I love the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper game. It's one of the very few tabletop roleplaying games to keep my attention. I could tell stories all day of Dr. Jack Copper, my character who went a little crazy and buried a dude alive. Naturally, I was extremely excited when I heard about the Call of Cthulhu video game. An official adaption of my favorite tabletop? Yes, please. Now that it's in my hands in time for the spooky season, does Lovecraft's myths manage to compel, or is the real horror the game itself?
Taking place in the year 1924, you play as private detective Edward Pierce. At the current time, Edward is in a bad spot. He suffers from PTSD after serving in the army on top of drinking and drug problems. His clientele has all but dried up. Thankfully, a mysterious art collector comes in with work. His daughter Sarah, along with her husband and son, has died in a house fire. The news on the mysterious island of Darkwater says Sarah started the fire herself. While he knows Edward can't bring her back, he does request that the detective go there to clear his daughter's name. Naturally, nothing is as it seems, and soon Edward is involved in a mysterious supernatural plot involving a cult, mysterious paintings, otherworldly creatures, and the Necronomicon itself.
The plot is easily Call of Cthulhu's strongest asset. The story of the Hawkins Mansion's mysterious fire quickly manages to grab hold and never let go. Each time a new character comes along, I just had to wonder how they tied into the rest of the plot. The supernatural elements also come out exceptionally well. Trying to figure out what's actually happening and what's just in a character's head is a great mystery. I found myself pouring through Pierce's journal, looking for all the relevant information and trying to figure out how much of it is just his slowly depleting sanity.
However, while the story is great, there is some compromise. The graphics aren't really up to par, which makes some moments laughable. The facial animation feels stiff and lifeless and many character's mouths barely move when they talk. It just feels awkward when they stare at you dead-eyed and motionless. At least the voice acting is good enough, though no one really stands out. Call of Cthulhu does have one presentation aspect going for it. The soundtrack is always creepy and interesting, perfectly working with every scene. I often couldn't even tell what instruments were playing. The music distorted in just the right ways to throw me off.
Since it's an official adaption of a pen and paper game, Call of Cthulhu wears some of its inspirations on its sleeves. Edward has a skill tree with seven abilities based on those that you'd find in the tabletop version. As you perform actions, you earn character points to spend on these skills and raise your percentage chance of completing an action. For example, if you have an expert level in Investigation, you have a 70% chance to complete actions such as picking locks or inspecting crime scenes. This means you can try to perform everything the world throws at you. Even if you barely level a skill, there's still a small chance you'll succeed. It also means that there's no guarantee that something will work, barring you maxing out a skill so you have a 100% completion chance.
On one hand, it feels true to the game's tabletop origins. Dice rolls fit in well, and it's neat that I could just try to do everything from the start. On the other hand, it's sure frustrating when a skill check fails by a small chance. There's never a huge reliance on skill checks and there are always multiple ways out of every situation. That doesn't erase my annoyance at seeing an easy way out blocked because of an unlucky roll.
Call of Cthulhu has you step into the shoes of another character a few times throughout the campaign. I don't really want to spoil the hows or whys of this, but Pierce isn't the only one in Darkwater looking into the fire. You'll be worrying less about skill checks during these moments, as these characters have maxed out skills in the areas relevant to their scenes. It's nice to take a break from time to time, as these segments let me spend more time absorbing my surroundings rather than trying to hope my skill rolls would work.
Besides just generally exploring, you'll use skills to solve puzzles. As with many puzzle games, there are some obvious winners and losers. However, most of the winners feel like they populate the early game. One section requires Pierce to sneak into a warehouse. One option allowed him to buy a bottle of vodka from a nearby bar and use it to bribe some fishermen into running distraction, while another allowed Pierce to just convince the guards that their boss sent him. Getting past the guards isn't everything, as Pierce still needs to get into the warehouse itself. Picking the lock or finding a tool to smash it open are options, as is just finding the gang boss and offering her a favor to be let in. These early puzzles are great, and having several ways to solve them is fantastic.
However, as the game goes on, the puzzle quality drops noticeably. Many of the later puzzles make no use of your skills and only have one solution. Worse, a lot of them devolve into pixel hunting. The "solution" is just to find some obscure item hidden in a corner or a mysterious glyph in a dark area. Things hit rock bottom in a strange segment where I needed to stand in magic circles for a few seconds, but the circles are hidden all around a big cave. While searching for them, a character yells "you need to find the circles!" every ten seconds. It's infuriating and made me wonder why I had no way to use my skills to help find these. Especially when one of the skills (literally called Spot Hidden) helps you find hidden objects in the environment.
As you solve puzzles you'll have to rely on good old stealth to avoid enemies. This may take the form of everything from asylum doctors and cult members, to dimensional monsters. Unfortunately, the stealth in Call of Cthulhu feels iffy. It sometimes feels like enemies can home in on you to an almost absurd degree. At one point a doctor caught a glimpse of me from down a long hallway. Somehow this allowed him to follow me through three different rooms and immediately figure out what I was hiding behind. Other times I could lose enemies by running circles through rooms until they forgot about me. There never seemed to be a happy balance in the mechanic.
One late-game segment actually gives you the ability to fight back, and it quickly becomes clear why this isn't in the rest of the game. The game's first-person shooting mechanics can best be described as "awkward", and at worst "absolutely hilarious". During your time with a gun, you'll automatically aim at anything vaguely in your field of vision. Each shot is a dice roll against your strength skill, checking to see if you'll hit. However, you have a gun with unlimited ammo, a bottomless clip, auto aim, and all shots that hit are a one hit kill. The result? Pierce can gun down swaths of enemies with no effort in a fashion that made me burst out into laughter. It's completely mood breaking, and after that segment was over I was rather happy it never happened again.
No matter how you advance, Pierce has some difficulty coping with the situations presented to him. There's a strange sanity system present in Call of Cthulhu. A section in the menu shows various situations that have taken a toll on Pierce's mental fortitude, and if he's sane or psychotic. Some of these can be avoided. Reading an unholy book can increase Pierce's Occult skill, but he goes a little crazier as a consequence for doing so. If you choose to enter a room where a doctor has been cruelly cutting up people then this will also cause Pierce to freak out, but you can avoid it by avoiding this room.
However, there are many situations where you can't avoid it. For example, you'll always take the sanity hit for reading the Necronomicon because it's impossible to finish the game without reading it. It seems weird that there are very few situations that can actually be avoided. Ultimately, the only difference between a sane Pierce and an insane one is that you can answer some dialogue options in R'lyehian instead of English. It feels like a massive missed opportunity.
All of this leads to a weird situation. I honestly have trouble calling Call of Cthulhu a good video game. I will, however, say it is one hell of an interesting one. The story was enough to keep me playing, even when I began to grow sick of the game's iffy stealth or bad puzzles. Fans of Lovecraft's work should find enough here to keep them into the game, though general gamers just looking for a good tale may want to wait until a few patches iron out the rought spots.
TechRaptor reviewed Call of Cthulhu on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One.
- Fantastic Story
- Great Soundtrack
- Interesting Tabletop Mechanics
- Early Puzzles are Fun
- Tabletop Mechanics Occasionally Frustrating
- Later Puzzles are Terrible
- Bad Stealth
- Wasted Sanity Mechanic
- Ugly Graphics