Despite initial impressions, Call of Cthulhu is not your standard horror game. While the atmosphere is certainly creepy, tense and a little intimidating, the real meat of the game sees you following the story, asking questions and investigating your surroundings. You play as Detective Pierce, a war vet who has developed a bit of a substance habit to help deal with his experience. The opening sequence highlights this effectively, leading you through a creepy fever dream that had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.
Soon after, the main case for your adventure is introduced and you are sent to an island off the coast of Boston, named Darkwater. Here, you must investigate a fire at a local philanthropists mansion in which he, along with his wife and child, were killed. While mostly linear in nature, each scene allows a small degree of freedom in the order in which you talk to people or investigate clues. Certain characters or items will unlock extra dialogue options for use with appropriate people, further filling in the story.
Soon, of course, things take a turn for the worse, with inter-dimensional creatures, cults and twists that do a good job of catching you off guard. By the time you reach the later portion of the game however, it feels as though things are being rushed or skipped over, like the game is only showing you every 4th page of the script. Quick transitions between locations and characters left me somewhat baffled as to what exactly was happening.
Even now, I’m not really sure how we ended up where we did, but despite that I did feel compelled to keep playing to see it through. Throughout, there is a constant foreboding atmosphere that never really pays off. Many characters speak in cryptic messages, referencing the strange goings on throughout the island. Dark, moody locations make exploring often a tense experience – but nothing ever really comes of it. Only a select few areas have any impending danger, and even then if you are caught it tends to be an anti-climax.
One early scene has you sneaking around an off-limits medical floor, trying to distract guards at the exit by causing a ruckus elsewhere. Yet more guards are patrolling, but if you are caught it simply throws up a game over screen and the option to reload. You soon realize that their patrol patterns are very simple – their AI even more so – and you can pretty much move about without concern. Simply running around a corner is enough for them to lose you, then back to their route they go.
Later scenes against a more… otherworldly… foe, greet your failures with a little more spectacle, but even these soon lose any suspense as the same poor AI and tracking skills apply. These also act as a sort of boss battle, with specific requirements needed to pass them. Another early one has you searching for a specific item in a room full of near identical ones, all the while avoiding the one-hit kill creature stalking you. All tension was soon sapped out as I failed time and time again for no clear reason.
It was only many attempts later that a line of dialogue clued me in to what I needed to do, having been cut off in previous attempts by my character’s death. By this point, it was more frustrating than scary, despite the game’s best efforts. Some inspiration has clearly been taken from more traditional horror games in some aspects. The sanity system from Amnesia is here – affected by staring at monsters or being confined in tight spaces. But as far as I could tell, once again nothing really comes of it.
Certain actions are tracked in your stats, with a meter detailing your mental state, but rarely did I find anything actual affecting this that it feels redundant being in there. Speaking of stats, you have a basic skill tree to upgrade along the way, giving bonuses to things such as speech, strength, or your ability to see hidden clues in the environment. Points are dished out at what feels like random intervals, and in one playthrough I barely fully completed 2 of the 9 paths.
Ultimately, I found these only really affected side story stuff anyway, allowing extra questions to be asked or the ability to break into a locked room for more story details that aren’t vital. Some choices will flash a message saying that whatever you did will affect your destiny, supposedly shaping your experience… I say supposedly, as I have no frame of reference regarding what exactly was affected.
A Telltale-like breakdown at the end might have been good, showing the ways in which your path diverged from others, but as it is, it follows suit in being something that doesn’t live up to its potential. Technically speaking, the game is a mixed bag too. Some nice, moody lighting and well crafted environments are accompanied by stiff character models, iffy framerate and long, long load times.
Turning the camera too fast has the geometry clearly loading in at the edges of the screen – then the textures after that. Outside of the core cast, the same faces and models are repeated constantly, so much so that at one point I had 3 different characters in view at once, all with the same face, body and clothes, with just slightly different voices. There aren’t even that many background characters in the game, just changing hair color would have gone a long way to preventing it feeling as though you are on an island of clones.
If you’re in the market for a first person horror game, you can go much worse than Call of Cthulhu, but be prepared for a lack of any real scares. The game leans heavily on the story and exploration of environments, so much so that when it does attempt the creepy stuff, it mostly comes off underdeveloped and a bit out of place. Go along with it though, and there’s something strangely compelling within.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.