Call of Cthulhu Review

There are a couple of issues when it comes to adapting the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The first is the man himself: Lovecraft was a gross racist whose beliefs about The Other applied equally to fictitious monsters and to foreigners. When we go on about “The Cthulhu Mythos”  and works indebted to its creator, I think we’re collectively agreeing that this universe now belongs to literature in a manner untethered to the original artist.

But all that said, how do you make new, interesting versions of these properties without bringing the awful philosophy of the man behind it? And how do you do that in 2018, where everything Lovecraft ever touched has been adapted a dozen times over? And how do you make an interesting visual experience, working from an author whose go-to move was never, ever describing the most important elements of his cosmic horror?

That’s what makes Cyanide Studios’ new Call of Cthulhu title so exceptional: it does a top-notch job of fixing all of these problems and churns out a comprehensive mystery game that incorporates the entirety of a mythos into a new, engaging format that carries forth all of the thematic darkness of Lovecraft with none of the thematic baggage.

Edward investigates

Dark Times in Darkwater

Call of Cthulhu is the tale of Edward Pierce, a Boston private detective in the 1930s who has run out of cases and ways to manage his mental health—outside of booze and sleeping pills, of course.

There’s one flicker of hope in his life. He’s hired to investigate the death of a family. The Hawkins died in a fire, but someone believes they’re the victims of a far more sinister plot. So Eddie heads to Darkwater: an island plagued by shipwrecks and dead whales constantly washing ashore.

There’s a darkness hanging over the population.Everything and everyone seems plagued by some secret force they can’t put into words, but know is subtly destroying them.

You arrive on this darkened island and begin investigating immediately by grabbing every loose piece of paper and random book you can find. It feels scrambled and pointless in the first 30 minutes. Then you see how every bit of information plays into opening up locked dialogue options with the people around you. This is important because you’re about to use every skill at your disposal to foment an insurrection that keeps the locals dealing with internal bickering. That way they don’t notice you creeping off to solve a murder mystery.

Investigative Interference

So much of this game is so well planned out; leading to multiple solutions to puzzles and approaches to the mystery that help achieve the same end goals, or vastly different outcomes, right from the beginning. That makes sense. See, this is actually an adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu board game. And it does just an annoyingly good job of modifying board game rules into real-time interactions. Your skills and the conditions that allow them to advance are based on how far you’re willing to explore, the conversational deep-dives you engage in, and how much you’re willing to play ball with the diverse and beleaguered characters you encounter.

This entire set of stats and interactions are perfectly streamlined.  The entire skill tree fits in a single menu, but how the abilities affect gameplay is clear-cut and understandable.

It feels almost too simple.  The upside is that your successes and failures are easily traceable to what you’re doing. I got frustrated when my character said he wasn’t smart enough to pick a lock, but I knew immediately why I wasn’t able to. So I made a note to invest more points in brains later.

Call of Cthulhu isn’t an adaptation of one source. It’s an adaptation of many. And it does them well. It tackles individual Lovecraft shorts and makes them into the equivalent of mini-bosses, which is borderline funny for the long-running fans. As a whole, though, this game presents the classic mythos in one very large chunk. To sum up: a lot  of Lovecraft is actually divided into short form literature. It’s all combined here into a single story that folds in the extensions. That’s the best version of this. And that blend is goddamned impressive.

The Horrible Hows and Whys

I haven’t said that much about the gameplay to this point. I think that may be the thrust as well. It’s both about the perspective of someone who has read all of Lovecraft and the player who has never read anything. This game serves both because it eschews all responsibilities to make something bigger. And that responsibility carries through into the game. I don’t think anything in games compares to this.

So what is this game? Did you love point-to-point investigations of LA Noire? You’ll love this. Did you love interconnected NPC relationships of Vampyr? You’ll love this, too. Did you love neither of those? Weirdly, you’ll still love this marriage of those third-person adventure ideologies.

Call of Cthulhu is a genuine detective story in a way I’ve not seen done in games. There are clues to when you haven’t investigated everything. You can also progress and ignore such minor details, while still positing important theories. What you pull is important, because this is a game that offers a weirdly prescient thesis.

The mystery in Call of Cthulhu requires X amount of information to solve. But you have to be careful, because a different amount of information will drive you insane.

Shuffling Towards the Worst

The moment-to-moment experience of playing Call of Cthulhu varies wildly. There are whole sequences where you just learn things. There are whole sequences where you just cross-examine people. It’s LA Noire if there was no overworld map, but you still know it affects everything around you.

What’s the greater version of Call of Cthulhu?  It’s a flawless transition of a board game that started in 1981, based on a mythos created at the turn on the century, that suddenly does a lot of maybe important things. Everyone you trust here slowly succumbs to an infestation of a chemical corruption you cannot control. Everyone you love or trust dissolves into something incomparable to what matters.

It’s kinda brutal and exactly on point for the source material. And it does so in a way that works on-screen.

So what happens from here? This is a game about trying to match the unimaginable with a reality-based approach. You can see the toxic occuring in front of you and you need to match it with an awareness and an intelligence which seems on point in 2018. Whether you can or not or depends on who you are and what comes next.

While I celebrate everything that happens in this game, there are a few criticisms. Some of the plot elements are incomprehensible until you read the chapter summaries for what just happened. A few chapters are wildly difficult to complete in a game that is otherwise very welcoming. There are stealth mechanics that  could use some work, and by the time the sequel comes, I’m sure they’ll be fixed.

This is the best version of a Lovecraft game yet to be produced. It incorporates the entirety of the author’s worthwhile creations, and you never know what to expect next. Despite some technical frustrations, I declare it a must-play for anyone that cares about.the mythos, modern adventure games, or just a good, repulsive mystery.