Reviewed on Xbox One.
Inspired by Chaosium’s tabletop RPG of the same name, Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu is an enjoyable detective story with interesting RPG elements. It’s drenched in a thick, foreboding atmosphere, but ultimately stumbles through a mix of infuriating and bland gameplay mechanics.
Call of Cthulhu follows Edward Pierce, a war veteran turned alcoholic private detective in 1920’s Boston. To his luck, Pierce receives a request asking him to solve the case of the eccentric and wealthy Hawkins family who all have seeming perished in a fire at their home on Darkwater Island, a whaling community in Massachusetts. The details of the incident are scarce and unclear. The only hint is that the fire may have had something to do with Mrs Hawkins’ horrifying paintings and her decaying mental state.
Throughout its 12-hour campaign, Call of Cthulhu manages to make you feel like a true detective. There’s very little hand-holding, but that’s not a negative; the highlight of Cthulhu’s gameplay is actually doing the detective work and figuring things out for yourself. It’s slow and methodical but unquestionably rewarding. You’ll read books and letters, explore the island’s gothic and atmospheric environment, and creating dialogue with the locals. Throughout the game, there are numerous difficult puzzles to solve. They’re sometimes rather obtuse – you’ll have to pay attention and avidly search each area. You can also reconstruct environments to determine what sinister event occurred at the scene, like the “Batman: Arkham” crime scene reconstruction segments.
The skill-based RPG system does provide several forms of gameplay style based on the stats you upgrade. Depending on which skills you choose, Pierce can conclude his investigation in different ways. You earn character points through story progression, which can then be used on five different stats – Eloquence, Investigation, Psychology, Spot Hidden and Strength. The other two stats, Occultism and Medicine, are upgradeable through reading specific books and collecting specific items around the environment in each chapter. Improve on your Spot Hidden skill, and you will be notified more often of hidden objects in the same room as you. Whereas, working on your Eloquence skill increases the chance of Pierce deceiving locals into confiding in him. Despite the simple nature of the system, it provides a fresh and intriguing layer of customization to tackle any situation.
Outside of its detective sections, multiple chapters require the player to be stealthy to avoid detection from asylum staff and cultists in tedious and bland stealth segments (that later turn into chase sequences.) These sections are short and relatively easy despite the overcomplicated environments that make you feel like you are going around in circles. Avoiding detection doesn’t require much effort. Like Arkane’s Dishonored, the game uses sound and visual indicators to indicate whether you have been spotted, but the basic AI’s simplistic patrol patterns make them feel meaningless.
One chapter in Call of Cthulhu pits you against an iconic Lovecraft monster in a tense game of cat and mouse: The Shambler. Initially, its eldritch movement and sound design fills you with dread, but that tension quickly became anger and frustration once you realize that The Shambler is, well, a sham. It’s a severely flawed encounter and that initial sense of tension rapidly dissolved into anger and frustration. It is a difficult fight to understand—the means of progression are unclear, and the monster is an enemy that relies on the classic one-hit-kill cliché to stay scary. It turned from exhilarating to tedious, my frustration grew to a point that I had to walk away from the same for a couple of hours. This encounter alongside the stealth sections ruined all previous tension and atmosphere for me from this point onward by trying to be too much like a video game, and these occurrences happened early on in my playthrough.
Another major system in the game is the sanity meter that I enjoyed for horror purposes. The design of the different sanity states is an intriguing system which is determined by what Pierce’s interactions and what he witnesses during his investigation on Darkwater Island. For example, reading a random book in a property can severely impact the mind of the detective. Towards the end of the story, the sanity state links to the multiple choices and even the multiple endings, but the results of these choices all left a sour taste in my mouth.
As mentioned above, the game has beautifully designed and atmospheric gothic environments but that’s as far as details go. Unfortunately, character models look remarkably similar (and the game has a vast array of characters,) and the lip syncing and animations become distracting by how far off it is in some cases. However, the strong writing for each character managed to keep my interest and immersion in this cosmic horror experience.
Call of Cthulhu is an interesting and intriguing, mystery adventure with a tortured detective. The investigation alongside the use of the RPG systems are the strongest highlights of the game, but poor stealth mechanics, boss encounter design and questionable endings fail to take the game to greater heights.