This Game Isn't Worth the Sanity Loss
Call of Cthulhu is a first person adventure game from Cyanide Studios that is based on the pen and paper RPG Call of Cthulhu which is in turn based on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The last adventure game sporting the Call of Cthulhu brand name was 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, a troubled game but one that reached cult status (note: there was another Call of Cthulhu branded game in between these but it was a mobile game similar to X-Com and not in tone with these games). My expectations for games that are based on Lovecraft’s works are low for many different reasons and the same extends to movies. When I saw who the developer was for this game my expectations dropped even lower. Unfortunately, Call of Cthulhu doesn’t do anything to redeem Cyanide’s reputation as the product is buggy, ugly, boring, and can’t wait to get to the end credits.
The story we’re presented with is nothing new for tales based around the pen and paper series or Call of Cthulhu games: you are a private detective who survived the Great War but came out, like many WWI veterans, which mental trauma from the horrors experienced there. This premise is, more or less, the exact same from the last Call of Cthulhu game which is a bit disappointing. You are approached by a man who claims his daughter died in a fire along with his grandson and son-in-law. He asks you find out what really happened but he also provides you a strange painting his daughter created not long before her death. He sends you to the island of Darkwater not far from the coast of Boston. This sends you down the rabbit hole of bootleggers, cults, whaling expeditions gone “wrong”, and more.
I don’t want to spoil the story too much for anyone actually interested in playing through the game but I will say it doesn’t do much to surprise you unless you are totally new to Lovecraftian horror and eldritch fiction. The story is incredibly simple and not hard to follow so you won’t feel as though you’re going crazy trying to keep up with tons of story beats. In fact, the game seems bored with characters almost as soon as they are introduced. I felt as though I was being shown toys from a toy chest and the child quickly was ready to move to the next. No character, even the antagonists, stay with you. The annoying part of this is that there are interesting pieces that could have been formed into a very engaging story but the people telling that story aren’t competent enough to do that. At certain times you can answer in a Lovecraftian language…but your character never does it, which makes no sense. You literally choose the “speak in this language” dialogue choice and your character keeps talking like normal.
While graphics aren’t everything I do have a certain expectation when it comes to modern games. There are plenty of indie developers who show that you don’t need God of War or Marvel’s Spider-Man budgets to create something interesting, atmospheric, and fun to play. Character models and many textures in the game look like someone upscaled original Xbox graphics for the modern era. Several times character models looked incredibly similar in design to those of the previous Call of Cthulhu game but I’m unsure if this was intention or not. While in conversation with another character you can quickly see the seams coming apart: stilted, overused animations, an almost total lack of lip syncing to the dialogue, muddy and low detail textures, and frequent graphical glitches make traversing through the game seem as though you were handed an early alpha build. Sometimes I had characters whose mouth wouldn’t even move in some scenes. For a full priced game ($40 on PC, $60 on Xbox One/Ps4) this is unacceptable in my opinion. There are times where you are looking at a vista or some of the game’s set pieces and you think, “Boy, in the hands of someone else this would probably look great.” Unfortunately I can’t give a game good grades based on “what could be”. On top of the issues with character models I had a rather consistent issue with textures flashing into view. I mostly played this game in the morning after a night shift so the room was pitch black…seeing a stark white image flash before the end of a hallway loaded in was especially jarring. This only seemed to happen in any of building’s hallways opposed to any outdoor or cave set pieces.
The audio isn’t any better. The range on the voice acting goes from serviceable to laughable depending on which characters you interact with. Obviously they put more time into ensuring the main characters sounded better than the random, nearly look alike, NPCs littered through parts of the game but even then they aren’t great. The most noticeable thing was thinking the main character sounded like Mel Gibson…which is neat, I guess? Ambient sounds and music don’t do much to add to the atmosphere either. At no point in the game did I feel creeped out or nervous based on what was happening in front of me. The music only seemed to have 2 modes: “Oh no, run away!” and “Walk around and pick stuff up, I guess?” Music and sound can go a long way to elevate a game and in the case of Call of Cthulhu it did it no favors at all.
When it comes to the gameplay, 99% of Call of Cthulhu is questioning characters in a dialogue system or looking through the environment for clues. The levels are “open” but they are still very much levels. The “game” parts here are not challenging. I would imagine you could complete the entire game in under 2-3 hours if you didn’t care about getting supplemental story collectibles. Occasionally you are graced with stealth sequences that are not challenging thanks to the terrible NPC AI. Thankfully the game seems to checkpoint rather frequently so if you get a failed state you can quickly get back to where you were. Many times I feel stealth sequences are added into games like this to pad the playtime out and that is no different here. There are also a couple of “boss” encounters but they boil down to either running away or walking around. Puzzles are simple and enemies are stupid which makes for a boring and unsatisfying “win” anytime you best them. The only positive thing I can say about the gameplay is they adapted the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper character sheets that you can level up. This effects things like being able to deduce someone’s motives, breaking a lock, or spotting hidden clues. This system is great but the way it is implemented, along with everything else in the game, feels half-assed and incompetent. There is a section that you can fire a gun at enemies…and it is boring and feels shoehorned into the system like it was never supposed to be there.
There is a sanity system, if you can call it that. Next to your character sheet is your “sanity” score…which shows you the exact number of times you can lose “sanity”. This system isn’t really a system at all but merely a checklist for all the “spooky” or Lovecraftian things you come across. You don’t lose sanity over the course of a game causing you to hallucinate, lose stamina, etc. That was one of the cool things in the previous Call of Cthulhu game was the amount of things that could cause you to lose your sanity and that directly affected the game itself. Not in this Call of Cthulhu, all you get is a Tell Tale games style prompt that what you did will affect the game. So, I don’t know…”Cthulhu Will Remember That” I suppose…
There are multiple endings. You can get three out of four of the endings just by playing the game normally and reloading the last save. All of the endings feel cheap and done in such a way that it felt like Cyanide couldn’t wait to get this tragedy of a game over with. In one ending a character literally disappears even though he was there in a previous scene, like Cyanide totally forgot he was there the entire time.
In the end, the only sanity loss experienced was from my frustration with this game. I am a massive HP Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper, and mythos fan...not to mention this game was an anniversary gift from my wife. Because of those things I felt obligated to play through this to completion. Even including all those factors I don’t think this game is worth playing, even heavily discounted. Cyanide clearly doesn’t respect your time so why give it to them or even your dollars? There are better games of this style out there and it looks like we may get another shot in a similar game called The Sinking City in 2019. I said it felt like the developer couldn’t wait to get the game over and to the end credits and I mean that. With all the bugs, poor graphics, bad game experiences, and barely there story I suggest you save the sanity loss and skip this game entirely. Even going for the better performance PC version, which is also cheaper, wouldn't fix any of this game's issues other than the frame rate.
Added: After thinking long and hard about this recently I have changed my review score to ONE STAR from TWO STARS. If I can't think of one positive thing to say about a game then it is not even worth two stars.