Cosmic Horror and Lovecraftian gaming have really taken off in recent years. Once a niche attraction, the amount of media been produced in this genre is staggering, making any attempt to bathe in these fertile cosmic waters a tough one if you can’t stand out from the crowd.
Enter stage left, developer Out of the Blues Call of the Sea, a Lovecraftian videogame through and through. . . just not in the way that you’d expect.
Set during the 1930’s, Call of the Sea places you in the shoes of Nora, a sickly woman whose husband has gone missing during an expedition to find a cure for her debilitating illness. Not looking to lose the love of her life, Nora sets out to retrace his steps in the South Pacific where he and his party have mysteriously disappeared.
Heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Call of The Sea is a pulp fiction, weird tale brought to stunning life in Unreal Engine 4 as an exploration adventure game that is equal parts walking simulator and point and click puzzle solver in 3D.
Throughout the journey, you’ll control Nora on an isolated, unnamed island that hides weird mysteries and secrets from an ancient, pre-human civilization. Nora herself is an interesting character, talkative throughout the adventure as she narrates her life story, the connection with her husband and how her illness has affected who she was. She is neither an action hero, nor truly prepared for what she will find but still forges ahead in the hopes of finding her husband Harry alive.
Armed with only her journal, an indispensable tool in which she chronicles her journey while making note of any clues she finds along the way, Nora’s narrative monologue is indispensable in fleshing out the story and giving you a reason to care about why she’s there, along with providing you with the clues you’ll need to solve the games puzzles. There will be photos to be picked up and letters to be read, all of which introduce the characters whose fates you will slowly discover.
Despite the Lovecraftian inspiration, Call of the Sea is not a horror game, though there are the occasional horror elements. Instead it’s a game steeped deeply in the joy of exploration and discovery, of uncovering hidden mysteries and the awe that goes along with that, a section of Lovecrafts work that many overlook today. Call of the Sea isn’t intent on throwing sanity crumbling abominations at you that are trying to slough the meat from your bones. It’s intent on providing a very human adventure in the joy of discovery, even if that discovery can be steeped in tragedy.
This is Nora’s journey about finding herself as much as it is about finding out what is happening to her.
From a narrative standpoint, if you’ve read enough Lovecraft, then you’ll more than likely know the answers to what’s happening to Nora very early on, along with where the story could possibly go. But that doesn’t change just how engaging it is or the drive to push forward to the final revelations. Lovecraft fans can enjoy the references and nods towards his stories, both expected and unexpected alike.
There’s cargo from the Sumatra Queen from Shadow Over Innsmouth, letters from the Starry Wisdom Cult, even Crawford Tillinghasts Resonator from From Beyond makes an appearance.
Next to the exploration aspect, the other major gameplay design is puzzle solving. And the game is full of them. Puzzles start off rather innocuously to get you into the flow of them and slowly increase in complexity. The exploration and puzzle solving go hand in hand as finding all the clues to solve the puzzles will require you to be thorough in exploring the environment. Thankfully the puzzles are logically laid out if you have all the clues and there is no item management to worry about. Each level, or Chapter, is self-contained, meaning you won’t have to worry about puzzles running across multiple locations on the island. In fact the only way to visit previous areas again is to replay those chapters.
Even with all the clues at your disposal, later puzzles can become quite challenging and rewarding to solve. The logical design, that there is only one way to solve them, removes a lot of the frustration that most puzzle solving games have by way of trying to find various item combinations. And tying them into the world itself gives you a good reason to explore every nook and cranny of a level. If you feel stumped, Nora’s journal is always on hand, even during a puzzle, for you to look through at the various clues she’s drawn in them.
Puzzle gaming can be a very hard genre to get right. Make them too hard and you risk people not finishing your game, too easy and there won’t be as rewarding a feeling. I feel that Call of the Sea hits a nice stride of been challenging but not infuriating and while some later puzzles stumped me for awhile, it was always followed up with an “Aha!” moment as I found the clue that I missed which brought it all together and allowed me to continue deeper into the island.
Visually, Call of the Seas stylised visuals and environment design is absolutely stunning. The pacific island location is gorgeous and vibrant to explore with some stunning water effects on display and the colour palette enhances the games sense of wonder. A personal favourite of mine is the mountain top amphitheatre in Chapter 4 which is drenched in a light rain.
One other aspect that I feel the developers have excelled at is in the games set dressing. The 1930’s feel evokes bygone serials and a sense that the world is still largely unexplored and unknown. And the feeling of massive, cyclopean architecture that no human hand could ever have raised is wonderfully realised the deeper you get into the island.
With its beautiful visuals, rewarding puzzles, interesting exploration and a very human story about discovery and the lengths we go to for love, Call of the Sea is a journey very much worth taking.
You can purchase Call of the Sea here for £16.74 on the Xbox Store.
Call of the Sea on Xbox Series X, Xbox One and for Windows PC.
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