the dark places for clues which unlocks further dialogue options for the NPCs around you. The story takes you through the typical horror destinations, creepy town, spooky mansion, secret cultist caves, a mental asylum and so on.
The atmosphere in all of these places is truly chilling.
It can be hard to capture the right vibe for horror and psychological terror in a videogame, most that try just come off as a type of ‘goreporn’ as they splash dead bodies about everywhere.
Cyanide has found a good balance on this fine line, when there’s a body on screen it’s a chilling sight and not the norm. The game also succeeds in confusing the player as to what is real and what is a nightmare, without causing frustrating or making you feel lost.
What is Reality?
There’s a sense of helplessness further exploited by the main character’s love of booze and sleeping pills make the perfect blurred reality cocktail.
Call of Cthulhu will likely be a huge hit with fans of the setting and it feels true to the tabletop RPG and the stories with little compromise in its videogame adaption. However, I don’t think it will gain mass appeal with a wider audience.
Many others will try it since the name has a sort of resonance with all gamers, but those from a faster paced run and gun background will likely find the story driven investigation mechanic too slow or boring.
I highly recommend everyone try Call of Cthulhu, especially fans of Telltale Games or story driven RPGs. There’s no open world grind for XP side quest element that we have come to expect from an RPG, however, there really isn’t room for it with Call of Cthulhu.
As things heat up, Edward Pierce is keen to solve the case and get back to Boston ASAP, but he will forever be a changed man for doing so.
Call of Cthulhu was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Game title: Call of Cthulhu
Visuals - 7/10
Atmospheric Audio - 9/10
Very, Very Spooky - 10/10