I am entranced by Lovecraftian horror. The breaking of the mind in the face of cosmic powers beyond comprehension appeals to me, as it emphasizes the indifference and lack of power humanity has over the world. Done well, and it can shake you to the core.
Done poorly, and it flounders under the weight of countless betters. With the survival-horror RPG Call of Cthulhu, named after H.P. Lovecraft’s short story but directly inspired by Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, Cyanide Studio’s latest effort, unfortunately, falls in the latter category.
You play as Edward Pierce, a veteran of the Great War and private detective in Boston with a predilection for pills, alcohol, and a combination of the two. Few cases are coming in, or rather, Pierce isn’t in the mood for looking into the affairs of married men or tailing business partners. Fate comes knocking on his door one day, as a wealthy magnate asks Pierce to investigate the mysterious death of the Hawkins family, which leads him to the Darkwater Island. Mysteries, cults, and madness ensue.
As psychological horror, Call of Cthulhu is a perfectly fine game at first glance. The mystery of the Hawkins family and Pierce’s investigation provides a solid throughline where nightmares, hallucinations, and otherworldly beings wreck havoc on your ability to distinguish what is real and what is not. Jump scares are few, but those that exist are usually used to great effect. The pallid and ghastly greens that make up so much of the lighting are appropriately eldritch. The world itself always feels slightly off-kilter, creating an unnerving feeling that never relents.
The problem lies in everything surrounding that horror. Because while the horror works in a vacuum, Call of Cthulhu falls apart when each element is coupled together.
The characters themselves are where the issues first rear up. Despite the voice acting is more or less strong, the quality of the facial animations and of the character design, in general, makes the characters look like mannequins wearing flesh. Teeth, in particular, were glaringly obvious. Multiple times, when characters finished a line, they would yank their limbs around to brand new positions before continuing. Characters move awkwardly, and it’s difficult to take them seriously when the supernatural looks more natural than the humans.
Call of Cthulhu is primarily a linear game, where the choices you make are mostly different routes you can take to reach the same point. These choices are primarily defined through your skills, which are upgradeable through the skill points you earn by completing objectives. You can increase your strength to move a panel out of the way to access a room, but picking a lock through investigation or sweet-talking someone with eloquence for a key is a similarly effective method. Depending on how you approach or address a problem, the game will alert you that your destiny has changed as an indicator that something you did would ostensibly have an effect on the ending.
There’s a handful of skills to upgrade, including two that can only be increased through finding objects or making certain story choices, but all lack impact. I cannot point to any moments where having high eloquence greatly changed my conversations with people, nor can I say that my high investigation allowed me to approach challenges differently.
It ultimately feels like your choices do not matter, and the way that the game presents moral decisions falls apart because you spend so little time with the characters themselves. The story jerks around from revelation to revelation, as you spend little time getting acquainted with the people you meet even though the writing tries to make it clear that we’ve all somehow bonded. A police officer I met early on who I had a number of case-related conversations with abruptly told me that I was the reason, which comes across as unrealistic since the two had known each other for a few days at most.
One particular scene late in the game is a prime example of this. At one point, you are tasked with finding a first aid kit to heal one of two people, and Call of Cthulhu presents this as a choice that will shape your destiny. Except you’ve only interacted with one of the characters for roughly three minutes at most, and the other for maybe ten. Affect your destiny it may, but as a player, the short time I spent with these characters meant that I grew attached to neither of them, and I ultimately chose the one I interacted with more.
Much of your time will be spent searching for clues to piece together the scene of a crime and to solve the Hawkins mystery. This mostly consists of finding objects in the environment and having Pierce narrate his subsequent deductions. It’s not particularly exciting or interesting, and I often found myself getting frustrated as I searched a room to find the one clue I was missing. Spot Hidden, a skill that is sometimes jokingly cited as the most important skill in the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, makes finding hidden objects easier the more you upgrade it. But even when maxed out, finding the final item is tedious, as the object is only highlighted if you are both looking at it and within a very short distance of it. Going back to my earlier example of the first aid kit, there was no instruction given as to its general location, resulting in me wandering around the level for minutes before discovering that one wall was not actually a wall when I got within two feet of it and a prompt appeared.
Outside of investigating, there are the occasional stealth and combat sections that break up the game’s levels. While the stealth areas are tense at first, they quickly become a joke to play or an exercise in patience as the game’s AI either follows simple search patterns or refuses to move from a set location. Since there is no health bar and you fail when caught, I quickly threw caution to the wind and just rushed through areas as fast as I could just to move the story along. And the moment you’re handed a gun, Call of Cthulhu becomes laughably bad as all you need to do is center the camera on a location that is vaguely near an enemy before killing them in one hit with a pistol that apparently holds dozens of rounds in 1924.
While I wrapped up Call of Cthulhu in around eight hours, I was ready for the game to be over long before. The background is strong, compelling, and could have made for a horrific game through its subtle atmospheric touches that imprint upon you the strangeness of what you’re experiencing. But in searching for what makes the titular Elder God memorable, Call of Cthulhu fails to be particularly compelling.