By Ron Scopelliti
Like any true Rhode Island nerd, I grew up reading H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories, so the release of a Lovecraft-inspired video game is always newsworthy to me. It’s even more newsworthy when it’s a mainstream release that’s available for consoles as well as PC. So when I spotted “Call of Cthulhu” on sale at a local Game Stop, there was no doubt I’d be bringing it home.
Developed by Cyanide Studios and based on the Chaosium pen-and-paper game of the same name, “Call of Cthulhu” uses the Unreal Engine 4 game engine that’s also used in “Fortnite Battle Royale,” “Gears of War 4,” and “Mortal Combat 11.” It’s a single-player investigation game that has role-playing elements, and a heavy dose point-and-click exploration.
The player takes on the role of down-and-out private investigator Edward Pierce, a traumatized World War I veteran eking out an existence in 1920’s Boston. He’s thrust into an adventure that draws elements from a variety of Lovecraft stories, and touches on many of the author’s favorite themes. There are secret cults, dubious doctors, troubled artists, and, of course, tentacles. And no Lovecraftian game would be truly worthy of the adjective if the protagonist’s sanity wasn’t at risk.
The familiar nature of the interface makes it easy to lose yourself in the story, though the dialogue seems a bit off, and somewhat clumsy in its use of colloquialisms. This made more sense once I realized that the game was developed by a French company trying to get a handle not only on the New England dialect of the 20’s, but also on Lovecraft’s idiosyncratic writing style.
“Call of Cthulhu” is more successful visually, though some of the faces are overly cartoonish. The colors and dark backgrounds set the stage perfectly for an eerie, surreal, psychologically-tortured adventure. The paintings that feature prominently in the storyline are just the sort I’d imagine being painted by Lovecraft’s title character in “Pickman’s Model,” or occupying a spot in Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” And the settings capture the sense of dank, dismal decay that shows up so often in Lovecraft’s stories.
The game uses some clever and effective mechanisms to put you inside Pierce’s mind, offering insight into both his investigative theories and his mental state. The simulated effects of claustrophobia and anxiety not only add to the ambiance, but also affect the gameplay itself.
While Wikipedia describes “Call of Cthulhu” as “semi-open-world,” I haven’t seen a lot of room for independent exploration. You do, however, get to customize Pierce’s statistics at the start, and as he levels up through the game. And there are different conclusions to the game based on the actions you take.
The gameplay can verge on tedious at times. I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time searching in dark corners for clues and puzzle solutions before I can proceed to the next plot point. And I’m not crazy about the “checkpoint” system for game saves. But, having reached about the halfway point in the story, the plot and atmosphere are intriguing enough to keep me coming back.
While the game has its share of flaws and annoyances, for me it has a certain B-movie/pulp fiction charm that’s utterly consistent with the Lovecraft vibe, and ultimately makes gameplay satisfying. While the $60 list price is a bit steep, I’ve seen it significantly cheaper online and at local stores, and there’s always the chance of finding a used copy.
“Call of Cthulhu” is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It’s rated M for blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, and use of alcohol.