Frn ah or’azath ng n’ghft : Call of Cthulhu Review

Hello again my sweet mortals , the weekend has come yet again and for Halloween I have been playing more spooky games!  The one I played seemed straight up my alley. I love horror  games, I love Cosmic horror, I love Tabletop RPG’s and one of my favourite games is Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines. So when I found a game that takes elements from all of these I was pretty sure I would have one heck of a game on my hands! That potential diamond was a little game called Call of Cthulhu.

My Investigation!

Call of Cthulhu is based on the short story of the same title but much more based on the 1981 tabletop adventure…also by the same name. It is developed by Cynanide studio which is a great studio name for a game like this but a bit edgy considering that the studio normally develops cycling manager games. I mean A LOT of cycling manager games. They also made the Stealth Game “series” Styx, but all in all it seems fairly unlikely that people really know who these guys are. Gameplay wise obviously this game has very little to do with the studio’s forté of management and  cycling games.Being launched only in 2018 this is also one of their most recent games. Since I don’t like managing cycling games I will not be able to compare the game to their other works or tell if they are a really swell or bad studio so I will have to review the game strictly on it’s own merits.

The game got mediocre reviews averaging about a 6.8 on Metacritic at the moment on writing However unlike most games where everyone is in the same ballpark reviews spread fairly widely.  From 4’s out of 10’s way up until 86% scores. So straight away we know we have to deal with a polarising game. After playing through this game myself I lean way more towards the positive crowd but I do see the points the 4 out of 10 guys made as well and they are extremely valid. I just did not care about those points all that much during my experience. The game is deemed a first person “stealth” game but I do think that is not a correct description. I would sell it as a skill based point and click adventure with stealth and action sequences. When I say skill based I mean  that in a roleplaying sense, that the build of character you decide to have decides your story. It features multiple endings and branching dialogue trees. These trees adapt based on your findings and  skills as well so there are many ways you can experience this story!

Before I start my review of the game I want to make a few things clear, a mindset of which I dived into this.  I think your mindset is extremely important to see if you enjoy this game or not! That is also why it got such polarising reviews. Call of Cthulhu is based on a roleplaying game!  That means the same “boundaries” and mindset went into creating this game.  Yes you have the options for different dialogue and it will impact your journey heavily! HOWEVER the DM has their base story set, it will always gravitate towards that so while your choices have an effect they do not always have “consequence”  in the bigger picture. This isn’t a game that holds your hand and tells a “Sarah did not like that” you make a choice and you will just have to IMAGINE how Sarah feels. The endings show what happens to the main character but not anything else. You IMAGINE their story based on your interactions.

Call of Cthulhu campaigns almost never have a good ending. In fact this is so much so true that later incarnations of the roleplaying game established a rule to label a game Purist.. knowing it will not have a happy end or a Pulp game.. a game that is designed to make the players win. Obviously I would not be warning you for this if the game had chosen the “Pulp” route. No!  Like almost everything in the mythos.. whatever you do, no matter how good you are.. it will feel like you lose in the end. Lovecraft also rarely wrote stories that ended well with only the Dunwich Horror coming to mind. However most who are familiar with CoC know.. winning if even possible..doesn’t come cheap. If you do not mind a “first person visual novel with more active gameplay”  this game can be a true experience.. but if you just want to bonk the lord of darkness on the head, get the girl and the money and be crowned king of the world… yeah .. that will not happen.. by design that goes way further back than the creation of this game.

A Detective in  Darkwater

Surprise surprise, this game revolves around  Eldritch beings and is set in 1924 where you take on the role of washed up private eye, Edward Pierce, detective for hire! He desperately needs a job to keep his license when an old man visits him. He says his daughter, the famous painter Sarah Hawkins, has died in a house fire on the little island of Darkwater , just off the shore of Boston. She always had visions ..but recently they have been getting more disturbed painting mysterious men! So Pierce is hired to look into her death. Clearly Sarah feared something and it is up to us to investigate the link between the strange symbols on that new painting and her death. However the second you step off the boat you can already tell you will have a tough job because the population of Darkwater is quite strange, and everyone seems to be having vivid nightmares and voices in their heads. So the entire town is on the same sleeping medication! How can you find out the truth here?!

