Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Call of Cthulhu (Xbox One)

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Call of Cthulhu.

Regardless of one’s feelings about H.P. Lovecraft, there’s no doubt that his works are a continuing source of inspiration for other creative endeavors, including art, heavy metal songs, films and games. His perhaps best-known short story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, has alone inspired a lot of these, including a pen and paper RPG by Chaosium called Call of Cthulhu. Though I have no experience with that game, I had read enough of Lovecraft’s work that I had an interest in the 2018 video game Call of Cthulhu (aka Call of the Cthulhu: The Official Video Game), based on both the RPG and short story, to see how well it handled the source material. Though I found the experience intriguing at first, including the unique spin on Lovecraftian elements, a number of technical hiccups caused enough frustration that my opinion of the game sadly lowered the further I went on.

In 1924 Boston, private investigator Edward Pierce is hired to look into the case of the Hawkins family, who had all died in a house fire. With a bizarre painting from Sarah Hawkins as his only lead, he sets off to Darkwater Island for answers. Soon, however, he discovers that the island harbors a horrifying secret.

Edward Pierce is in a bad state when we first meet him.

Edward Pierce’s investigation opens fairly strong with a vision of the future and an intriguing mystery surrounding both Sarah’s ominous paintings and a cult that worships the elder god Cthulhu. Certain story elements that seem disparate at first also come together in somewhat satisfying ways, including the island’s much-celebrated “Miraculous Catch” brought back by the crew of the Scylla and a mysterious physical and mental illness plaguing many of the island’s inhabitants. There’s also an original plot line regarding Sarah’s paintings and an interdimensional being that goes through a complete and mostly satisfying arc, though one could argue that this could easily have formed the backbone of a completely separate game. Despite some plot holes and underdeveloped ideas, like how the bootlegger Cat’s presence and implied owed favor from one dialogue choice ultimately goes nowhere, the story still engaged me enough to see where it would go and I enjoyed the nods to other Lovecraft stories.

Throughout the game, you can make certain choices or engage in specific game mechanics to eventually unlock one of four different endings to the story, which you choose from a wheel. In true Lovecraft fashion, these endings all come at a steep cost, be it life or sanity, though notably none of them end the same way as the short story (where Cthulhu appears and is defeated by a boat). The game also undermines the recurring themes of choice and destiny by presenting choices as more of the illusion of choice. For example, if you tell Pierce not to eat mysterious meat, he’ll still eat it anyway even though the game says you didn’t.

When the investigation begins, players can assign Character Points (CP) across seven stats on Pierce’s character sheet. Once locked in, players can only change these stats by naturally earning CP during the story or, in the case of Medicine and Occultism, finding certain objects and books in the environment. Within the character sheet, Pierce also has a Sanity (SAN) stat that affects his perception of reality and lowers whenever he’s left in darkness too long, experiences a traumatic event or reads forbidden literature.

Pierce's character sheet (Strength is a useless stat).

While I loved the idea of the character sheet as a way of potentially adding more depth to the gameplay, the execution unfortunately felt underwhelming. The stats don’t really have equal weight in the game, since they mostly affect which dialogue options on the controller-friendly dialogue wheel are open to you and even then, you can fail a stat check. The Strength stat adds absolutely nothing to the game, unless you just want to move things without a tool that’s usually a few feet away, while the Spot Hidden stat actually affects what hidden objects and areas you can interact with in the darkness for potentially more dialogue options. It doesn’t help that with the SAN stat specifically, drinking alcohol apparently restores it, and can noticeably lock you out of dialogue options that require low SAN, but there’s no noticeable change on the SAN meter in the character sheet, not to mention hardly any opportunities to actually drink alcohol.

Your stats and evidence largely only affect dialogue choices.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the game hardly features any gameplay for a first-person RPG. A large portion of the game consists of walking, talking (including timed conversations) and interacting with objects for further clues in the investigation. At certain points, Pierce can even reconstruct memories for more insight on certain events. Pierce also has two light sources with an interesting attempt at balance: a lighter that only light up the immediate area around him but has near indefinite usage and an oil lamp that lights up more space but can run out of oil. However, light usually isn’t too much of an issue, even when boosting the intensity of the lamp, with only two puzzle sections where there’s any real danger of running out of oil.

Reconstructing memories helps with the investigation.

What little gameplay that exists through stealth sections doesn’t appear as often as it could, especially considering the few opportunities for an actual failure state. During stealth sections, Pierce’s crouching and peeking abilities actually have more of an impact, since he must move as quietly as possible while observing and outmaneuvering guards. These sections can still feel clunky, especially those involving a Lovecraftian horror that you can’t look at or else it will find you, but are mostly easy to breeze through. One of these stealth sections towards the end involves actual combat (with no use at all for the Strength stat) but has a poorly implemented shooting mechanic. Your gun has finite ammo with no visible ammo counter and the crosshair, which you can toggle in the pause menu, doesn’t actually determine the trajectory of each bullet, which suggests that the crosshair is more for preventing motion sickness.

Though some may still find enjoyment in a psychological horror game where you mostly walk, a number of technical issues easily make the experience more frustrating than fun. While lengthy load times would usually act as a minor setback, it can be hard to enjoy the otherwise interesting set designs thanks to an abundance of noticeable texture loading, including entire portions of the map popping into existence with flashes of blue and white if you so much as look around a corner (especially noticeable in Chapter 7, which starts in a small bookstore). The graphics in general look more like something out of an Xbox 360 game rather than one developed for the Xbox One due to low-res textures within the environment and sometimes broken lighting. An inconsistent framerate also revealed itself as early as Chapter 1.

Actually, there’s a generally “unfinished” quality to the graphics. Character models look unpolished, several minor NPCs look pretty similar to each other and Pierce’s hair looks inconsistent in cutscenes, with his hair appearing disheveled one minute and perfectly coiffed the next as opposed to a more natural progression or tying it more directly to the SAN stat. Pre-rendered cutscenes also feature animations that look off compared to the in-engine cutscenes, though those have their own issues. These include jerky camera movements reminiscent of a Bethesda game, sometimes refusing to stay still when needed. I also had it where when I made a specific choice during Chapter 13, an object didn’t track with Pierce’s hand and then magically spawned in. Then there are the rather amateurish typos in dialogue and item descriptions, including the wrong form of a word or using a lowercase “i” when Pierce refers to himself. I’m aware that Cyanide is a French developer, but the sheer number of overlooked errors contributed to the game’s overall rushed quality.

A typo from early in the game ("concealed"
appears twice in the same sentence).

Unfortunately, the audio isn’t free from technical errors of it own. While subtitles sometimes don’t match what the characters say, normally a minor annoyance, pre-rendered cutscenes usually played the dialogue and audio slightly out of sync with the visuals, which at least once resulted in lines overlapping with each other. In-engine cutscenes also often had new lines of dialogue clip the background audio and I even had one issue during Chapter 13 where an entire line of dialogue was skipped over, though I solved the issue by reloading the checkpoint (coincidentally, that led to the previously mentioned tracking issue). On a more minor note, NPCs can also have very limited dialogue pools.

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s work may find something good in Call of Cthulhu, but its technical issues, unpolished graphics and odd implementation of the character sheet limit its appeal with a wider audience. You’ll likely find better Lovecraft-themed or -inspired games out there if you look hard enough, but if you really want to try this in spite of its flaws, consider picking it up during a sale.

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