You’d think they would churn out a Cthulhu game each and every Halloween, such is the dark being’s ability to chill despite being fairly well exposed. Just from playing Call of Cthulhu’s demo, simply seeing the malevolent behemoth in the background of the main menu was enough to set me on edge.
That’s the tone of the most recent big-name Call of Cthulhu game, this time developed by Cyanide (the minds behind the supremely underrated Styx series) and published by Focus Home Interactive. There’s no grand reinvention or, thank the squid himself, a “modernisation” of the lore that Lovecraft established — it’s just a faithful adaptation of the pen and paper RPG from Chaosium.
You play as Edward Pierce, a washed-up private detective with a drinking problem. It’s a cliché as old as time itself with Pierce’s troubled backstory sure to raise its ugly head before too long. Despite the immediate familiarity, it’s easy to become invested in his failures and successes, particularly as it seems like you may be the handler of his destiny. You’re given the choice to succumb to his demons and drink with the game informing you that this can have a knock-on effect. It’s Telltale-esque, though I was unable to see the long-term ramifications due to the limited nature of the demo.
It’s not long before Pierce is woken from his stupor by a new client, whose daughter recently died along with the rest of her family. He isn’t convinced by the police report, believing that something deeper is going on with his daughter known for her dark paintings and “different” outlook. After a little convincing — and the fact that he’s been strong-armed into it — Pierce sets sail for Darkwater.
Once there, it becomes clear that this case is deeper than it first appears on its surface. The denizens of Darkwater have toiled for generations, making them immediately wary of outsiders. You begin your investigations with the captain of the ship that brought you to the island, which showcases Call of Cthulhu’s replete dialogue options, all voiced well. Certain players will no doubt baulk at the lip-syncing being a little “off”, but as someone who made their way through Andromeda without many gripes in that department, it does its job just fine. It’s certainly distracting, but not a deal-breaker.
Your enquiries take you across the harbour of Darkwater, including a killed killer whale with injuries inflicted by what looks like an even bigger beast. The sailors are on edge and even more so when you enter the seemingly clairvoiantly named Stranded Whale. There’s a good amount of dialogue to be enjoyed with plenty of contextual clues and world-building items to pick up. Realistically, I could have sped through the demo in roughly an hour but as I wanted to suck up every morsel of the compelling mood Cyanide had crafted, it became roughly three hours.
The demo didn’t particularly go into a great deal of depth regarding its mechanics, just a few hints at the long-term efficacy of some of them, including Pierce’s skills. The game allows you to choose many different fields to specialise in whether that be strength, intelligence, or many other fields by using points to level up, but I could only really notice it in action the one time during the demo. As a confessed “bad-brainer” (see: an idiot), I struggle with puzzles often so I was relieved that I could use brute force at one point after levelling that area up rather than trying to jolt the potato where my brain should be into action.
After your sleuthing in the harbour is up, you move on to a warehouse owned by the family at the core of Call of Cthulhu’s mystery. There, the game introduces its mechanic that allows you to use your investigative nous to piece together what happened. It’s basic, your job being as simple as finding objects to interact with, but it does enough to keep the loop fresh and build Call of Cthulu’s dark world.
Eventually, Pierce will make his way to the family’s mansion, which I won’t divulge the details of to not spoil things — let’s just say you aren’t in Kansas anymore. This is where Call of Cthulhu really starts to come into its own, the mansion dripping with character and every inch of it worth exploring. That’s what’s so captivating about this most recent adaptation of Lovecraft’s lore, that it nails the ominous feel without resorting to cheap tactics.
There are some notable drawbacks to Call of Cthulhu, though they may be tidied up before the game’s wide release. Despite playing on ultra settings, the visuals never really appear that refined or clear with a muddy sheen throughout; the game’s cinematics looking like they were exported in standard definition. Call of Cthulhu also shows its hand rather early without allowing the intrigue of Darkwater to massively build, which may disappoint those looking for a patient unspooling similar to the mental degradation of its protagonist.
Still, Call of Cthulhu only really needs a little more time in the oven as it’s already shaping up to be an unsettling descent into the darkness with plenty of tricks up its sleeves. Those wanting something deeper from their horror games may need to look no further.
Call of Cthulhu launches on October 30th for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We were given a code by the publisher for this preview.