Despite its reputation as a family friendly console, the Nintendo Wii has an impressive collection of B-list survival horror games. In the past four years the console has seen Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Alone in the Dark, Obscure II, Dead Space and more. None of these games are spectacular, but they introduce you to annoying characters and offer a few cheap scares. Now Hudson Entertainment is looking to jump into this crowded sub-genre. Unfortunately, now that I've played through Calling I can honestly say that this is one call I would let go to my voice mail.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Calling tells the story of a spooky website (comically known as "The Black Page") with an evil counter. That's right; it's the mysterious, devilish, creepy visitor counter ... OF DOOM!! All mocking aside, it's said that this counter is actually a body count of the victims of this evil, scary, no-good website. But really, who's going to believe a crazy story like that?
To call this game derivative would probably be a compliment. This set-up is straight out of The Ring, One Missed Call and way too many other horror movies to name here. Heck, it even has all of the obvious Japanese horror movies cliches. It nails the tone, features annoying characters, and yes, there's a scary dead girl that pops up when you least expect her. This game doesn't even attempt to mask its influences. The only thing keeping this from being a game based on The Ring is the film license.
Calling tells the story of four different people trying to get to the bottom of this Black Page mystery. Each of these characters has a personal motivation, some of which is fleshed out throughout the course of the game. Rin Kagura, for example, made a promise to a chat room friend that they would someday meet, only now nobody knows where she is. Shin Suzutani read about the Black Page through his favorite occult magazine. Makoto Shirae started investigating the Black Room after his colleague mysteriously died. And at the age of 67, Chiyo Kishibe has been trying to reconnect to her late husband via the internet. These are intriguing branches that ultimately lead to an interesting mystery.
This set-up would be fine if the actual gameplay wasn't so dull. Calling is played in the first-person perspective, which means that you control your movements with the analog stick and all of the looking around is done with the Wii's remote. Although this is a little awkward at first, you soon get used to it and spend most of your time in a state of utter confusion. Where am I supposed to go next? What is it the game wants me to do? These are questions I continued to ask myself as I played through this boring, plodding adventure game.
Most of the action seems to take place in the dark, which means that you're going to be walking a lot of corridors without any sense of what's in front of you. Of course, they do this in order to have ghosts jump out at you when you're least expecting it for one of many cheap scares. The object in most of the levels is to simply walk around and locate doors you can open and objects you can interact with. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with that if you had even the slightest sense of what you were supposed to do.
I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. Early in the game Rin (a confident 21 year old student, the instruction manual tells me) wakes up to discover that she's locked in her own school ... WITH THE LIGHTS OUT! Keeping her composure, Rin looks around and discovers a ringing cell phone. A voice on the other end informs her that he's at the exit and really, REALLY wants his cell phone back. Then a few seconds later he calls her again, apparently he's on the second floor. Then he's on the third. Oh no, he's going to come and get us. Except, that's not what happens. Instead what you do is clumsily look around the school hoping for something to happen.The game has a few gimmicks worth talking about. The first is the cell phone, which pipes all of the conversations through the Wii remote's little speaker. The game tells you that you should pick the control up like a phone and hold it to your ear. This works for the most part, offering an incredibly clever way of incorporating the many Wii functions into one game. As I progressed through the game I was pleasantly surprised by how much you did with the in-game phone. It's the way you record supernatural sounds, transport you from one area to the next and, of course, speak to other game characters. All of these things hint at a better game, too bad it's wrapped up in this dud of a survival horror experience.
Unlike the Resident Evil games, Calling never switches gears and becomes an action game. This is a game about investigating and avoiding the ghosts as much as possible. The game does feature combat ... kind of. From time to time a ghost will get up in your face, forcing you to shake it off as fast as possible. You do this by shaking the control around and pushing the "A" button when prompted. It's not the deepest combat I've ever seen, but these segments are few and far between and aren't meant to be especially detailed. If you fail to hit the "A" button your "horror meter" will drop. If that stupidly named meter drops too much it's game over for you. It's also worth noting that some ghosts will kill you without much warning, so make sure and save often.
When you're not searching around in the dark waiting for something to happen, you're stuck in one of the many unskippable cut-scenes. Had these cinema sequences been full of action that might have been one thing, but instead this is a game where you're reading line after line of boring chat room dialogue. There's no voice acting when people are typing on the keyboard. Heck, there isn't even the sound of people typing on the keyboard, let alone a "beep" or something when the message appears. It's just a lot of silence while you read one line after another. None of these conversations go anywhere and they last far too long. And really, how can somebody make cinema scenes this boring and not let you skip them? Oh the horror!
At this point it feels like I'm unfairly beating up on Calling. It's not that this game doesn't have potential; it's just that it doesn't do anything with the intriguing (albeit derivative) set-up. The game isn't even good at making you solve puzzles. When you're not waggling the control or searching in the dark, you're giving random puzzles that make Resident Evil's crate pushing feel like Professor Layton. Do I really need to solve this math problem in order to advance? Who thought this was a good idea?
At times it feels like the developers did everything they could to keep me from having fun. This is a game about a deadly chat room and a deadly cell phone monster, yet the game never quite gets its footing. Even though it has more cheap scares, Calling pales in comparison to mediocre games like Obscure II: The Aftermath and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. It's not that there isn't any good to be found in this game, it's just that it's hidden in all of the darkness.
Visually the game looks pretty good. While much of the actual design is draped in darkness, there are occasional glimpses of brilliance. Unfortunately the game's good looks are not immediately clear. Many of the cut-scenes undermine the good looks and there are a few too many repeating textures in the corridors. However, once a ghost shows up you can really see where all of the attention to detail went. It's hardly the best looking game on the Wii, but it's a definite improvement over Escape from Bug Island
I'll be the first to confess that I don't expect much out of a horror game. I hope for a few genuine scares, an interesting premise and maybe a couple of gruesome deaths. Unfortunately, Calling fails in every possible way. Even if there was an interesting idea driving this game, I still can't get past the slow pace and unclear objectives. Stumbling in the dark looking through identical rooms for who-knows-what is not my idea of a good time. There's not an original idea in Calling, which is probably why I wanted to hang up so quickly.