Review: Call of Cthulhu (PS4)

I enjoyed Call of Cthulhu far more than I expected to. It’s a little rough around the edges in some places, but it tells a rollicking good tale, and it really nails the eerie atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing.

And speaking of Lovecraft, let’s just take a moment to remember that the man is a bit of a divisive figure, to put it mildly. I’ve read and enjoyed many of his stories, but it’s widely known that he was a horrible racist in real life (look up his eldest cat’s name – or rather, don’t). Sam Greer argued in a recent Eurogamer article that his depiction of scary ‘others’ was a direct result of his racism and fear of black people – in other words, the whole Cthulhu Mythos is basically a metaphor for racism.

[LLOYD GROSSMAN] Who would live in a house like this? Let’s go THROUGH THE… Aaaaaaargh [DIES]
When I was studying English Literature at university 20-odd years ago, we were taught to analyse texts in isolation, to treat the text as a standalone object and to avoid projecting our knowledge of the author’s life onto it. But attitudes in critical theory have changed since then, and nowadays many theorists think the author and text should be treated as a whole. That makes unqualified enjoyment of Lovecraft’s work somewhat problematic.

The mythos that Lovecraft creates has been built on by many subsequent authors, and nowadays Lovecraftian can refer to a whole genre rather than specifically the works of Lovecraft himself. Indeed, Call of Cthulhu bears little resemblance to Lovecraft’s story of the same name, instead merely transposing some recurring Lovecraftian elements, like the Necronomicon and Cthulhu itself, onto a new narrative. In fact, the game is based on the highly lauded 1981 pen-and-paper RPG rather than any of Lovecraft’s works per se. Lovecraft’s creations now exist in a realm somewhat divorced from the author himself – so does that make it OK to enjoy them, knowing what we now know about the author’s troubling views?

Call of Cthulhu is very, very green. But it’s a nice green.

I’m still wrestling with this, to be honest. I think we should steer clear of lionising Lovecraft, but at the same time I think his stories are fascinating and compelling. Perhaps his ideas originated from hateful thinking, but it’s still a big leap to say that a tentacled Elder God is inherently racist. Meanwhile, the concept that humans are mere playthings of cosmic horrors beyond imaging is chilling and compelling – and more importantly for this review, great video-game fodder.

Loads of games are obviously inspired by Lovecraft’s creations: I reviewed Sunless Sea on PS4 just the other week, and that game is Lovecraftian through and through, right down to the sanity meter and many-tentacled giant creatures. But very few games that are actually based directly on Lovecraft’s texts have been any good. Happily, Call of Cthulhu bucks that trend.

The environments generally look very lovely indeed.

For a start, it nails the atmosphere of Lovecraft’s stories. These usually involve an investigator uncovering some kind of supernatural horror and slowly being driven mad by the uncomprehendable truth – which is exactly what happens here. Edward Pierce, a World War I veteran and private detective, visits the island of Blackwater to investigate a mysterious fire, and quickly gets in over his head. Edward’s sanity decreases according to which events you witness during the course of the investigation, and his sanity level at the finale partly determines the ending.

I liked the way that the game reflects Edward’s deteriorating mind – at several points you’re not sure whether what you’re seeing is real or just a figment of Edward’s imagination. And the game stays true to its source material in that there’s no real combat – after all, Lovecraft’s protagonists don’t go around fighting evil with a shotgun, they do it through thorough research. Accordingly, you spend most of the game searching for books and clues, and trying to get suspects to spill the beans through interrogation.

The all-important allocation of character points.

You start the game by allocating character points to skills like Investigation, Eloquence, Strength and Spot Hidden, the last of which allows you to see hidden objects in the game – the higher your rank, the further away you’ll be able to see certain things. And these character points have a big impact on the game – if you have high Strength, for example, you can unlock aggressive questions in conversations, which lead to different answers. And which of the four endings you unlock is partly determined by which stats you’ve maxed out.

One of the things I really liked is that at several points in the game you have a choice in how to overcome an obstacle. In the second chapter, for example, you can gain access to a warehouse by sweet talking some locals into helping you or constructing a winch to heave aside an iron grating. And the reconstruction scenes are pretty neat – they’re similar to the detective bits in the Batman: Arkham games, whereby you piece together clues to work out what happened.

Darkwater is a suitably creepy setting.

But above all, I loved the creepy atmosphere that Call of Cthulhu conjures. The settings are beautifully imagined and wonderfully eerie, particularly the whaling docks and the spooky art gallery you find later on. It’s lovely. But having said that, you can tell this is a game made by a very small team: Cyanide Studio is a tiny developer just outside Paris that employs around 75 people. As such, this is a rare AA game in a gaming world that is more and more split between flashy, unbelievably expensive AAA titles and tiny, experimental indie games. Mid-budget games like Call of Cthulhu are a dying breed these days.

In that sense, I can forgive the obvious recycling of assets on some levels and the generally small scope of the game – I finished it in around 11 hours. But the wobbling and bobbling character models are slightly harder to look past – they twitch and flail while delivering dialogue in the manner of manic maquettes, which has the tendency to pull you out of the creepy atmosphere the game otherwise works so hard to generate. And those tombstone teeth! Man, they’re almost comical. Not to mention the weird hair models that sometimes resemble a fuzzy halo or precariously balanced bird’s nest.

The character models jerk about bizarrely when they talk.

Here’s the thing. I really enjoyed Call of Cthulhu and its twisting, satisfying plot – but then I didn’t have to pay for it. And if I’d forked out the recommended retail price of £49.99, I’d certainly have been more disappointed – this is a mid-budget game, and really it deserves a mid-budget price. If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian creations, then I’d definitely recommend checking out this wonderfully atmospheric game – just not for the RRP.

Call of Cthulhu is available for PS4, Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for Call of Cthulhu was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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