Given the undeniable popularity and influence of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s easy to imagine why many have wanted a game that could do justice to the concepts he put forth so long ago. Though most horror will at least have some connections to the author and his broader themes of guilt and insanity, few have directly attempted to grapple with his pantheon of cosmic entities and their inconceivable power. So much of Lovecraft relies upon the idea of something forbidden and unseen, which creates a problem when trying to craft an interactive story. Absent of tangible, physical threats, the alternative is to spend time conveying the frailty of humans and their attempts to keep hold of a reality on the verge of breaking around them. Call of Cthulhu tries to execute on these ideas and do justice to its source material while, at the same time, attempting to fill you with a constant, unflinching dread around every corner. Unfortunately, be it through lack of focus or resources, it rarely succeeds.
Private detective and war veteran Edward Pierce is finding work scarce in 1920s Boston when he suddenly finds himself tasked with investigating the death of Sarah Hawkins. An eccentric painter, she died in a fire along with her husband and child, but her father is convinced some foul play was involved and believed her increasingly disturbing works may have been a cry for help. With little else to go on, Pierce sets out for Darkwater, a small whaling island where the Hawkins lived in seclusion.
Your arrival on Darkwater immediately sets the tone for what the rest of the game is to offer; a breadcrumb trail of questions that will always culminate in a hunt for a specific item or topic of discussion. One thing you’ll soon notice is just how many of Darkwater’s townsfolk seem share the exact same features, trapped in a loop of incidental dialogue that will go on for as long as you care to stand and listen. This becomes increasingly bothersome as the game goes on, accented by the various other technical issues you’ll encounter along the way. Scenes will stutter even during moments Pierce isn’t meant to be impaired. Audio will be whisper-quiet during cut-scenes only to rumble back to normal when you regain control. Almost because of these limitations, you’ll find yourself appreciating the scope of what Cyanide is attempting to pull off, but it’s hard to ignore that it all looks and feels like something that could have been made a decade ago.
For this reason, as you go deeper and deeper into what Call of Cthulhu has to offer, you’ll find yourself tempering your expectations a bit more with every step, knowing the narrative is shambling (pun intended) towards a potential it won’t be able to fully deliver on. When not juggling a cast of characters that often struggle to find a place in the scatter-shot story (and in one particularly frustrating case, having them amount to nothing), the game has little to offer in terms of scares. Pierce is, frankly, a rather pathetic fighter, so thankfully encounters are rare, but the few times he does grapple with an otherworldly threat, it’s via insta-fail stealth sections, the first of which requires you to find one very specific item in an area full of others like it. If you stay still for too long or simply guess incorrectly, you have to start over. By the 8th or 9th attempt, it no longer matters how frightening the abomination that chasing you is. It’s impossible to be frightened or unsettled when you’re annoyed.
The arbitrary nature of this encounter is consistent with most of what you find yourself doing in Darkwater. There is only one way to move forward, right down to the order you must investigate clues in a room. While less of a hindrance in smaller areas, there are points in the game where you’re given a broad objective and have to search every corner of a building and talk to every single NPC in hopes of triggering the one and only solution. There is only one point in the game where you have multiple ways to solve your problem, dependent on whether or not you spent points mastering relevant skills, but since the game has to account for you not having access to these shortcuts, there’s a fairly basic path forward that doesn’t require them anyway. One late sequence presents this issue with an almost comical transparency, requiring you to choose one of several branches all leading to the same area. Once you reach said area, you are then asked to choose one of four valves. There’s no puzzle to speak of. You simply try over and over until something works, which comprises a depressingly large amount of the game.
At various points in the story, Pierce will earn character points to distribute between Eloquence, Strength, Psychology, and Investigation. The latter will allow you to find additional clues scattered around the various scenes, but they won’t bring Pierce any closer to cracking the case. In fact, he’ll often come to revelations in the story long after you’ve figured them out for yourself, so this skill only serves to offer additional bits of story information that is rarely needed. The other skills are said to determine abilities like lockpicking, but mostly amount to additional dialogue choices. Again, since the game has to assume that you haven’t mastered any of them, none are actually required to move forward. Same for the Medicine and Occult skills, which can only be grown by looking at specific items in the town. Walking around with a mastered Occult level does change enough little things to make it worthwhile for hardcore Lovecraft fans, but ultimately, the game is far too linear to make any of the abilities or their inclusion feel necessary, outside of a commitment to be as true to its pen-and-paper namesake as possible.
And that is one of the few areas where Call of Cthulhu shines. Beneath all of its flaws exists a need for authenticity; an experience that rewards those that have waited so long for someone to do Lovecraft justice. The game is full of references to the author’s works and seems to treat the Mythos with a reverence that’s hard not to appreciate. In particular, even with a story that feels like it’s missing key chapters, it does an admirable job of sticking the landing in the end, delivering several conclusions all appropriately Lovecraftian in nature. The real question is to whether or not you’ll be willing to go through additional journeys to see them all. In spite of its clear ambitions, it’s difficult to recommend even the first.