Call of Cthulhu is a role-playing survival horror story brought to life by Cyanide Studios and published by Focus Home Interactive. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” it deals predominately with themes of psychological horror and madness inside of an semi-open-world setting.
This investigation-focused horror RPG is set in Lovecraftian lore, and it also draws from the 1981 role-playing game from Chaosium Games of the same name. The story here follows investigator Edward Pierce, a man with a lot of problems dealing with his day-to-day life after almost being killed in a horrible battle during the first World War. This experience has left him a bit scarred and with a case of insomnia as he self-medicates with alcohol and pills. His descent further down the spiral of madness and the unknown is brought to life as players dive into this version of H.P. Lovecraft’s setting of other worldly creatures, strange science, and dark cults worshipping the Old Gods. Call of Cthulhu is a twisted journey through the human psyche.
The year 1924 finds Edward Pierce in Boston, Massachusetts. Consumed by his vices and struggling to find work when a wealthy and well-respected businessman named Stephen Webster comes seeking his services to investigate the death of his daughter Sarah Hawkins. He comes with a story of a fire and the death of not only his daughter, but her young son and husband as well. He also presents one of Sarah’s famous, yet strange paintings and requests you to take a look at the piece. After discussing her mental stability and deciding that the painting’s subject matter is occult in nature, Stephen Webster requests Pierce go to Blackwater Island and begin his investigation. And in that dark and dreary landscape is where it all begins, or maybe it’s the beginning of the end of sanity? That’s where I’ll leave it to avoid spoilers anyway.
From the moment I booted it up, I was caught up the creepy and ominous vibes of Call of Cthulhu. The darkness throughout and macabre tones abound in the scenery, and reverberate inside the simmering madness within the dialogue between the characters. The developers have done a wonderful job of drawing the player in and keeping the story going at a nice pace throughout. Conversations are always interesting, and I even managed to check out every option inside each dialogue tree to squeeze every ounce of information I could from the opportunities presented to question the folks of Dark Water.
Available skill sets should help players in this matter, but I sometimes felt it was requiring too much of a skill I didn’t have up to par yet and I was denied an answer early in the game. This was making the job of being a detective a bit frustrating in spots and was irritating that I hadn’t spent my points elsewhere. There is also a bit of clunkiness in some conversations as well as typos in the dialogue from the French studio, but it didn’t stop the story progression and the irritation faded quickly as things escalated during the narrative. Players can feel the pervading sense of madness scratching the surface and creeping in slowly like a slow growing disease in Call of Cthulhu until it suddenly presents itself and forces players to confront the horror. The story is very well done, and the dialogue kept me highly invested and intrigued throughout.
Each important decision made seems to come with consequences and Call of Cthulhu will advise you that this will affect your destiny. I have yet to see many, if any, consequences so far as the story follows a pretty linear path. I’ve tried to play crazy detective just to see what will happen, but it doesn’t really seem to help or hinder anything up to chapter eight. The characters occasionally reacted somewhat shocked by my ramblings, but went along with everything in the end. Maybe it was my high eloquence rating, but I kind of doubt it.
As far as the skill tree goes, players can upgrade various attributes with earned skill points and map out Edward Pierce to your liking. Two skills, occult knowledge and medical knowledge, are upgraded by finding books hidden along the way, so player exploration remains important. Upgradeable skills include strength, eloquence, find hidden, and psychological. They take awhile to upgrade and each has levels that are upgraded by spending four creation points per level. Once happy with your choices, Call of Cthulhu gives players the option to finalize this.
Let’s go on with the menu in a brief summary because it is fairly large, but is also fairly basic. The menu for Call of Cthulhu contains sections for all of your clues broken down by chapter. Pictures of key characters with information and background on each in case you forget, destinations you have travelled to, and areas explored. It also contains the skill tree so you can double check why your eloquence skill isn’t working even when it’s nearly maxed out.
There is a section for inventory where you can rotate items and seemingly examine them for clues, and a section for the occult and every book you have picked up along your way. The most interesting of all that is in the menu is the tab that keeps track of your different types of madness. It tells which type you have acquired and gives a summary of how it was gained and how it now affects you. I found this section to be pretty great and enjoyed reading through it. Each crazy event in the story adds to this list and there are quite a few different types you will encounter that leave Edward Pierce a mentally scarred man.
One of best detective features in the game is where I had the opportunity to recreate scenes and piece together what happened in certain situations. This ultimately boils down to finding all the clues in order in a room and the game tells you what happened. I’m mentioning this now because it is also one of the better uses of visuals in Call of Cthulhu. The dark and spooky palette used throughout the game combined with the eerie green light cast by most light sources do their job for ambience, but at times things look pretty last-gen graphically.
The cut scenes look pretty great, but the characters in game are pretty twitchy and either seem quite wooden or sometimes wobbly. My biggest annoyance was the facial expressions where one lady reminded me of a fish attempting to suck air as she spoke. Aside from occasional white glitches the rooms you traverse actually look pretty good and the camera was never a problem.
Playing through Call of Cthulhu, I felt like I was on a narrative walk and not an RPG with actual choices. I very much enjoyed the walk and was engrossed in the story throughout, and the suspense and horror elements had me on the edge of my seat several times. It was easy to get lost inside Lovecraft’s world and feel the chaos inside of Edward Pierce. On the downside, I felt the visuals and lack of actual exploration hindered this from being a great game. The illusion of choices that were seemingly already decided hurt my positive opinion of this effort from Cyanide Studios and Focus Home Interactive. Overall, Call of Cthulhu is a fun experience and I would recommend a play through as long as players are aware of what is to be expected.
Call of Cthulhu is available now for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC. This review is based on an Xbox One copy provided by the publisher. Purchases are available here.