Published by Focus Home Interactive
Available on PC, PS4, Xbox One
Available for $60 ($45 on PC)
It’s strange with how few straight Lovecraft video games are out there. The man is a legend. His stories have spawned an endless tide of “inspired by” adaptations, non-canon continuations, and well-intentioned knockoffs. If your story has any kind of sea monster or sanity draining abomination, be ready to be labeled, “Lovecraftian.” The moniker has become so popular with my generation (bullshit millennials) that you can practically interchange “Lovecraftian” with the word “spooky.” It’s not that the man didn’t earn the adulation. It would be hard to imagine the modern horror landscape without the likes of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Dagon.
Now if you’re raising an eyebrow at that previous paragraph, I’m talking about games based on actual Lovecraft stories, not just things labeled Lovecraftian. We’ve got Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Eldritch, Cornarium, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, and a number of older point-and-click adventure games that no one remembers. I have no idea why; it seems that any game just bearing a Cthulhu title would be launched into success by name alone. Perhaps this is the work of a far greater force, something more insidious and malignant than any creature living or dead: licensing restrictions.
On the other hand, maybe it’s because Lovecraft stories are just a bitch to adapt. As much as I love undying horrors from beyond the far reaches of the cosmos, there’s only so many ways you can say, “I saw something super duper scary, and it broke my brain.” Even the most faithful and direct Lovecraft adaptations use the source material more as a springboard to launch into a more detailed story. Cult favorite Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth takes a lot of creative liberty in stitching like, four different stories together. Which leads us into Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu, the 2018 video game, is an adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, a pen-and-paper RPG created by Chaosium. Call of Cthulhu (2018) is not related to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. None of them are direct adaptations of “The Call of Cthulhu,” a short story about a guy who finds a spooky statue. The “Cthulhu-verse” is where all this takes place, although Cthulhu himself hardly ever shows up. Okay… I think I get why there aren’t more direct adaptations.
I’m going to assume you’re unaware of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG. I’ve only ever even met four other people that have heard of it, and all of them were in my playgroup. It’s super fun and I’d highly recommend it, but it’s certainly not Pathfinder levels of popular. It has plenty of mechanical flaws but makes up for them with the limitless possibilities and unbridled creativity the medium of pen-and-paper offers. Fortunately, your ignorance isn’t going to heavily hamper you, as the people at Cyanide Studios seem to have also forgotten about it.
Doing away with all of the breadth and creativity the pen-and-paper world offers, Call of Cthulhu is a linear adventure game. All that remains of the system that inspired it are seven skills that you can improve up to five times each. These skills act as gateways to certain dialogue options or puzzle solutions. If your strength is high enough, then you can just muscle your way through some puzzles. If your investigation skills are high enough, you can pick locks instead of hunt for the key. If your occult is high enough, you can speak fish. Cool.
You play as Private Investigator Edward Pierce, a WW1 vet with a drinking problem and a troubled past. After a fitful dream rousts you from your mid-afternoon booze-nap, a mysterious stranger arrives at your office with a job to investigate the Hawkin’s family estate. Off you go to the ominously named Darkwater Island. Once there you will point, click, and dialogue tree your way through that one Cthulhu story we have all come to expect.
Now, none of this sounds bad so far. I’m certainly not about to shit on a Cthulhu story for being a Cthulhu story. As soon as you saw Cthulhu in the title, the betting odds were on fishmen, cults, glowing symbols, and a hefty dose of wobbly camera distortion. I’m fine with standard Cthulhu. As long as it’s told well, give me all the wall-eyed fish people you can muster. It’s in the execution that Call of Cthulhu ultimately fails.
Storywise, the pacing really screws the pooch. You very quickly sense that something is off in the world of Darkwater, but the game lacks the length or depth to allow that foreboding sense to naturally grow. The game is only like seven hours long, and by the end of the first level, you’ll have glimpsed your first painting of a fishman. By level five, you’re already locked in an asylum after coming face-to-face with a creature of the deep. It all just happens so fast, you have no chance to let the feeling of dread and mystery build. You’ll learn about, discover the location of, and acquire the fucking Necronomicon all in the same investigation of a derelict bookstore.
Side characters suffer from the same lack of development. The cast is pretty standard, consisting of a mad scientist, crime boss femme fatale, tortured artist with evil premonitions, an insane scholar, and a fish person. Okay, so not “standard” standard, but certainly what we expect from a Cthulhu story. Once again, the major issue is that none of the characters get enough screen time to really give a shit if they survive.
It’s a big problem when a Cthulhu story doesn’t grab you, but all of this could be forgiven if the game was fun to play. Unfortunately, the gameplay suffers from the same lack of pacing. Fundamentally, Call of Cthulhu is a point-and-click adventure in 3D. You’ll investigate crime scenes, amble about towns, and stumble your way through conversation trees in an attempt to suss out all the eldritch secrets your mind can fathom. There are also a few stealth sequences and one abysmal “gunplay” section that boils down to “click mouse to kill zombie.”
Once again, I’m not going to shit on an adventure game for being an adventure game. You’re a detective, so I expect most of the gameplay would revolve around your detective stuff. The big issue is that none of the skills feel meaningful. Aside from unlocking certain dialogue/puzzle options, there’s no benefit to upping your skills. If you go for better lockpicking, you’ll be able to pick better locks. If you pick higher strength, you’ll be able to shoulder bash more locks. If you pick higher dialogue skills, you’ll be able to convince people to open the door for you. Three different skills, all the same conclusion.
None of this is helped by the fact that none of the puzzles are particularly difficult or intriguing. Even without the beneficial skill checks, I didn’t once have to look up a guide or bust out my thinking cap. One particularly egregious action sequence had me smashing open different display cases trying to find which dagger was the magic monster killing dagger. There was no thought involved, just trial and error until I picked the dagger with the special blue marks on it.
Now I’m getting pretty down on the game, but I don’t feel like Call of Cthulhu is all a wash. The core story is pretty great, with enough spooky eldritch depth to feel like a true Cthulhu story. If the game just gave itself some more time to tell it all, it could be something really special. There are also a number of fantastic set-piece moments, where the line between what is real and what is imagined blur to a point worthy of the Lovecraft name. For fans of the mythos, it will be fun just for that alone.
I have to also acknowledge that much of my opinion is contingent on the $60 price tag. For a game this short and mechanically limited, it’s absolutely absurd to be charging full price. If this were a $20 fan game, I could easily see this making its way onto some Game of the Year lists. As a $60 title, I cannot imagine buying this and not being disappointed.
Ultimately, Call of Cthulhu is a cool idea that just doesn’t deliver. Building a game off of the Chaosium system is a monumental task, so I can see why they slimmed it down. But the amount of fat that they trimmed also cut away all of the meat. Call of Cthulhu is anemic, too short and contained to properly elaborate on either the story or mechanics. There are some great moments, and I would highly recommend it as a discount buy during a sale. As a full priced game, there’s no way I could recommend it to all but the most diehard fans.
Call of Cthulhu is ultimately too limited to really bear the weight of its own promise. With more time to expand on the characters, story, mechanics, and world, this could have been a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the final package is anemic. Fun for fans, but not worth the $60 price tag.