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Call of Cthulhu review – Madness, they call it madness…

Mind-bending, sanity-questioning murder mystery inspired by Lovecraft's mythos. The FNGR GNS review;

The Cthulu Mythos, and other associated works, by H.P. Lovecraft are often regarded as seminal works of horror, up there with Edgar Allan Poe and Clive Barker. Many works of recent fiction owe much in the way of creative ideas to his works, even if the man himself was a bit…wonky. So, have Cyanide done their homework? Let’s find out.

Answer the call

Kicking off with a nightmare sequence in medias res, detective Edward Pierce awakes in his office. A surviving soldier of the Great War and compensating alcoholic, Pierce is struggling with sleep and recurring disturbing dreams. After a brief phone call from his agency and an earbashing for falling behind on cases, he’s presented with the case that gets the story rolling. The father of a renowned artist, a Sarah Hawkins, has been reported missing presumed dead on the isle of Darkwater, along with her husband and son. Famous for her paintings, the father has brought one of her pieces and some notes for Edward to have a nosey over before proceeding.

One boat trip later, and detective Pierce is getting acquainted with the locals. Well, getting verbals, spat at and nearly stabbed by the locals, at least. Through these “investigative methods”, we learn that the Hawkins have perished in a house fire some time prior, and the sole survivor, the housekeeper, tends to what’s left of the house. This being the 1920’s prohibition era, you don’t have any newfangled investigation techniques. You’ll have to do it the old fashioned way: looking at things and asking the right questions, see.

Conversations in Darkwater follow in the Mass Effect/Dragon Age line of quisition. You have a wheel of dialogue options to choose from, the left side yielding to more exposition, the right being progression. However, in an effort to buck the trend of the aforementioned, it doesn’t boil down to friendly/neutral/hostile. Sometimes, it can be a more indirect response, or a bullheaded “Well I’m doing this now regardless” procedure. Similarly, some options on the left side may grant you exposition, but will also progress the story, so sometimes it pays to take interest in what’s being said.

Again, similar to the Bioware staples, you get additional dialogue options. Much like the paragon/renegade system, the veteran gumshoe has skills which can be upgraded at hand. You can use eloquent speech to get your way, psychology to coerce, or occasional threats of violence or naughty words to get your point across. As well as skill trees, your in-game detective skills can also help grease the verbal wheels of communication. If you’ve been thorough in your work, you can present evidence or findings to your witness/suspect/occult book dealer to sway it in your favour. Further on, there’s a more…devious dialogue option to unlock, but I won’t spoil it for you.

Reality is not what it used to be

Whilst this may not be groundbreaking in its style of gameplay, Call of Cthulhu does bring some freshness to the mix. The titular monster, and its mythos, is renowned for its ability to affect the minds of those susceptible to its influence. Subversive horror is the name of the game here, and the game does a very fine job of blurring the line between reality and…not reality?

It’s hard to tell, and it’s going to be hard to recount my adventures without spoiling for you, but I will do my best. As you and Officer Bradley investigate casa de Hawkins, you can piece together what happened in a Condemned-esque framing device. As you analyse clues, Pierce reconstructs events in a sequential manner, until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. There’s an eerie atmosphere about the place, as Pierce deduces it wasn’t a straightforward accidental fire.

After being ambushed by an intruder, Pierce and Bradley discover more to the Hawkins house, right down to the basement tunnels. As the game catches up the introductory nightmare, both Officer Bradley and our hero are attacked by sinister robed forces, and killed. Or are they…

Like I said, the mythos is a strange one, and nothing is as it seems on Darkwater. Following an escape from a hospital, in which you are very much not dead, it’s at this point you (well, I did, at least) start to think, “Hang about, something ain’t right” and for that, brownie points to you.

You see, sanity plays a big part in the game, and can lead to different outcomes in gameplay. As you arrive back at Hawkins manor, you notice things are different. For one, it’s brighter and more serene. Lamps aren’t burning with an ethereal green glow, and there isn’t a sinister, oppressive feel to the atmosphere. Now, the more astute of you would conclude that: green means nightmare world, peaceful means real world, a la Silent Hill and its changing plains.

Not so, it seems. As events unfold, you start to question how and what is happening. Am I dreaming this, or are there darker forces pulling the strings and blurring my perception of reality? Is what I’m looking at real?

Hello me, it’s me again

The visual style of the game is very reminiscent of Dishonored, with characters having a slight exaggeration on their features. Bigger hands, taller and more angular faces. Visually, the game isn’t going to be pushing your PS4 Pro or Xbox One X to its limits. It’s got some rough edges, but it’s not a mess either. It’s got the dark, foreboding corridors down to a tee. It’s claustrophobic, even more so when Pierce is hiding.

There’s a very strong Outlast vibe in one section, in which Pierce is put into an inescapable situation against a lurking beastie. You need to use a certain item in a certain place, whilst not being instantly mauled by the Shambler. You can hide in closets, but literal claustrophobia creeps up on Pierce and will begin to panic after a time. It requires you to think on your feet, and not get complacent.

Not that this only happens in scripted events. There isn’t a massive combat presence in the game, focusing more on the subversive than the explosive. In some situations, if you’re being affected by your investigations too much, Pierce can occasionally panic and start to lose concentration. Aiming wavers, he has small vocal outbursts that give his location away. It certainly adds a new dynamic on games that start a slow burn and by the third act become all out war (looking at you, Resident Evil 7), and hasn’t broken it’s pace in my time playing it.

It does have one sneaky, almost negative feature that irked me somewhat. I can see why it was implemented though, for it forces people to continue their current playthrough without trying to play the system. You see, you cannot manually save, and after some dialogue options, the game will autosave. So if you’ve narked someone off, or chosen an option that you didn’t think suited your line of enquiry, tough! You’ve made that decision, you live with it. You’ve read something that’s had an adverse effect on your sanity, tough luck matey, you’re a madman, now!

It’s not a dealbreaker, though. That may just be borne out of the privilege of being able to manipulate other games coming through. As a positive, it could be seen as a great example of how to encourage more playthroughs for different outcomes.

To conclude then, is Call of Cthulhu worth your time or is it best to maintain sanity and play something boring and safe?

In this instance, it’s the former. If you want something with a fresh take on the Alien Isolation/Condemned/Outlast style of first person experience, this will suit you. It’s got some hammy dialogue, graphics aren’t going to be on par with some upcoming cowboy game you might have heard about, but it’s a rich story driven game that will keep your noodle thoroughly scratched.

Consider this your warning as you descend into the mouth of madness…

Call of Cthulhu is available now on PS4 (reviewed on Base PS4), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows.

Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code from the publishers. For our full review policy, please go here.

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