Call of Cthulhu suffers from the same afflictions and shortcomings as its cousins. Based on the massively popular World of Darkness RPG system applied to H.P. Lovecraft’s incredibly popular and mind-bending source material, Call of Cthulhu is pretty twisted but not in the ways you’d imagine.
First and foremost, the game just isn’t very good. Its first impressions from the E3 presentation were strong, to say the least. However, the full release title falls quite short of the mark when actually managing to get hands-on. The gameplay is a little clunky, kinda buggy, and not overly well optimized and streamlined. With long loading times and annoying gameplay mechanics, it’s quite a challenge to begin enjoying the game.
Character creation is a crucial moment in any RPG, pen and paper, or otherwise, it’s where players get to really flesh out their character and begin building their story and world around the skills they possess. With Call of Cthulhu it loses that luster and allure, the world isn’t yours to conquer, the story isn’t yours to write.
Edward Pierce’s tale is already pre-destined to end in a number of different ways depending on gameplay choices, but let’s be honest, it’s Call of Cthulhu; You either end up dead or in an asylum somewhere plagued by nightmarish visions of the beyond.
The “Spot Hidden” skill is instrumental in any Call of Cthulhu investigator’s creation, but in Call of Cthulhu here it feels more like throwing darts at a board blindly than a roll of the dice. The hidden clue indicator shows up but discovering whatever clue it is you’re hunting can often be excruciatingly difficult, even when the article is highlighted with a big green magnifying glass icon above it. Although it feels as though this icon appears according to its own whims rather than a finely tuned game mechanic.
You’re very much a spectator in this story and honestly, it’s pretty disappointing. Boosting your skills at the start should alter the approaches you take in-game, but it doesn’t appear to matter all that much. You’re going to end up progressing the plot one way or another, you just might have a little less information to work with, which doesn’t seem to mean all that much anyway.
Everyone seems to either be prejudiced heavily against you from the get-go or immediately changes their minds and decides to be your friend while complaining about it the entire time. So any questions you ask, or information you reveal after investigating an area (something the police and other characters completely fail to do at all times) are either met with steadfast resistance or reluctant co-operation.
Conversing with people, while being tedious and utilizing a facsimile of the Mass Effect conversation wheel (complete with contextual dialogue prompts), is pretty painful. The audio sync appears to be way off beat and the voice acting doesn’t exactly make up for it. It’s not so much a problem with the performances or synchronization, but the scripting itself is pretty poor as well. The dialogue often comes across as flat and uninspired, owing itself well to everyone’s attitude but it could be a case of chicken and egg. Everyone sounds really shitty with you because of the writing, or the writing appears really flat because everyone is so hostile towards you, it’s difficult to tell.
Visually though, Call of Cthulhu has the assumed aesthetic pretty well nailed down. Apply a green filter liberally and make everything look damp and dreary, you’re golden. Call of Cthulhu stories never contain sunshine and rainbows (except in the case of Old Man Henderson but he’s very much the exception) so you don’t expect anything other than a soul-crushing color palette to reflect the turmoil and sinister machinations afoot. All the lighting and textures help give every scene a somber and sinister edge, especially when running around the burned-out mansion, but often the lighting can make spotting important items a challenge.
The atmosphere of the game, owing mostly to its aesthetic design, is pretty well done. Call of Cthulhu may not be overly scary, but it does generate a pretty tense feeling throughout. This feeling is helped to grow most of the time by a fairly decent scoring and soundtrack, but at times it can be kind of obnoxious and shatters the immersion. Often this happens at the key moments that should by all rights leave your spine tingling, but instead, it’s just kind of jarring and you realize “Oh wait, it’s just a game” more than a terrifying narrative experience.
A key aspect of any Lovecraftian story is the mythos and the fragility of the character’s mental state; This is something Call of Cthulhu struggles to achieve overly well. The stealth mechanics help to nurture the tension, until you realize most of the enemies are pretty forgetful and short-sighted, suffering from a serious case of Metal Gear Guard Syndrome (MGGS for short). In the rare occasion that you’re unable to get around an enemy and need to hide, you’re often treated to hearing a rising heartbeat and dimming of the screen. This is meant to simulate some kind of terror and claustrophobia but honestly, it’s just kind of annoying and doesn’t appear to have any effect on Pierce’s perceptions.
Staring into the abyss long enough for it to gaze back doesn’t seem to phase Pierce all that much either and the sanity-breaking moments appear to only occur during pre-ordained narrative moments. Essentially removing any control players may have over the character’s invisible sanity meter. I’m not saying I was actively trying to make Pierce lose his mind, but I was totally trying to actively drive Pierce insane just to see what influence it would have.
Each chapter has multiple different ways to approach a situation, which is all well and good, but they all tend to end with the same result. Call of Cthulhu boasts multiple endings, based on interactions and clues found throughout, but honestly, due to pretty weak writing and gameplay mechanics, all motivation to run multiple times through the same situations in order to see what you could have won is pretty much nullified. It’s not that it’s not interesting (although it’s not exactly gripping), it just doesn’t foster that burning desire to know what the other options were. There’s no motivation to dive back in and replay the scenes in order to see how they would play out with different skills and approaches.
Call of Cthulhu succumbs to much the same affliction as the other titles within the Lovecraftian sphere; A solid concept with lacklustre delivery. The stories often fall short of the original texts, failing to live up to the creeping spine tingling sensations they generate. You end up feeling pretty railroaded, which is the exact opposite of what any good GM aims to do. Appreciating that it IS a pre-written story and the player is expected to reach certain goals, it’s just that the Lovecraftian Horror themes don’t appear to translate all that well to an interactive game.