Borrowing RPG elements from the tabletop RPG of the same name, Call of Cthulhu does a middling job at emulating the source material narrative.
Title: Call of Cthulhu
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PC (version reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: October 30, 2018
Though I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Star Wars and other tabletop RPG modules in the past, so far in my life, I’ve managed to escape the luring chants of Call of Cthulhu. Chaosium’s Lovecraftian take has held strong throughout the decades, and now Cyanide Studios takes their shot at creating the emphatically horrifying adventure game.
Long before crossing paths with any sort of Eldritch horror, Edward Pierce’s toughest foe is himself. Now a Boston-area private investigator in 1924, he still struggles from the darkness that World War I brought to him and his fellow company soldiers. Barely holding onto his license and fallen into a drunken stupor, one fateful job would send him down the path of misery.
The player is sent to Darkwater Island, a rundown whaling island long after its glory days, to search for answers in the case of the Hawkins family’s tragic, unforeseen deaths. Sarah Hawkins, a talented, but twisted painter, kept to herself in the town’s cliffside manor, and her father believes that something is wrong with the official story of an accidental fire. What he didn’t know is that Sarah’s paintings were the center of an extremist cult bent on power and promise to the Eldritch gods.
Call of Cthulhu is a choice-based adventure game masquerading as a linear tabletop horror RPG. Players investigate scenes to recreate events that occurred, find clues, piece together parts of the story and follow leads. The idea is to find out what happened to Sarah Hawkins, but it quickly dives into otherworldly creatures, slime-green caverns and cults practicing their summoning rituals.
Though centered in tabletop RPG mechanics, Call of Cthulhu featurely barely any sort of non-narrative gameplay. After completing tasks and progressing through the story, players earn character points to level up one of several skills up to level 5. Skills such as empathy, psychology and occultism allow you to unlock dialogue options not otherwise available and help improve your character’s knowledge of the game’s events en route to a good ending.
Unfortunately, you will receive more than enough points throughout your adventure to level up all your skills to level 4 or 5, and it doesn’t really have a tangential effect on the progression of your character. With the exception of Spot Hidden making it very slightly easier to find hidden items within a scene, the skills feel worthless outside of providing extra dialogue options to the player rarely of which impact the story.
What Call of Cthulhu hopes to draw players in with is its style. Its intrusively narrow first-person view makes traversing through dark manors, antediluvian coves and the mythos itself a daunting task, as it propels forth an eerie atmosphere of dread. There are portions of the game so suspenseful I had to leave for the next morning; the game plays on its horror well.
It’s my biggest complaint in Call of Cthulhu; the story is all style and no substance.
The majority of the game sees players speaking to police officers, local thugs, Eldritch experts and sea-faring townsfolk, yet these characters are dreadfully underdeveloped. Most of the time, they serve as pieces of information dangling in front of the players’ grasp, forcing them to chase a story thread without providing much of an impact on the grander narrative.
It’s my biggest complaint in Call of Cthulhu; the story is all style and no substance. It starts out well enough, drawing enough intrigue to tell an investigative story mixed in with the cosmic unknown. In the second half, it’s like the game studio ran out of money and had to truncate the final two acts into one, squishing many plot points together too quickly while letting loose strings dangle all over the place.
The jump between the real world and the supernatural is rather scattershot, disrupting the pace of the narrative. It’s fine to have the player guessing what’s real or what’s not, especially when it ties into an ongoing sanity meter, but it does so at the great disservice to its characters. The frantic jumps between a character’s life and death in the story become meaningless in a snap, and it seems like it’s done without proper motivations and characterization explained to the player.
The character sheet is a misleading falsehood that has little end-game substantial impact.
There are brief moments of lucidity in the first half of Call of Cthulhu, as there are whole chapters where you need to solve logic puzzles within the environment. It’s here that you see the player’s mettle, as well as their character’s skills, tested, whether it’s escaping from somewhere or hiding from a Lovecraftian monster.
Once you are finished with those chapters, however, you go back to seemingly random location-hopping, and the game loses its grasp on the player’s attention. Even worse, no matter how much you progress the character’s stats and unlock dialogue options or ending-altering “A or B” choices, the game comes down to one of three endings.
If you expected to utilize the Call of Cthulhu tabletop mechanics to advance the game, you are in for a big surprise. There are no skill rolls, special powers or sanity checks to drive the story; any RPG mechanics are window dressing to the environmental puzzles. The character sheet is a misleading falsehood that has little end-game substantial impact.
Not only do they each feel like soul-crushingly unrewarding endings to the story, but its implementation kills any replayability. Even if you wanted to go back to previous chapters to change your character’s skill tree leaning or sanity level, there’s no option to do so. You must completely start over from scratch in a seven-hour game.
Most egregious yet, Call of Cthulhu is a full-price title. Your character sheet is minimally important to the story, the story is not replayable, the game is light on gameplay; the H.P. Lovecraft source material is the most interesting thing about this game. What’s left is a masquerade of a tabletop RPG propped up by unnerving, shallow horror.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.