Call of Cthulhu

Review

posted 11/22/2005 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel

It's been nearly ten years since Resident Evil single-handedly defined what a console horror game should be, and in that time we've managed to be scared in all kinds of different ways. When I first started playing Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corner of the Earth I wondered how effective it would be; I worried that after a decade of scary games I would be too desensitized to appreciate its creep out factor.  But I was wrong.  Cthulhu is easily one of the most frightening games I have played, managing to freak me out in ways I hadn't even considered.

It's not that Call of Cthulhu has a lot of cheap scares; it's that the subject matter manages to get under your skin in a way that will stick with you long after you've shut your Xbox off.  Games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil like to shock you by throwing out enemies when you least expect it, but Cthulhu is a lot more subtle.  This is a game that is very deliberate, it understands how to pull you into a world that on the outside looks creepy, but when you start pulling back the layers you quickly realize that it's among the most disturbing games you will ever play.

Call of Cthulhu is based on the writing of famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, an author who has managed to leave his mark on the horror genre long after he died.  By using Lovecraft's material the makers of Cthulhu are able to weave a unique adventure that is never dull, and always full of surprises.  We all know how terrible games based on movies can be, so perhaps that's why it's so refreshing to see how well a book adaptation works.  Cthulhu is a real gem!

In Call of Cthulhu you play Jack Walters, a private investigator who is suffering from some serious post trauma-induced amnesia.  Six years earlier Jack had a fateful meeting that resulted in him losing his mind and being hauled off to the insane asylum.  Ever since then he has had a deep fascination with the occult, reading every book he can find on the subject.  Jack is hired to track down a missing person in the town of Innsmouth, a broken down fishing community that has very little tourism and a lot of unfriendly citizens.

Unfortunately you quickly realize that this case is more than just a missing person investigation; this is just the start of what ends up being a truly memorable adventure.  It doesn't take long before the town's people start hunting this outsider, but not before Jack uncovers what appears to be a secret cult called the Order of Dagon deadest on doing something dastardly.  I won't spoil the secrets of Cthulhu, but it's safe to say that these creepy individuals are up to no good and it's your job to figure out how to stop them … like it or not.

But that short description of the game hardly does Cthulhu justice, it's really just the tip of the iceberg.  Call of Cthulhu has a story that is all over the board, from helping the FBI to battling strange creatures of the sea to simply rescuing innocent people caught up in tragic situations.  And the best part, just when you think you know where the game is heading it has a strange way of completely flipping things around; making you always second what comes next.  You expect twists and turns from a game like this, but Cthulhu has a funny way of constantly being one step ahead of you, successfully creating an atmosphere of unknowing and dread.  Just when you get sick of one area, you're thrust into something completely different, giving the game a good sense of pacing.



Call of Cthulhu is played from the first-person perspective, but don't take that to mean it's a first-person shooter.  In fact, for quite some time you won't have access to a weapon, so the game ends up being about you and your investigation skills.  Just because you don't have your weapon drawn doesn't mean the adventure is boring, some of the most tense moments of the game come from you having to figure out how to escape what appears to be certain doom.  But while there is excitement, a lot of what you'll be doing is piecing clues together and solving puzzles.  In a lot of ways Call of Cthulhu reminds me of the classic 8-Bit adventures like Shadowgate and Déjà vu, games that put you in dangerous situations that only your brain can get you out of.

But soon enough you'll get some weapons, including your basic handguns, shotguns, and even a tommy gun.  Don't expect a lot of futuristic technology, this is 1922 we're dealing with.  After such a long time without weapons, it's pretty exhilarating to finally take back some control over your surroundings.  Cthulhu does an excellent job of making you feel helpless, then empowered, and then helpless all over again; it's a rollercoaster ride full of unique puzzles and heart-pounding action.  By the end of the game you will feel warn out, much like the character you've been playing this whole time.

Outside of a couple of cinemas at the beginning and end, all of the action is shown from Jack's perspective; so you always see what he's seeing, experiencing the things that he is experiencing.  Actually, that's not entirely true.  From time to time you'll flash into somebody else's point of view, often showing you what is coming up or what the enemies are doing.  At first this seems confusing, but as you progress through the game you start to understand how these out of body experiences can help you survive (and even solve puzzles).  You will also find yourself returning to the asylum in some of the most effective flashbacks in the game, all done in black and white revealing more about yourself than you cared to realize.  But outside of these sequences, everything in the game is happening to Jack, which means they are happening to you.

