Aside from Bloodborne — which is influenced by, but not directly based on, the work of HP Lovecraft — there have been few successful games that have been able to capture the weird and singular vision of the American horror writer. Though there is argument whether Lovecraft deserves a place in the annals of classic literature or just recognition for being an excellent genre craftsman, no one would deny the importance of the Cthulhu mythos to modern horror and fantasy. Just in time to celebrate Halloween, Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu is the latest attempt to translate Lovecraft to the world of video games, albeit with some admitted help from the pen-and-paper version.
Call of Cthulhu is not an action game, though there are brief moments of bland gunplay and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it sections of frustrating stealth. By and large, it’s a third-person adventure with some very simple puzzle elements, lots of dialogue and heavy emphasis on story, trying to create the dark and creepy atmosphere of horror and dread that was Lovecraft’s trademark. Anyone familiar with the novel will be disappointed, as so little of it makes its way directly into the game.
You play as alcohol-soaked detective Edward Pierce, sent to the dying island fishing town of Darkwater to investigate a multiple-fatality fire. Of course, it very quickly turns into a story far more sinister and populated by a community of off-kilter characters, occult goings-on and the promise of something much more evil. Not quite a walking simulator — there is much more interaction than in most games in that genre — Call of Cthulhu becomes increasingly linear as the game progresses. Less than ten hours long, the ending will strike many players as stunningly abrupt and the overall experience disappointingly shallow. There is an RPG element to Call of Cthulhu, as Pierce can level up some important abilities that have an impact in his success negotiating the world. Additionally, at least early on the game it’s suggested that dialogue choices will have a major impact on the story but it’s never entirely clear if this is the case. The game is repetitious enough that the idea of playing through to reach alternative endings isn’t super appealing.
As a concept on a whiteboard, Call of Cthulhu probably looked pretty good but it often feels like none of the game’s subsystems — action, stealth, story and dialogue — were quite fully realized or well integrated. It doesn’t help that visually the game only has a few moments that really shine, and generally looks like a last gen title with a drab green filter overlayed on every frame. Most of the faces and character models are horrific, and not in that intentional, Lovecraftian way. They’re just ugly. The lip-syncing is as bad as I’ve seen in quite some time.
It always kind of amazes me that games built on literature as overwrought as Lovecraft’s don’t have better, less rote dialogue or a better paced story. Although the writing is uninspired, some of the voice acting — especially Pierce’s — helps bring a bit of nuance to the character that the words alone can’t provide. Unfortunately, the rest of Call of Cthulhu’s sonic landscape feels underdeveloped and misses the opportunity through music or environmental sounds to add intensity to the drama.
Although there are a few environments in the game that feel fully realized, and sections of story and dialogue that hint at a much more satisfying gameplay experience, Call of Cthulhu only sporadically engages with the imagination of Lovecraft and too often seems like a sketch that needs to be more completely filled in, shaped and polished. Once again, the particular genius of Lovecraft has eluded us in the video game form.