Follow me into the mouth of madness as I recall my latest adventure into a tale perfectly suited and timed with its release for this most hallowed of holidays. Call of Cthulhu is finally available for PC after what seemed like an eternity since I heard about its development. Make no mistake that no matter what anyone says about H.P. Lovecraft as a person there is no denying his literary works.
So I like many jumped at the chance to see the unfathomable made real in this tale based more upon the long running pen and paper RPG series by Chaosium than Lovecraft’s own short story. No matter the origins of this particular slice of eldritch horror, I found myself drawn in by its atmosphere and tone nearly right from the start. Even Cyanide didn’t pull punches with the menu screens where “Enter Madness” is the first words you see aside from the title.
After a brief stop at the multiple save slot screen which you’ll want for reasons I’ll cover in a bit, it’s off for one hell of an introduction. You play as Edward Pierce, a war veteran turned private detective, in 1924s Boston who is at a loss for worthwhile cases and on the verge of losing his license. To bide his time however he hits the bottle and the sleeping pills to drown out his nightmares when a rather mysterious case presents himself.
With little more to go on than a bizarre painting Edward is tasked with the investigation of the mysterious deaths of the Hawkins family who perished in a fire. It get stranger as the painting comes from a rumored to be touched artist and mother shortly before her death. Yeah if that isn’t creepy the visage from the pier of Darkwater Island, resting place of the tragic family, might change your mind. The port of Darkwater has unmistakable Lovecraftian tones even from the very start with its somber atmosphere over this whaling town that has certainly seen better days. Why doesn’t anyone ever heed a sailor’s warnings?
At least as Edward Pierce, you can take these omens as you will but as you start investigating the deaths of the Hawkins you start to piece together that the island of Darkwater is far from what it seems. Call of Cthulhu is very much an investigative story with various genres making up its inner workings. Piecing together the events of what happened serves as the bulk of your experience but at times things shift to stealth based segments to mix things up across the campaign’s 14 chapters.
While investigation and stealth make up much of the experience, it should maybe come to no surprise that combat is nearly nonexistent in this tale’s narrative. Akin to many of the horror games that have released over the past few years, flight is the predominant choice when confronted with many of the obstacles that you’ll encounter on the island. Many of the obstacles within can be circumvented in one way or another. This is where Call of Cthulhu’s other gameplay elements come into play despite Edward being a war veteran.
Very early in the game you complete a RPG style skill allocation segment putting a beginning allotment of Character Points into any of the 7 skill areas of: Spot Hidden, Eloquence, Strength, Investigation, Psychology, Occultism and Medicine. As a player that likes to think I opted for less physical attributes like Strength and opted for the incredibly useful Spot Hidden and of course Investigation. Both were exceptionally great for unearthing clues or deductions during the detective Scene Reconstruction moments that can have an effect on say conversations. Each area has their useful abilities such as charming otherwise tight-lipped folks with a high Eloquence mastery to garner information or being able to pick some locks with a higher Investigation skill level.
During the title’s more tedious stealth segments there are times where investing points into the Spot Hidden and Investigation skills really paid off as more navigational options are afforded to you like lockpicking locked doors. This really saves you some headaches from ill-timed guard patrols or staff placement that make being spotted a chore to manage at times. In many cases depending on timing you can find refuge in cabinets or closets, ala Outlast, to escape detection but this doesn’t always work if your timing is off.
There are two skills however that cannot be leveled up by normal means outside of your initial choices at the beginning. The Occultism and Medicine skills are rather upgraded by finding clues such as medical books for the latter and artifacts for the former. Of the two Occultism however ultimately has the largest impact on how things play out throughout your experience. It would not be a proper exploration into the Mythos without one of the founding staples that all Cthulhu titles share.
Summed eloquently by those two pulsing words before you even embark on this adventure “Enter Madness” isn’t just a cute or clever way to say Press Start but a foundation that will shape your story into one of the stories 4 riveting endings. As you descend into finding out the truth of what happened to the Hawkins you are the instrument of your own salvation or destruction based on the things you uncover in this semi-open world experience. The more you find items of the occult and are made aware of them your knowledge grows but at the cost of your SANITY.
That’s right much like an earlier Cthulhu title on PC you can be slowly driven insane by merely looking at unsettling things or encounters. There are also moments of panic attacks that trigger when hiding or navigating small spaces that really drive home and reinforce the psychological aspects of the experience. These instances as well as critical choices made at certain points throughout the story will ultimately result in your options at the story’s final moments. This perhaps the biggest reason I like the multiple save slot options so you can play out the story across the spectrum from the sane to the completely insane.
Call of Cthulhu has more than a few occasions that might just make the player a little on edge as you navigate dark tunnels, a nearly abandoned mansion, haunting caves and yes even a creepy hospital for good measure. What makes things intense is that outside of cutscenes the game takes place completely in first person making for a more personal and unnerving experience when things really get rolling. This also plays well to the conversation transitions that not only show off the character designs but the title’s voice acting merits.
The thing about Call of Cthulhu that I like perhaps the most, second to the atmospheric dread is the characters and their voice actors. Three of the primary voice talents share a connection to Vampyr, another recent horror game, including Antony Howell and Antony Byrne who voice Pierce and Officer Bradley respectively. Howell did such a great job at bringing Pierce to life that I was genuinely invested to see how things played out. One cannot however help but find charm and likability with Officer Bradley who despite his rough façade is easy one of the only real inhabitants of the island that I personally actual really cared about throughout the entire experience and a lot of it has to do with the writing of his character and Byrne’s performance. Of course every horror game has a character that everyone loves to hate and Call of Cthulhu is no exception with the visage and performance breathed into an “esteemed” member of the community.
A few things detracted from my otherwise quite enjoyable experience however. Call of Cthulhu is a visually creepy experience that suffers from a bit of lack of polish at times with some issues in lip syncing during dialog or general lack of real detail in some of the fisherman for instance. That said the main cast character of characters are great especially as you see Pierce’s gradually change throughout the story. There was also some clothing and object glitches from time to time notably in the hospital segments and one near endgame sequence that failed to show an object at first.
The biggest issue I had though was during conversations at odd times. While I still don’t know the cause I ran into a few instances where trying to click on a valid dialogue choice would result in being unable to select it. After a brief reload though since they title often saves before key moments it seemed to fix the input issue but it was odd none the less and a little frustrating as I don’t know the cause.
The real question however comes down to if these issues were enough to detract significantly from the overall experience. If my nearly 11 hour straight first run (thanks to some trial and error) is any indication then I’d say that Cyanide Studios achieved what they set out to deliver with Call of Cthulhu. As a fan of both the Mythos and the horror genre in its many forms I couldn’t help but find myself drawn to seeing it to its conclusion. The only question now is am I sane enough to see it through just a few more times. If you are fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and of Lovecraft then I definitely recommend checking out Call of Cthulhu for PC today.