From the very first moment you meet Jack you will likely wonder if this guy is up for it; after all, he's batting some major mental problems and is easily spooked.  But despite all this, Jack the unlikely hero seems up for the adventure, just as long as he doesn't see too many scary things.  Unlike most adventure games that reward you for looking at everything, Call of Cthulhu has sprinkled all kinds of disturbing images for you to stumble across.  Look at the wrong thing – a rotting corpse hanging from a cross, an eerie picture, and just about anything else that could freak you out – and you'll lose some of your sanity, making the game a little harder to play.  How much harder?  Depending on what you looked at it could be as bad as your eyes playing tricks on you (making the world sway and move unnaturally), or simply just hearing voices in your head.  Put these together and you have a truly terrifying experience.

Call of Cthulhu is not the first game to show you losing your marbles, Eternal Darnkeess: Sanity's Requiem for the GameCube did the same kind of thing several years earlier.  Since both games did this effect in completely different ways it's hard to make a decision to which is better, but don't expect to walk on the ceiling and other unique scares like in Eternal Darkness.  Instead you get blurred eyesight, you hear your heart pounding, and you see things that should not be there … it's a very effective way of showing you lose your sanity, especially when it happens in the middle of the intense moments of the game.  Thankfully you can minimize your loss of sanity by just ignoring all of the disturbing things around you, but that's easier said than done.



One thing you'll notice about Call of Cthulhu from the very beginning is the complete lack of a heads-up display.  No life bar, no map, no objective information … this game is all about what you see and nothing more.  You can check some of this stuff in the inventory menu, but you'll have to pay close attention if you want to know how much life you have.  When you're injured there will be blood on the screen, you'll grunt and ache, your heart will pound louder than normal, and the colors from the background may start to fade.  Thankfully you won't have to search around for green herbs or other strange objects to cure yourself; all you need to do is use a med-kit to fix your ailments.  The med-kit features a number of useful items, each needing to be placed on the correct location in order for you to heal.  You have a cure for poisonings; you have a splint for broken bones, stitches, and even bandages.  In the inventory screen you are able to place these items all over your body (where ever it shows you being injured), so you'll be keeping track of everything from your head all the way down to your legs.  It's not too hard to heal yourself, but it can be somewhat time consuming.

Unfortunately there are a few noticeable problems with Call of Cthulhu, including the somewhat dated graphics.  It's not that the game looks bad, but certain parts of the game look like they were created years ago and the game has just been sitting on the shelf.  Also, some of the weapons are kind of hard to use thanks to the inaccurate aiming.  And considering how much stealth you have to do in the game, it would have been nice if Jack was a little better at it.  Granted, he's just a private investigator with amnesia so we shouldn't expect him to give Solid Snake or Sam Fischer a run for their money, but his clumsy sneaking can result in a few too many unnecessary deaths.

Oh, and then there's the fact that you'll need to redo some sequences over and over again.  Some of the most tense situations require you to do everything exactly right, something you might not catch the first, second, or even third attempt.  These moments of frustration are few and far between, though, and once you've figured them out (thanks to trial and error) you have a great feeling of accomplishment.  Even with these brief moments of frustration, you'll always want to see what's past them and learn the rest of the story.

The story itself is the real gem of Call of Cthulhu; it's a deep story that only continues to get more interesting as you play through to the end.  Better yet, once you've beaten the game it's well worth going through a second time, if only so that you better understand what is going on early in the game.  Since much of this game leaves you in the dark until the later chapters it's nice to be able to go back and really understand each characters motive.  There are a lot of games with good stories, but not many with the amount of layers Call of Cthulhu has.

Cthulhu's dark tone and brutally serious story may turn off some gamers; this is not a game for everybody.  But those who enjoy survival horror games should have a look to this game if they want to find a story that will get under their skin like no other.  It would be easy to write this game off as nothing more than another first-person adventure game, but it does what it sets out to do brilliantly and is fully worth the price of admission.  Call of Cthulhu may not be the biggest game of the year, but it's one of the most surprising; don't let this mystery go unsolved.






B
It may not have the productions of Resident Evil, but Call of Cthulhu is easily one of the scariest video games ever made. It's also a great story full of mystery, intrigue, and a few twists and turns you won't see coming!