Call of Cthulhu

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fh­tagn



may have done most of his writ­ing al­most 100 years ago, but he casts a long shadow over con­tem­po­rary arts. While cos­mic dread, non-Eu­clidean ge­om­e­try, and sud­den bouts of in­san­ity don’t al­ways trans­late well to movies, they’re per­fect for games.

This par­tic­u­lar stab at un­know­able hor­ror is based on the 1981 pa­per RPG of the same name, and sees griz­zled pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor Ed­ward, suf­fer­ing from PTSD fol­low­ing wartime ex­pe­ri­ences, look into a strange fire and dis­ap­pear­ances on an is­land off the coast of Mas­sachusetts. The era sees pro­hi­bi­tion and the end of the whal­ing in­dus­try, so an iso­lated town full of men with too much time on their hands has found a new out­let for its baser urges. As a study in fore­bod­ing at­mos­phere,

Callof Cthulhu hits all the right un­set­tling notes. Faces are craggy, all deep-set eyes and filthy scars, and a strong mar­itime theme gives an ex­cuse for the beams of a light­house to rhyth­mi­cally pierce the misty gloom.

While ex­plor­ing, a tale of a botched po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the death of a fam­ily un­rav­els, with Ed­ward’s pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor skills dig­ging up clues, and his med­i­cal knowl­edge used to in­ter­pret them. As you gain ex­pe­ri­ence, points are added to your skills, but some can only be in­creased by read­ing books or find­ing ar­ti­facts. Most ob­jects have a glow­ing white dot to guide you to them, but some are hid­den, and if your “find hid­den” skill isn’t high enough, the game won’t even tell you they’re there.

Ed­ward can also re­con­struct past scenes, fig­ures man­i­fest­ing as ghostly recre­ations of of­ten vi­o­lent events that help his in­ves­ti­ga­tion and give him in­sight into the mo­tives of the present. It’s not the kind of hor­ror game that tries to make you jump in the dark, more the sort that leaves you with a sense of un­ease, and a feel­ing that you’re not in con­trol.

Un­for­tu­nately, once the open­ing is over, it lets it­self down. A won­der­ful scene in a men­tal hos­pi­tal, which fol­lows a tense close en­counter of the ten­ta­cled kind, is fol­lowed by a mix of sim­plis­tic puzzles and en­forced stealth as you es­cape. It even reuses puz­zle me­chan­ics, hav­ing you fol­low­ing ca­bles or pipes to their des­ti­na­tions, while avoid­ing the kind of goons who could surely be punched out of the way. Get caught and you’re dead. It re­cy­cles ene­mies, too, and there’s only one sec­tion in which you en­gage in com­bat.

The feel­ing of help­less­ness in the face of un­stop­pable on­slaught by crea­tures whose mo­tives you can’t un­der­stand might be Love­craftian, but it’s not great for videogames, where player agency is all. The pa­per RPG of­ten left play­ers dead or trapped in men­tal in­sti­tu­tions, but here all you need to see the end cred­its is per­se­ver­ance. Restarts are fast, and check­points sen­si­bly placed, but se­quences such as find­ing the right ob­ject in a room full of wrong ones be­fore a mon­ster gets you feel like trial and er­ror, rather than tests of skill.

There have been sev­eral at­tempts to bring Lovecraft to the world of games, and this is one of the more suc­cess­ful. Leav­ing H.P.’s over­wrought writ­ing style be­hind in fa­vor of dam­aged work­ing class men and their strug­gle for sig­nif­i­cance, it’s a hor­ror game with­out the jump scares, and it brings a touch of the cos­mic to small­town New Eng­land.

The town of Dark­wa­ter is sin­gu­larly un­wel­com­ing, the still- open bar your only re­treat.

Those masks re­strict the mur­der­ous cultists’ pe­riph­eral vi­sion nicely.

Signs of mad­ness are all around, such as this guy’s el­dritch tat­toos.

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