Another day, another game called Call of Cthulhu that doesn’t actually follow the plot of Call of Cthulhu. However, whereas Dark Corners of the Earth was a loose adaptation of an entirely different novel, 2018’s Call of Cthulhu tells its own original story. One that draws heavily from Lovecraft’s mythos, but with its own narrative (and gameplay) spins to it.
Players take control of Edward Pierce; troubled World War 1 veteran turned alcoholic detective. Though quite accomplished in his new profession, Edward has grown disillusioned with the insignificance of much of his work. Until one day when a distraught father enters his office. His daughter—a painter renowned for her nightmarish paintings—has recently died in a housefire. She lived as a recluse on the isolated island of Darkwater with her husband and son, but her father doesn’t believe that this fire was a mere accident. He wants Edward to head out there and uncover the truth.
Upon arrival, it’s clear that Darkwater is a strange place. A harbormaster calls the shots around town and the whole community is still abuzz over a miraculous whale hunt that saved the town from starvation years ago. Bootleggers roam the town freely—committing crimes and intimidating locals—while the police are more occupied with impeding you. Serious digging is required if Edward is to uncover the town’s secrets. Secrets that, increasingly, appear to be linked to his own recurring nightmares.
I critiqued Dark Corners of the Earth for its smorgasbord of gameplay styles, so its only fair that I now praise Call of Cthulhu for its commitment. This is a horror game in which you play a detective who does detective work. You investigate leads, interrogate people, solve puzzles, all to gradually piece together the full story. Mixed in you find interactive horror segments with occasional stealth elements. Some are just walking simulator scares, while at other times you have to hide from NPCs or monsters as you solve puzzles.
To accommodate this, you invest stat points into Pierce that gradually make him a better detective. Eloquence and Strength offer you different flavors of persuasion, Psychology lets you analyze people’s thoughts, Investigation is for deciphering clues (and lockpicking, strangely), and Spot Hidden provides you clues when there are hidden items nearby. There are also Occultism and Medicine, but these are improved by finding relevant items throughout the game rather than by allocating points.
Points are rewarded as you progress through the game. This all but guarantees that you’ll have enough to make Edward a capable sleuth, though I do have some complaints with this mechanic. Making skill checks in conversations or while investigating makes sense, but provides awfully little feedback. It’s often unclear if you succeeded or failed. Especially because the story will continue onwards regardless of the outcome.
In this and other ways, Call of Cthulhu feels inspired by Telltale’s games. It even constantly presents you choices and then reminds you that there’ll be consequences. And like a Telltale game, the plot ends up feeling railroad-y and lacking in player agency. Everything always coalesces back unto the same track, with most of your choices presenting only minimal differences. You can choose to be nice to a barman or cause a ruckus in his establishment. Hell you can even make a skillcheck to take a different option entirely. Not that any of it matters, as you never come back to that bar or see that person again.
As a mystery story, it feels undercooked. If the world was more open and you had different routes through which you could arrive on the same revelations, that’d be quite neat. You could find solutions that best suit the kind of Edward you created or side with the characters you find most likeable.
Another issue with the plot is that it constantly falls barely short of being interesting. None of the characters are particularly engaging; either because they get no screen-time or play too heavily into generic stereotypes. Some chapters fail to realize their potential and, towards its conclusion, the plot starts feeling particularly slapdash. A shame, because I was really into it for those first few chapters.
Presentation-wise, the game has issues as well. It tries to wow with its realistic artstyle, but the visuals are certainly not A-grade material. Character models look off, mouth flaps don’t always match up, and physics objects have a habit of tweaking out unexpectedly. The sound is even worse. Voice acting is mediocre across the board, with some main characters sounding particularly bad. The audio in cutscenes also erratically changes volume. Sometimes it’s fine and matches up with the regular game audio, at other times it’s strangely muted. Even in regular gameplay, some dialogue is so soft that you’d easily miss it without subtitles. Subtitles that don’t always match up with the actual dialogue or have spelling errors in them. Again, a slapdash effort.
So is the game just all-bad? I did still have a fun time working through the story and its investigation sequences, I feel, could be used to great effect in a more focused mystery game. Some segments were fine like the first encounter with a monster and I definitely got spooked a few times. Even the few puzzles were nice to solve. Still, those are small moments in a game that is otherwise very underwhelming. With both its story and gameplay falling so short of realizing their potential, it’s difficult to recommend Call of Cthulhu.