If you’ve read enough of my articles, you should know how I feel about Lovecraft. I consider his works among the very best in horror canon, and his style a gold standard for horror media to strive for. So, naturally, as soon as I saw that Cyanide and Focus Home Interactive were putting out a title based on the classic pen and paper title Call of Cthulhu, I signed up to check it out. While I didn’t get to play the game, I saw a behind-closed-doors preview of the early alpha, and it was impressive, to say the very least.
The hands-off demo began on the outskirts of the secluded Hawkins Mansion located on the fictional island of Darkwater, where our protagonist, a 42 year-old hard-nosed private eye named Edward Pierce, is looking into a seemingly-benign case. From the second the demo started, the mood was set perfectly; the manor towered on the hilltop before Pierce, crows flying in the distance, while the detective began a decidedly noir monologue on the history of the location.
The first thing the player, one of the game’s producers, did was explore the outskirts of the manor. After a somewhat-obnoxious jumpscare in the form of crows flying in front of the camera (complete with a loud noise and Edward swearing), she came across a graveyard, where the Hawkins family rests in peace. It’s here that Call of Cthulhu’s RPG elements first come into play, with Pierce using his points in investigation to check out the graves. It appears fresh flowers have been left on the tombs of everyone but the family patriarch – something to keep in mind for later. It’s during this exploration that I noticed just how good the color palette for Call of Cthulhu is, drenching everything in a blue filter, only letting vibrant greens and oranges shine through. Not only does this touch make the game look damn fine, it also helps invoke the aquatic nature of the titular Great One, ensuring His presence is always felt.
It isn’t long until Pierce’s investigation leads him to a back door to the manor, but before he can open it, the manor’s groundskeeper greets him with axe in hand. It’s here that Call of Cthulhu shows off its decidedly Bethesda-like dialogue system, complete with a zoom into the angry groundskeeper’s face and a dialogue wheel. Each dialogue option requires a different skill—intimidation, persuasion, small talk, etc—to pull off, with different options leading to drastically different outcomes that will color how a character perceives Pierce. All skills are directly based off of the classic Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper rulebook, with character sheets even closely resembling those of the RPG.
Thanks to a mixture of intimidation (taking the axe out of the groundskeeper’s hands) and investigation (connecting the flowers on the tombs to the groundskeeper), the old man lets Pierce inside, but the lead designer is quick to tell me that other choices could lead to the player needing to look for other ways in, some of which are very hazardous to Pierce’s health and sanity.
Inside, Pierce finds what he’s looking for: the room where the Hawkins family met their grisly ends in a fire. While the police report claims the fire was an accident, Pierce ain’t buying it, and it’s up to the player to thoroughly investigate the room by using his skills. Considering Call of Cthulhu is a horror game first, it’s only natural that the crime scene isn’t exactly the cheeriest location to ever appear in a game, full of overturned furniture, broken clocks, and the ashen outline of where the couples’ young son was burned to death.
Once Hawkins has all the clues figured out, the game goes into a decidedly Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth-like deduction mode, where the player must decide which clues contradict the official police report. Much like the earlier dialogue encounter, failing to find the contradictory evidence won’t immediately result in a game over; instead, it’ll propel Pierce further down the wrong path, bringing him closer to insanity.
The demo then jumped ahead a bit further in the game to an art gallery known as the Sanders Estate, where Pierce is looking for a painting that was said to have a monster lurking inside—always a surefire recipe for a good time. It’s here that Call of Cthulhu‘s sanity system was shown off, and like any good Lovecraftian media, it’s central to the experience. While knowledge is power, it’s also very dangerous; the more you learn of the world around you, the more likely you are to find knowledge not meant for Man. The lower Pierce’s sanity gets, the lower his convictions will become, and the more he will experience vivid and violent hallucinations, all of which will cause dialogue and investigative options to slowly close themselves off. Naturally, when asked if it’s possible for Pierce to completely lose his grip on reality, the lead designer beamed and enthusiastically replied “Yes! Of course!”
Pierce’s investigation of the estate has him going past many sights associated with Lovecraft: bronze statues of fish-people, ceremonial daggers from esoteric cults, and paintings that look like they could’ve come straight out of Pickman’s gallery (and for all we know, that might be true!). Eventually, he finds what he’s looking for: a large piece of art showing off a giant beast, its gaping maw wide open, a void of darkness within. Unfortunately, as soon as Pierce gets close, the painting begins to ripple, and what do you know? The monster crawls right out of the painting, all bony limbs and massive mouths. And it isn’t friendly.
“There’s no way we can fight that,” the lead designer comments as Pierce spins around and begins running away as fast as his legs can carry him. “[Call of Cthulhu] is not about shooting monsters. We’re not Resident Evil,” the lead designer added. Sure, you can pick up weapons, and the producer does, grabbing a tentacle-like dagger from a display case, but violence is always a desperate measure. Sure, you can briefly hinder a monster, or create a diversion, but you can’t kill it, and the producer knows this. Instead of swinging at the beast, she gets Pierce to hide in a closet and try waiting for the monster to pass.
But there’s a catch. Pierce is claustrophobic.
Throughout Call of Cthulhu, Pierce will encounter increasingly disturbing situations, some of which will give him new phobias. Each new phobia will give the players a new wrinkle to the gameplay; for example, his claustrophobia means he can’t stay in an enclosed space for too long. The longer Pierce is exposed to one of his phobias, the higher his heart rate will get, until he’ll eventually suffer a heart attack and die instantly. As such, hiding around too long isn’t a good idea, and while closets may offer brief shelter, staying in them too long could be even deadlier than facing the beast. So the moment it passes, the producer flings Pierce out of the closet, sprints to the painting, and jabs the dagger right into it in hopes of slaying the beast.
Instead, the dagger flies out of Pierce’s hands on impact, and the eldritch creature pounces on him. It opens a massive mouth, bites down, and the demo ends.
While the demo was clearly very early on (the facial animation may as well be straight out of Oblivion at this point), it was certainly impressive. It’s clear that Cyanide Studio has a strong grasp on the central tenants of what makes the Cthulhu mythos work so well—namely, dread. “There is no happy ending in this game,” the lead designer stressed when asked about how the player’s choices will effect the outcome. There are four endings to the 20-hour game, and none of them are good, all of which seem to channel Lovecraft’s nihilistic and pessimistic viewpoints. And if they’re anywhere near as interesting as the demo was, I’m expecting that Call of Cthulhu will end up a damn good game.
Call of Cthulhu will release “when it’s done.”