\The game is divided in fourteen chapters, that usually involve you reaching a new location, meanwhile gathering evidence on your current location.The game plays and feels like a lovecraftian film noir story, that dabbles heavy with mental illness, hallucinations and madness in general as plot devices that can lead both into very interesting puzzles, world design and dialogue. Insanity again is very important in the mythos but to mimic this experience the story can often feel fragmented and confusing.One moment you can see a character die and the next it is alive again pretending to you like nothing ever happened. Sometimes you don’t even get a resolve to such mysteries. Which did indeed leave me hungry for answers in the end.. but in a way I also love I haven’t gotten them.  You stumble upon a character you become invested in ..but at some points stuff happens that puts on mystery on hold  to pursue something more urgent first. We don’t always get back to those other points. There isn’t time! I personally really like that approach; it feels much more grounded in reality.

That same sense of reality is used to break down reality itself in a very effective way. That way is in never giving you the “correct” answer. You encounter several deaths during this game, not all of them are real. Or are they?! Are these other people you encounter afterwards just hallucinations maybe?! Or did you hallucinate their death in the first place. Edward soon discovers that people on the island are harvesting some sort of strange gas that has hallucinogenic properties, but is it really or does it allow you to see the truth? You never know for sure. You do feel like a detective gathering evidence for your theory and your skills of choice will allow you to always feel validated in that route but in the end you do feel like you might just be wrong about everything.  This does bestow that sense of madness upon you, the plot has become too convoluted and complex to describe, some things make zero sense without diving into the tiniest detail.. and that is exactly why Eldritch  beings drive you insane as well. This game really NAILS that atmosphere.

A Dive to Deep

That experience I had with this game was truly amazing. I was so invested in it all. The puzzles made sense, you do not get a door locked for no reason where a code is hidden in some poem. No .. these puzzles were left behind by people who knew their mind was slipping. A trail of Photographs so that they themselves or those who came to do right could find them.  A secret entrance on a globe isn’t just some random point based on an old story , no the answer to the puzzle is something significant to these people and your story.  Yet puzzles walk both on the line of sanity and insanity as well, for each logical puzzle there is one where you have to let go of that logic and experiment.. and dabble like a mad man. The game doesn’t provide too many hints either.. no you have to test your own creativity and your own logic…I adored it and never felt so invested to complete things on my own merit.

Unfortunately not all of the gameplay provides immersion as well as the puzzles do!  The skill checks can make the game feel a bit clunky. Difficulty really requires you to focus on a single path to see noteworthy effects. Pickable locks can require so much focus in a single skill that if you put some points in your speech as well, you are completely unable to bypass it.. fail once and that lock stays closed forever… because the main character thinks the lock is to complex.. he would not try again after discovering a relic to get some skill points.. It makes sense he would not try again and with four endings and four or five skills you can master  you can see some changes early game… which makes sense because that is when a character is established.. yet it can feel very unsatisfying. A lock once closed stays closed forever even if you have the skill points to pay to try again. With no option to manual save and you being reliant on checkpoints that can be fairly far apart when these choices matter, they really want your fail to stick! At times this can lead to a sense of losing control of a character. He rebels against your input at times. 

Near the ending the story also goes quite erratic.. it makes sense  as your character at that point is rather erratic as well but we get set up with potential great characters like Island “Mob Boss” Cat and nothing is ever really done with her except for providing you with a stealthing challenge.. she is built up  but the story swerves away from her. I have a feeling she would be a main character in some DLC that just never came because it was too convoluted to put it into a timeline. This happens to more characters and on one hand I really love and applaud that choice but in the last two chapters you suddenly rush forward SO fast!  It feels so out of sync with it’s earlier pacing and that is where the insanity of the game really holds this game back! You start off as a sane man who searches bookshelves and for logical clues and you for about 10 to 11 chapters stuff happens at roughly the same pace and then you are tossed in the rapids as all hell breaks loose. As an experience it makes so much sense .. but as a game it screams as if something is wrong.

