One of the first things I did in Call of Cthulhu was drink. Edward Pierce, the grizzled detective protagonist that drips cliche, reached for a bottle of whiskey. This prompted a choice between “Drink” or “Don’t drink”. Obviously, I chose to drink. I was immediately told it would “affect my destiny”. A man came in, gave me my case, and berated me for being a lousy drunk. He still entrusted me with finding the truth behind his daughter’s death. I guess drinking on the job is fine after all.
The game is immediately very noir. You start in a 1920’s Boston office, the protagonist might as well be called Mr. Noir, and there are several references to Prohibition made early on. Call of Cthulhu isn’t shy about flaunting its influences. It doesn't waste any time getting straight to the Lovecraft, either. It’s fishmen, monsters, and underwater gods right from the beginning, without even so much as a creeping suggestion that it could be anything else.
The H.P. Lovecraft influences are so abundant here and it shows its nautical horror card so quickly that there’s no time to build up any fishmen anticipation. The game is literally called Call of Cthulhu so perhaps that’s to be expected. That isn’t to say that there isn’t any mystery, however, because it’s still quite effective at building it up. You arrive on the creepy island of Darkwater (need I say more?), an island off the coast of Boston that looks like an abandoned shipwreck. The atmosphere is immediately unsettling and the locals, who look as though they’re about to burst out of their scaly-looking skin, are instantly suspicious and hostile.
The people you come across have an air of mystery around them and nobody is quite as they appear. The whole island seems more than a little odd and there’s a constant underlying feeling that there’s something very wrong. You spend a lot of time just wandering around Darkwater talking to the locals. Conversing with people is an essential way to gradually piece together the mystery of Dark Water, along with the unusual and suspicious history its inhabitants fiercely guard.
The local drinking hole was the first place I came across when I landed on the island. This was a “we don’t like people who aren’t from here” kind of place, as I expected, where the people weren’t exactly welcoming. After slamming three rounds of the local favorite, I came across a newspaper clipping suggestively impaled by harpoons that simply read PROHIBITION and another that proudly boasted of the “Miraculous Catch”. This event, which the locals are eager to talk about, marks the capturing of the largest whale ever caught on the island some 80 years prior. There’s something that seemed a little fishy (sorry) about the whole thing. Particularly the way the residents seem to almost worship it.
A slightly off-kilter population isn’t the only mystery here though. The real mystery centers around Sarah Hawkins and her family. A tragic yet somewhat suspicious fire is said to have claimed the lives of Sarah, her husband, and their child. The circumstances are, of course, suspicious and some foul play seems to have taken place. Eventually, I arrived at the family's abandoned mansion. A suitably gothic building that oozes atmosphere. Without getting into spoiler territory, the mystery is well built-up and I left the preview build really wanting to know the true fate of the family.
Call of Cthulhu is a strictly non-combat game. Sometimes you may have to threaten someone or throw a punch at them, but this is all done through dialogue. It’s also very much a role-playing game. I use this term because it’s based on the popular pen-and-paper series of the same name. Call of Cthulhu wants you to know this immediately, as it presents you with a character sheet.
There are seven stats on this screen. Five of them you dump points into, such as Psychology and Investigation, and the other two, Medicine and Occultism, improve as you find things in the environment. The game puts a strong emphasis on these stats, which influence much of what you do. There’s almost a Deus Ex-like feel to the way it tries to present multiple ways to tackle an objective. For example, you could talk your way through a situation, or find a way to sneak in the back and utilize other skills.
These options aren’t very mechanically heavy. Mostly, they’re just simple stat check or a dialogue option. However, the way you choose to put points in your character influence how you play. It presents an interesting angle that I hadn’t expected going in and I hope it sticks with this approach as the game progresses. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear how much of any particular stat you need at any given time. While you can usually just infer that info, it'd be better if it was as obvious as the way the stats affect dialogue.
There’s a lot of dialogue in Call of Cthulhu. Finding clues in the environment to unlock further conversational options is an essential way to uncover the truth behind a matter. Dialogue choices feel important and weighty. Saying the wrong thing can anger someone, making them no longer want to talk to you. The right option can get you exactly what you need. It feels imperative to read the personality of the person you’re engaging with in order to judge what the best approach might be.
Call of Cthulhu is a little rough-around-the-edges. The game doesn’t look amazing even on max settings and the animations can be janky. The voice acting is mostly solid, but a few of the side characters aren’t so great. There’s a Bethesda-style zoom as you’re entering a conversation with someone and occasionally people will make Oblivion-esque changes in facial expressions. The jank isn’t too bad. It was never game-breaking, but it can distract from the tense atmosphere sometimes.
Our hands-off preview from E3 2017 showed some mechanics that I didn’t see during my 2-3 hours with it. The demo showed off how Pierce was claustrophobic and so he couldn’t stay in enclosed spaces for too long. It even teased the idea that he could develop new phobias if exposed to a particularly nasty situation. This all sounds really cool since, based on my limited understanding, phobias play an important part of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop series.
None of this was present during my time with the game, however. The character screen features a Sanity page, which tracks your mental health and Pierce’s current afflictions, but nothing about phobias. The Sanity stuff didn’t really come into effect while I was playing, either. There was a scripted story moment that caused Pierce to have a panic attack, making him freak out as his vision went all blurry. It was a pretty effective moment. Watching as Pierce’s gruff tough-guy persona crumble as he begins to blindly panic was an interesting and humanizing thing to see.
There’s a paragraph on the Sanity page that describes how his time in the First World War has left him with mental trauma, but this 15-second scene was a far more effective character building tool. It was refreshing to see a character with mental health issues portrayed in a believable way in a video game. Especially for someone who struggles with anxiety. This scene was near the end of the preview build, which left me a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen more like it. I’m hoping that Cyanide has more prevalent Sanity mechanics and realistic mental health depictions later in the game. It was a moment that really stood out from my three-hour trek.
Ultimately, Call of Cthulhu seems like an ambitious game with a number of clear influences. The sense of atmosphere and tension building are great. There’s a constant feeling of unease as you explore the island of Darkwater. You truly feel like a stranger in a strange place. There are some cool ideas here that, if executed well throughout, could make for a unique and memorable experience.
Our Call of Cthulhu preview was conducted on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. Call of Cthulhu is also on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and launches October 30.