Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

Talking about this game in my recent article gave me the urge to replay it. A choice that I knew I’d come to regret because there’s no playing Dark Corners of the Earth without a lot of frustration. The game is rough, to put it mildly. Yet, below its unappealing surface, there lies an incredible horror experience that few games have managed to surpass.

You play as Jack Walters; a private detective turned local hero after a string of successful cases. During a raid on a cult’s headquarters, Jack finds something he shouldn’t have found. Sees things he shouldn’t have seen. He is incarcerated in a mental asylum, only to suddenly snap back to sanity some years later. Upon returning to the line of duty, he immediately receives a request to track down a missing person. A store manager in the isolated coastal town of Innsmouth has gone missing and local authorities refuse to investigate the matter.

Dark Corners of the Earth starts off as a mystery-solving puzzle game with stealth and horror elements. Upon arriving you’ll find the townsfolk unwelcoming and entirely uncooperative. They don’t take kindly to strangers and claim not to know anything about no missing store manager. Obviously this is bullshit. Any outsider is going to be the talk of the town in a community like this. Especially if they’re the only person in town who doesn’t reek of rotting fish.

The game can be neatly divided up into 4 segments. You got the initial arrival in Innsmouth, where you pursue what few leads you find and come to (slowly) realize that something is horribly wrong there. It has horror, it has mystery and intrigue, but not much active gameplay. The second part comes as the town turns hostile against Jack. You’re now hunted; forced to stealth from place-to-place and shake off pursuers whenever you’re caught. Later on you finally get some weapons to fight back with. You still don’t want to be caught in a straight firefight, but can fight off an assailant or 2 in a pinch. However, this keeps escalating. The game eventually becomes a first-person shooter with horror themes, where you blast away at occult horrors with tommy guns, shotguns, and sci-fi weaponry.

If all this sounds inconsistent, then you’d be right. The game’s development was notoriously turbulent and full of direction changes. That the game is still this engaging in spite of these struggles is nothing short of a miracle.

In my opinion, the game is at its best in the first few chapters; when the mystery is dense and you feel so defenseless. Those chase sequences where you’re desperately closing doors and shoving obstacles into the way to delay your enemies are pulse-pounding to say the least. This combines with a sanity mechanic, where Jack becomes more panicked the more horrors he witnesses. When it gets critically low, Jack begins to whisper to himself and the screen gets blurrier as you move around. That may sound annoying, but in the moment it feels so very right.

Sanity creates an interesting tug-of-war between the gameplay context, player behavior, and incentives. For Jack’s sanity, it’s best to turn your head and look away. If you hear bloodcurdling screams coming from an alley, you may be better off not observing the gruesome aftermath. Yet, that’s not what a detective would do, is it?. You want to investigate, to unearth the mysteries of Innsmouth. And, as a player, getting to see the gore, profane rituals, and (later on) monsters is just really cool.

The game’s visual style is certainly a byproduct of its age, but it does a tremendous job for creating atmosphere. Innsmouth is murky and lifeless, almost as if something drained its soul. Townsfolk look and sound barely human, and that’s not even counting the actual monsters. So it’s a shame when you eventually get heavier armaments and the game turns into the worst FPS you’ve ever played on the Xbox.

While still engrossing for its story, the final few levels emphasize everything that’s wrong with Dark Corners of the Earth. Everything that frustrates. The controls are serviceable for a shooter, but the AI is damn-near braindead. There is little satisfaction in fighting an enemy that’ll walk right up to your shotgun barrel or just freezes up like a deer in the headlights. This is also the point where the sanity mechanics become annoying, as Jack turns into a whimpering husk even as he effortlessly blasts through hordes of eldritch spawn.

Losing sanity is just a non-standard Game Over, which comes on top of the game’s already-punishing health system. Jack has locational damage and different wounds need different supplies to patch up. A broken arm leaves you with inaccurate aim, bleeding legs give Jack a limp, and a cut on his face might coat the screen in red. Eventually you just bleed out if you don’t stop to patch yourself up. This system is fine in the stealth and horror portions where any damage you take is punishment for an obvious mistake. This is no longer the case when later levels have you deal with droves of enemies toting machine guns, platforming segments, and monsters that spawn out of nowhere to rush at you.

Jack gets hurst CONSTANTLY. Any drop you underestimate by even a few centimeters leaves him with an open fraction. Any hit causes bleeding that needs damn-near immediate attention. What even are you going to do if you’re midway through a platforming segment and run out of splints? You might as well reload a save or kill yourself.

Finally, there are the bugs. Dark Corners of the Earth is infamously unstable, even putting aside the occasional absence of the AI. My first run through the game years ago ended when a target you’re meant to shoot didn’t spawn in. That got fixed eventually in the GOG release, so this time I got stuck because a puzzle mechanic for the final boss can’t be interacted with. I just get stuck in a state where I can’t do anything and no amount of reloading older saves fixes it. On top of that I had issues with the game crashing and sporadically failing to load game states correctly. This left me with still having items I should have lost, duplicated enemies, or puzzles that were still solved.

It’s a hot mess. Not getting to finish the game left me more than a little ticked off, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the journey getting there. Even the action-y last few missions of the game have plenty of great moments, and the first half of the game is pure, horror gold. Horror fans that can stand some janky game-design definitely ought to check it out. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft may take issue with some parts of the game, but Dark Corners of the Earth still does a better job than most at emulating Lovecraft’s atmosphere and narratives.

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