Maybe don't buy any painting by Sarah Hawkins.
I can’t say I’ve played too many games like The Call of Cthulhu and, for the most part, I enjoyed doing so. This is a game that combines adventure-style investigation, stealth, puzzle-solving, and RPG stat management, all from a first-person perspective. While not all of the various aspects are successful, it does manage to weave a sufficiently Lovecraftian yarn that I was eager to see through to the end.
You play as Edward Pierce, a down-on-his-luck private investigator who accepts a case into the disappearance of a woman, Sarah Hawkins, and her husband and son who allegedly died in a fire at their estate on Darkwater Island. Her father suspects a cover-up and Pierce accepts the case, taking a charter to the obviously-cursed isle where his investigation begins. As Pierce, you wander around large environments looking for clues, which are highlighted, and interview suspects and witnesses, all rudimentary adventure game activities. However, Pierce has several character stats including Find Objects, Psychology, Investigation, Eloquence, Strength, Medical Knowledge, and Occult Knowledge. As you progress through the story, Pierce gains Character Points that you can spend to increase many of these stats. Medical and Occult Knowledge, however, are improved by finding medical and occult books or objects in the world.
The result of these stats are subtle but generally take the form of finding additional clues in the environment, unlocking new lines of questioning during interviews, forcing doors, picking locks, or seeing connections that you might not otherwise. While you will be able to max out most of your stats over the course of the game, it’s a slow build. The Call of Cthulhu is a lengthy affair and Character Points are doled out fairly evenly.
Certain decisions that Pierce makes will “affect his destiny,” by which I mean the flow of the story. However, it’s not as immediate or as obvious as in something like Until Dawn—my suspicion is that these destiny-changing decisions mostly affect the endgame.
Searching environments and questioning people is extremely enjoyable, made better when I discovered that using Pierce’s lighter and, later, oil lamp to illuminate darker corners often resulted in more clues to find. You’ll occasionally go into a mode where Pierce reconstructs a crime scene, and these feel a bit like the Detective Vision sequences in the Batman Arkham games. You’ll also inhabit a couple different characters over the course of the game, though the gameplay remains the same. Occasionally, you have to go through some stealth sequences or solve some vaguely defined environmental puzzle without the aid of a map. These bits are not particularly enjoyable but never last all that long. For the stealth stuff at least, the game doesn’t always auto-save in ways that make sense, so I found myself repeating areas and completing tasks that I felt should have auto-saved already—but did not.
The game also experiments with some more action-oriented episodes, including escaping a rampaging monster (twice) and some almost hilariously basic gunplay during a late-game sequence. Again, these attempts at changing up the core gameplay are more middling than engaging, but are over quickly. As I said, the game is at its strongest when you’re walking around finding clues and talking to witnesses.
Call of Cthulhu has a distinctive look. The environments are really fantastic, and exploring every nook and cranny is rewarding and enjoyable. The human characters, however, look weird and unfinished. I think this is partially because the Unreal Engine (which this game runs on) doesn’t do human characters very well. In fact, the humans look worse in cutscenes, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. During interviews, characters shift around and use their hands a little bit too much (bringing to mind Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), coming off as awkward and unnatural. At least every character looks distinctive, though; you’re never going to mistake the sea captain for Sarah Hawkins’ husband, or Sarah Hawkins from Cat, the island’s crime boss.
My annoyances at the sections which are not looking at pretty environments and questioning people don’t detract too much from my overall enjoyment of Call of Cthulhu. Sure, some sequences run a little too long and not every part of the plot makes sense (where do all those cultists live?) but this is a worthy yarn for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos. I will emphasize that, like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (a 2005 Xbox game), the title is a mere formality, and the plot itself has little to do with Lovecraft’s most familiar Old One until the bitter end. Nor, I find, is it a retelling of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which is Lovecraft’s most oft-adapted story. While I appreciate that this game is very much doing its own thing, the Deep Ones from Innsmouth may have been a better fit for the character models. The writing is consistently excellent, worthy of the genre and every line is voiced.
My main complaints, I suppose, are that the load times between chapters are woefully long and there doesn’t appear to be a way to save your game manually; you must rely on the autosave function, which doesn’t activate very frequently.
If you are a fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, The Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game (apparently its full title) will hold some appeal to you. While familiarity with the source material is not required, it probably helps, but I can safely recommend this game to any fan of the cosmic horror genre. There are some rough edges, sure, but it’s well worth the journey overall, especially around this time of year.