I will be honest, I have been feeling a bit underwhelmed by the recent wave of horror games, ones that more than likely seem to be trying to catch the trend set by the unfortunate PT. However, they usually tend to miss out on a key detail, and as sad as it sounds PT took a lot of money to create. The last horror game I really enjoyed was Evil Within 2 and it was even my game of the year it was released, and as you can imagine even that was a triple A game. So, when I finally saw a first-person game that was trying to instead go back to the madness-soaked depths of the Cthulhu’s mythos, you can bet my interest was held captive.
For once it felt like someone trying to go back to one of the foundations of horror, that modern games seem to miss, and that is the fear of the unseen, something that the cosmic nature of the Cthulhu universe is well regarded for, and fortunately Call of Cthulhu also understands that as it sends the protagonist into a whirlwind of madness and conspiracy quite early down the line. Of course, I am not saying that there is no build-up whatsoever, as believe it or not the game is one long build up to a frightening conclusion, however it doesn’t rush, or take too long to place you into the madness which was a refreshing change.
However, even then before any of the reveals or exciting moments, never once did I feel bored as the island of Darkwater, where the game takes place has been crafted with a lot of care and detail. The way the locals talk, the history of the island and its relation to its surrounding seas, it feels fleshed out and a central character on its own that seems to get darker the more you find out about the place and its locals. And it does help that the game looks graphically stunning with a distinctive art-style that reminds you of Arkane’s Dishonored franchise, which is a huge compliment in my book, with a very bleak looking aesthetic that paints a grim picture of the place ravaged by superstition and tragedy.
Speaking of characters, the game follows the story of a private investigator named Pierce, a troubled individual drowning in a cocktail of painkillers and alcohol who has been unable to get any high profile case for a while, but that changes when mystery comes knocking on his door, a father hopelessly looking for answers into the untimely demise of his daughter, along with her husband and young child. It’s the way these situations have been setup that the characters come across naturally, and events make sense as to why they are happening.
However, the main thing that really puts the soul into these characters is the unbelievably good voice acting, and I used the term ‘unbelievably’ because we seldom get to see such brilliant voice acting in indie or low budget games, but the voice over in this easily rivals some of the biggest games as words are properly emphasised, the tone is matched with the situational emotion and the pacing is very polished. It does seem they got some experienced and talented voice actors, and this helps the story telling a lot.
One thing I really appreciate that the devs have done in this game are the exciting sequences, which have a much faster pace than the usual exploratory gameplay. At one point you will try and take down someone hand to hand, and another you might start chasing someone. I absolutely love these, as I think action in horror is really undervalued, and this really gets your blood pumping, especially with the game’s brilliant music! It makes sense as well, because Pierce is a detective after all and you would expect him to be in certain dangerous scenarios where it is fight or flight.
Another thing that I appreciate they have done, is staying close to the pen and paper source material which the game has been inspired by, so unlike more traditional skill unlocking in games where you get different abilities, here it is more character based with stats like Eloquence, investigation, medicine, etc… that unlock more options and dialogue trees for you once you get more knowledgeable on the related subjects. You get character points just like the source material as well which you can assign to different aspects of Pierce’s abilities.
Strength works very much like pen and paper where you actually have to test it against a scenario. I will be honest I haven’t played much of the pen and paper game, but I am sure a lot of the source material fans will really appreciate this as it not only makes sense within the game but helps build a character you want to go for.
Now of course, there are a couple of issues I have with the game, but they mainly come down to polish, as during some of the hiding sequences it does feel the game is a bit unfinished. Now don’t get me wrong, these sequences work absolutely fine, but I do think a few more mechanics during these sequences wouldn’t have hurt, like in depth distractions for example.
Another thing they could have done was make these sequences a bit tenser with more scripted events. For example, during the first stealth sequence in the asylum, there is this room where you go to find something. If it was me designing the scenario, what I would have done is have something just fall due to the characters carelessness which would have prompted an enemy to go “who’s there?!” and prompt them to investigate the noise. Now at this point the character would have been trapped as if you leave the room, the enemy will see you, which leaves you with only one option: hiding in the cupboard in the room you are in.
This would have helped in two ways, firstly by actually introducing you to the hiding mechanic and letting you know that it’s something doable for that level and it would have made the enemy feel a bit more like a threat. As when I played it, not once did I feel the need to use these hiding spaces as I could easily outwit the simple AI. But I do like how you start to panic in claustrophobic spaces, so you can’t stay somewhere like that long, but it does make me feel like certain cinematic opportunities were missed in this regard.
Same goes for the camera movement during cut-scenes as I feel like they literally just animated the camera movement, and you don’t get to see pierce’s hands or feet more than half the time which does take out of the experience a bit and it could have been better having an animated pierce properly leaning into stuff during cut-scenes with his hands and feet coming into use more. Of course not all sequences are like this as there are some where you can see more of Pierce being animated.
Still, all in all these issues are easily ignorable and didn’t manage to spoil the experience for me as in hindsight, the experience I had with the game and its world was extremely memorable, full of tense thriller moments and exciting sequences truly heightened by the excellent voice acting and storytelling which any fan of the Cthulhu mythos would love to be a part of. It is safe to say we finally have a really good Cthulhu based game after a good while and I cannot wait to see what Cyanide does next.