Despite the problematic nature of its writer’s personal politics, HP Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu has become one of the west’s most beloved horror stories of the last 100 years; and rightfully so! Lovecraft’s unique mixture of psychogicalol horror, existential dread, cosmic horror and noir storytelling works not only on its own, but has successfully inspired thousands of other books, games and game elements. Lovecraft’s seminal work has long been seen as the most
Call of Cthulhu is not a direct adaptation of the classic story – taking mechanics and inspiration from the tabletop RPG of the same name – but instead weaves its own tale based on the Cthulhu mythos. You play as Edward Pierce – a failing, PTSD-struck war veteran and Private Investigator – who is pulled into a cosmic-sized mystery which will test his skills and his sanity.
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to consider what makes Cthulhu such an engaging horror topic. Good Cthulhu stories always start with the mundane and a mystery, which gradually turns into something darker and eventually reveals the Elder God to the protagonist as being real and greater in scale than anything they could ever comprehend. It isn’t about body-horror or gore or even necessarily about survival; the horror comes from the existential terror of coming to terms with just how small we as humans are in the scope of the universe. It destroys the fundamental human belief that we as individuals are in any way important and forces the protagonist to face the fact that they…
- know that this unknowable threat is real, yet would be considered mad if they told the world.
- are completely helpless to stop this threat – just like an ant to an elephant. – and can do nothing but watch the inevitable end-game occur.
- are genuinely slowly losing their minds due to the above, and doubt their own every move.
Using this as context (and without too many spoilers) I can happily say that for the most part Call of Cthulhu on Switch is a surprisingly good adaptation of the mythos and what makes Lovecraft’s work so poignant even now. Your drug and alcohol addled protagonist accepts a case to find the truth behind the “death” of the Hawkins family; supposedly killed in a fire set by the “insane” mother, Sarah. He travels to their home in Darkwater and investigates the scene, only to be led to uncovering a wider, more sinister mystery. So far, so good. Throughout the primarily investigation-based campaign, he encounters mostly creepy mundane settings (asylum anyone?) but with small twists drawn in which slowly escalate into more dangerous encounters. The stealth sections leave you feeling suitably helpless, especially in the later game when psychological and human horror makes way for the fantastical and un-knowable. Throughout, his sanity is tested to the point where he doubts the evidence of his own eyes. However, certain sections (specifically in the last act) break from these trends and instead give the player a degree of power; even if it isn’t as absolute as in other games. This doesn’t break the horror that you are bound to enjoy earlier in the game, but it feels strangely un-Lovecraftian in the final act. The ending(s) is suitably Lovecraftian no-matter what you do, but the effect is substantially undermined by the 2 hours prior. At the very least, CoC maintains the feel that it isn’t IF you’re going to go mad; it’s WHEN.
The gameplay itself has some interesting elements; the legacy of the TTRPG this game is based on comes through character creation, with character points allocatable to 7 separate areas of expertise which determine how you can interact with the world. I found this choice genuinely compelling, as it gives extra depth to the rest of the gameplay and reminds me a little of early Fallout. Certain options will be cut off by your stats, but there will almost always be an alternative way to combat that obstacle using your mastery of Psychology, Investigation, Medicine or Occultism.
These come into action whilst you are exploring and investigating the various locations of Darkwater. Sometimes you will be interrogating civilians and eloquently convincing them to let you pass. Sometimes you will be investigating a crime-scene (or similar) and have the chance to interpret the scene through your knowledge of human Psychology. CoC zig-zags consistently between Arkham-series styled investigations (complete with renacting ghosts) and wandering around looking for clues, and whilst this may be set to the right speed for some I find it somewhat uninspired.
When your fancy gent is investigating, exploring or walking the decks of the town you can embrace the excellently crafted atmosphere. This is often spoiled by arbitrary sequences that almost feel rammed in to add more “gameplay” and avoid “walking simulator” criticism, though honestly I would have enjoyed this a lot more if they had focused purely on investigation and less on cramming things in. The low-point is the shooting section, which simply wasn’t needed and just left me wishing for it to end. Badly designed with half-bakes controls; it just isn’t needed! I hope that in a potential sequel Cyanide embraces the excellent build of tension and realises that Lovecraft isn’t meant to have guns or powerful protagonists in it.
Graphically I’m rather impressed; ported to Switch it retains the quality of the original version and runs pretty damn smoothly; I really can’t complain. It never had the level of polish you would find in an Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher III, but for a AA game it works incredibly well. Sound design is also pretty great, with engaging and atmospheric effects around the game-world and consistantly passable voice acting. Yes, it can be a little campy, but I kind of love that. It’s a Cyanide game; a classically mid-tier experience which borders on reaching the top shelf and is much better than many of their previous attempts. I didn’t encounter any bugs and found the aesthetic design to be pleasingly bleak.
All in all, I’m pretty pleased with how CoC turned out. Whilst it may not be perfect by any means, it’s one of the better games out there dealing with Lovecraftian themes and does service to the subject matter through well-written dialogue and a great aesthetic. The investigation scenes are really interesting – despite the canyon-sized jumps of logic Pierce frequently makes – and they carry the occasionally strange pacing and awkward combat. It’s not something I’d play again, but if you’re a big fan of Lovecraftian horror I can recommend having a look.
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genres: Role-playing video game, Survival horror
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Grab Call of Cthulhu for the Nintendo Switch here – https://www.nintendo.com/games/detail/call-of-cthulhu-switch/
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