Jason is your mild-mannered geek, who refuses to complete a game without seeing all the sidequests.
(Review code provided by Evolve PR)
There I was: out of breath and down to my last bullet. The mindless drones will attack me if I so much as sneeze in their direction. The group of religious zealots standing behind them isn’t filling me with confidence either. It’s now or never, Edward. If you can manage to survive the Great War, you can survive this.
I hold my breath and run, there’s no time to check every nook and cranny; this may be a detective game, but damnation! I want to live to see the next level, there’s no time to investigate that suspicious corpse. I don’t know my left from my right; the horrors of the unknown are breathing down my neck. It’ll hurt like hell if I get caught and have to re-do this part of the level. Blast! I can hear them! Do I have one bullet or two? Who knows, the game won’t tell me. Am I really unable to fight back? No, the developers won’t let me. Come on, Edward! Come on! Will I make it? As I make my umpteenth turn around whatever corner that was, I see something. God – it’s her!
Call of Cthulhu is a strange beast. It’s a game that feels like a pulp detective novel, with you uncovering a dark mystery that has befallen a remote island. As Edward Pierce, you’re tasked to uncover whether or not Sarah Hawkins actually killed herself and her family. But little did Edward know that this fateful case would change him to the core. It has some great roleplaying mechanics that make the protagonist feel uniquely your own, an atmosphere that’s palpable and some characters that have surprising depth. But at other times the game robs you of your choices and instead subjects you to the horrors of linearity.
It’s very much a detective title, with FPS and RPG mechanics laying the groundwork for the experience. During your playthrough, you collect CP (character points) that you can allocate to various skills. Do you increase Eloquence and smooth over any bumps in your questioning and logic? Or do you increase your skills of Investigation and Psychology, leading you to dead-on conclusions? Just like that, you can also increase your strength stat to threaten people or force open doors. This mixing and matching of traits is incredibly fun but is hampered when the design leads you to a route that doesn’t fit your build.
Your investigation is split up into chapters, where Edward will explore Darkwater Island. The game isn’t really an open world, but you can explore and look for clues in the various areas to your heart’s content. Some rooms also have you puzzling together the pieces of a crime scene a la the Batman Arkham series. Progressing through these bits is never really a chore and usually straightforward. Cracking the puzzles should be quite evident and elementary. Sadly, you only have one save file. So going back to older chapters and making different choices isn’t possible. But it does add weight to the story, with it being the sum of your choices.
With the conversation system being one of choice and consequence, I was pleasantly surprised. See a dialogue tree? Don’t be fooled, the wrong question or conclusion can end your conversation quite abruptly. The first time it happened I was stunned; modern games have lulled me into a state of security, letting me navigate dialogues and getting the full story, a person’s favorite color and how old they were when their favorite pet died. The fact that talking to someone can be limited to, at worst, one line of dialogue helps create a sense of urgency in your pursuit and helps make these characters feel real. So tread carefully, ‘cause I’m still kicking myself for being so cavalier in my questioning.
The game controls fine. You can walk, run and look around, as is typical of an FPS. I did, however, wish that my character was a bit more nimble and willing to fight back. As a World War 1 veteran, Edward is surprisingly incapable of fending off people. Got caught sneaking around? Instafail. See a beam you can cross to get to the other side? Nope, you’re getting redirected to another predetermined path. There’s no way to apply the freedom the game presents you in other areas and that was just upsetting. Equally upsetting is the AI in these instances; I wasn’t expecting Splinter Cell, but the guards are laughably unaware of your existence, even as you’re crouched right beside them.
Also puzzling, given Edward’s veteran status, is his inability to use his gun until the latter part of the game (two or three brief chapters divorced from the final, just as brief, chapter). Hilariously enough, another character points out that he has a gun on his person, while you yourself have never seen it. If he was unable to use it due to horrors witnessed during the war, then fine. But the game makes no such attempt and instead introduces it way too late. You also have no idea how many bullets are in the magazine, but to be honest it does add tension to the whole affair. This makes you weigh every action; do I sneak around and hopefully avoid shooting someone? I rolled my Edward as a pacifist, but woo-boy did that quickly turn into a zombie shooting gallery. Also, one hit is all it takes to down an enemy. So the aforementioned tension was quickly deflated by enemies who won’t fight back and scare you into being conservative with ammunition.
There’s also an insanity meter, that changes your perception of reality, but its inclusion is obvious and can be circumvented, never really making itself feel worthwhile. Whenever something strange happens, Edward’s vision swirls and becomes cloudy, telegraphing its intent. Speaking of things seemingly unnecessary, along the way you receive a lantern to light your way through the dark and to help you along some puzzles. And although it provides a larger spread of light in comparison to the lighter Edward carries around, it never felt like a better alternative.
As I mentioned earlier, Edward is a war veteran, but that it’s never really explored and compared to the horrors he’s experiencing at the moment feels like such a missed opportunity. The game offers choice, but never fully. You can choose to drink and continue your alcoholism, thus affecting the story, but you can’t use your gun or explore violence as a means to an end within said story.
The visuals do their job and nothing looks out of place, but the textures and the character models can sometimes be so underwhelming that a dead-eyed guard looked way scarier than any of the horrors you encounter.
But this is a game about madness, of beings from the beyond that invade your thoughts and promise you false greatness. It’s an open world that offers you choice but falls short of being a true sandbox. I know I’m sounding down on the game and yet it grabbed my attention. The art design and moody atmosphere kept me engrossed, fearing anything could jump at me without a moment’s notice. Like the elder beings who take root in the consciousness of the characters, the game took root in my imagination and refused to let go; I wanted to succumb to its madness and its, at times, maddening design.
Call of Cthulhu is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.