The game plays a bit like Vampire the Masquerade bloodline in the way combat, stealthing and interacting with objects work, which makes sense because that used the World of Darkness Tabletop ruleset which are fairly similar rulesets even in the way how skills are upgraded. They are both perfectly manageable yet also a bit clunky. The way Edward moves makes him feel heavy as if he is struggling to carry his own weight. There seems a slight disconnect between the player and what happens on the screen. As if the avatar has an ever so slight lag. I can’t really explain it other than it feels like how Vampire felt but then in first person.  There is one problem with that comparison though.  Vampire is a 16 year old game. While this game might look a lot more modern it kind of feels like it is about 10 years old gameplay wise.  I personally love that feeling as it was one of my highlights in the gaming industry but I can imagine people feeling frustrated by the clunk  I myself wished it all was a bit more snappy. There is this sense of slowness and awkwardness that sometimes takes away the urgency!

I never had too much trouble with the slowness though.. Even though I must admit I constantly sprint, I think that is fairly normal. There is however one element that bothered me deeply about the slowness. An element that in chapter 12 out of 14 made me consider quitting.  Edward Pierce gets killed with any single hit he takes. Even when it is a fisherman that bumps into him and Pierce is a former soldier.  Add the checkpoints that are fairly far apart and imagine you wanting to be stealthy by some people who may or may not want to hurt you.. just to get hit over and over again. The object you want is about a 5 minute sneak away, then you also have to sneak it back. That is a 10 minute loop of gameplay I experienced over and over and over again because either I did not see an enemy around a corner, or because I felt I could sneak past them but their hitboxes were slightly too large.

If you fail sneaking they might follow you and on your way back you discover by following them and then staying where you lost them you have created an impossibility for yourself to sneak past. You are almost forced to use the gun or at least I was forced to by how I reached my safepoint. The shooting is quite horrible as well, you kill someone if they have a violent symbol above their head and press  a button. No real aiming, just point in the general direction and wait for a symbol to appear.Again it feels like this part was just rushed.. and it is in the rushed story part of the game as well.

Revelling in Madness

You can earn up to four different endings, of which two are super specific. For one ending for example you have to have taken about four specific actions made about 9 specific dialogue choices and must have made two important moral decisions. It is a set of actions I would never think to take. Another ending.. the “best” ending where your character goes back to normal life can be ruined in the first minute of the game and I mean completely blocked off! For rather than killing possessed innocent people the trigger to receive a good ending requires you to never indulge in a drink. I kind of roleplayed my  character drinking in his office but in the madness he gave it up… still no good ending for Pinkie. Luckily the BEST ending is the bad ending. It is the most conclusive ending and is the one that feels the least rushed because there are no other elements the story has to conclude. The cutscenes you get at the end for the other endings just show ONE did things end for Edward Pierce.. what happens to the others . .if they are real or imaginations.. you will NEVER know and I bet that will irk some people! I like that personally..but mostly in the bad ending!

It is strange that the “you lose everything” ending is much more satisfying than the.. you lose almost everything endings but this is a strange game. Gameplay is completely subservient to your experience and the story. Feeling much more like the tabletop RPG it is based on and of course the book it is loosely based on as well. That is also the best way for you to enjoy this game. It’s like a very VERY visual tabletop experience. You influence how the story flows and to and how the story is motivated. You don’t actually influence the story but the illusion of choice is an important tool for any Dungeon Master and this mostly handles that very well. If you seek a buttery smooth experience where every choice matters and where everything is explained and wrapped up with a nice ribbon at the end.. this game might not be for you, in fact it will not be for you. If you are a cosmic horror fan though and would like to experience that story from a first person perspective.. If you want to be the main character in a cosmic horror story this is the game for you…unless you have enough friends who want to play the tabletop game with you. Which is unlikely because of the nature of this tabletop game being so focussed on despair.. I never found a party willing to do a call of Cthulhu Roleplay at least.

The game is set in the 1920’s and is deeply drenched in this Film Noir atmosphere that comes with the age, yet it also perfectly manages to capture that feeling of isolation on an island or at the very least hard to reach town. It captures the charm of a game of Clue, with the weird delusion of a game of Mysterium (another boardgame) with the electric tension of Operation and the madness of a game of Uno. They are all weaved together by a tale that feels like it comes from an older book. That is how I’d describe how it feels to play this game. It almost feels analogue rather than digital. If that idea isn’t offputting in the slightest for you , you will have a great experience only slightly hindered by the last 20% of the game. I am very happy I had this experience and this game had me properly scared at times. A great.. yet intangible Halloween experience, that preforms better as an experience than a game.

Fahf ah vulgtmnahog mgehye’lloig
ymg’ lloig ah ahorr’eog mgng bthnkor ah goka ahnah

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