Call of Cthulhu: CSI starring Cthulhu
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Uncomfortable aspects aside one cannot say that Howard Philips Lovecraft did not have an influence on horror media. Now more than ever we have adaptations of his books, ideas and themes. Call of Cthulhu: The official video game is one of many adaptations, not of the book but rather of the Pen and Paper RPG of the same name. Which was inspired by the book that the RPG shares it’s name with. Call of Cthulhu caught my eye because the visuals and trailer intrigued me; along with the gameplay which I thought could be compelling and enjoyable. Even upon hearing the somewhat mixed reactions from other critics I still wanted to give it a chance as I love Lovecraftian horror and good games containing Lovecraftian horror.
I must admit I am glad I did.
Edward Pierce is your average 1920s private detective stereotype. Hulking, grumbling and mentally troubled complete with trench coat, drinking problem and unable to make ends meet; that all changes when he is given a case that would change his life forever. The seemingly ordinary death of painter Sarah Harkins turns out to not be so ordinary when a strange Lovecraftian painting turns up. Edward Pierce takes up the investigation that leads him to Darkwater Island (considering the name it would be worse if everything was fine) and gradually the lines between reality madness blur and contort. The story, while not perfect (more on that later) is well told and deeply engaging. It is a slow build up to madness that shows a great understanding of Lovecraftian horror and pacing. The game is not that long, clocking in at a brisk 10 hours but nothing feels rushed. It never outstays its welcome by always ramping up the tension or adding something new (not necessarily for good but more on that later). I am somewhat impressed that the game does fulfil the promise of your choices/actions having real consequences on the final outcome. It adds another layer of tension to what is already a very intense game because anything can result in either a positive outlook or force you into a bad ending. It also offers replayability thanks to a short concise length and a verity of questions to unlock and encounters to...encounter, all while still being able to maintain the Lovecraftian theme of set inescapable fate. The writing is at times quite impressive.
This makes it all the more annoying when flaws appear. There is one character who is built up to be a terrifying mob leader until she suddenly isn’t. She’s not involved in summoning Cthulhu nor does she offer any real help in Pierce in the investigation/stopping Lovecraftian things from happening. She could have been cut from the game all together and not have had any effect on the game’s story what so ever. A wasted character, that while has some decent voice acting is totally worthless in the overall story.
The gameplay is somewhat minimal, a cynic might even go as far as to suggest it is nothing more than a walking simulator (it isn’t really). I suspect that particular prospect haunted Cyanide as the game starts out as a somewhat rudimentary investigation simulator, where you look around a semi open world looking for enough clues until the game tells you to stop. It is not particularly challenging (I played on normal but I really cannot see how they can make things difficult) but is still quite engaging despite the mundanity. I like how the levels become linier the further you get in the game, it works well with the theme and helps add to that sense of losing control. You have a verity of skills to unlock that allow you access new dialogue opinions or uncover new secrets that may or may not drive you insane. Again depending on how curious you want to be you can explore to find books that will increase your skill points. These in turn help you unlock dialogue options and investigate better while also running the risk of going insane. It’s fine but not the most in-depth skill system in the world. They are not entirely pointless but they don’t offer instant rewards which can give the impression of worthlessness.
The game however has a bad habit of throwing mechanics into the game haphazardly for all of one level before abandoning them immediately, there is a stealth section in the mandatory creepy Lovecraftian asylum that feels like a discount Outlast for all of one mission and afterwards it never turns up again. In one of the chapters the game suddenly turns into a first person “shooter”. I use the quotation marks because it is so basic and nearly on rails that I can’t in any confidence call it a shooter. You have a gun, the game auto aims it, you press a button and you win the fight.
That is all. It might as well not be there.
Then there are times when the game forgets to tell you stuff. One level has Pierce in a museum encountering a Lovecraftian being that you have to sneak around and defeat in what is the game’s only “boss fight”. To do this you have to go to a certain display case, break the case and pick up a dagger and slice a painting at the museum centre. The trouble is that there are hundreds of display cases with hundreds of identical daggers. The game never gives you a clue as to which case you need to go to nor does it offer any clue as to how to defeat the being. Considering that you have to sneak past an instant death monster it is rather stupid and clumsy on Cyanide’s part because it turns into trial and error. To a lesser extent there is another situation where I was never told about swapping out a lantern to process. It leads to some unneeded confusion and time wasted and adds to the possibility that Cyanide did not have faith in the core gameplay and tossed things in without explaining or imputing them correctly.
Art style and graphics:
The game is not graphically impressive, even on the highest settings it is somewhat underwhelming, however the use of colour, namely a sickly ocean green is very well handled and contributes to the aura and dread as you feel that something is inherently wrong. The 1920s were captured very well, I appreciate whenever research has been put into a game and Cyanide did a good job.
As it seems per usual with Focus Home games, Cyanide games in particular have a habit of some description. Their games are not buggy or glitch in any major way. They are just unpolished. The voice acting, while being solid to great seems to fluctuate in volume for no good reason, it is very distracting when they are talking; seemingly at a whisper only to then suddenly shoot up to normal sound level before going down again like a drunk frequency wave. The animations are not better, characters spasm like they are suffering from epileptic shock and I don’t think Leviathan was behind it. This game has some of the worst texture pop-in I have even seen, every time I examined something there was only a blur for a good fifteen-twenty seconds before it became readable. It is distracting to always have to wait for the texture to pop in front of me. The lip syncing is as good as it was in Alan Wake, as natural as dustbin lids flapping in the wind.
Despite all the flaws I have complained about here Call of Cthulhu might be one of Cyanide’s better games. The gameplay, while undisciplined and lacking polish is not broken. I will say it is better than Styx: Shards of Darkness because it does not punish you for playing the game like a game within its genre or give you useless mechanics. I would recommend this as a nice Halloween treat but if you want something with polished presentation, mechanics and story, get Bloodborne or Darkest Dungeon instead.
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