Howard Phillips Lovecraft is probably the most famous and influential author that almost no one has actually read. His name is synonymous with creeping horrors, madness, and tentacled monstrosities that even the most avid hentai fan would find hard to embrace. But chances are that you only know his name in relation to games or movies his work has influenced. Outside of the titles that bear his brand like Shadow of the Comet, and Dark Corners of the Earth, there are many titles that owe a lot to a man not recognized until after his death. From Alone in the Dark, Eternal Darkness, and Quake to more modern games such as Bloodborne, Sunless Sea, and Alan Wake, Lovecraft’s influence has seeped into the gaming landscape much like the dark waters in which his most famous creations were spawned. Those brackish waters have given birth to many a nightmare and Call of Cthulhu from Cyanide Studio is no different except that Lovecraft’s horrors were by design.
Lovecraft’s work can be described as dark and dour and those same descriptors can certainly be applied to Cyanide’s video game adaptation. Unfortunately for us, it's for all the wrong reasons. Conceptually the foundation is solid but in execution, Cyanide has failed to deliver on the any of the madness, or horror you’d want to see from a game leveraging the Lovecraft name. Instead, we’ve been given a title bloated with obtuse RPG systems, game elements that do not mesh, and an almost complete absence of dread that is the cornerstone of Lovecraftian horror.
Death by immolation, rumours of madness and a deepening mystery of whispered horrors are the perfect recipe for anyone seeking to taste the dark delights of the Cthulhu Mythos. At least in this regard Cyanide have more than delivered on the promise of an authentic Cthulhu adventure, at least in the opening act. Set primarily on the island of Blackwater, this former whaling community is littered with the skeletal remains of abandoned and neglected buildings. Populated by weary folk, beaten down by circumstance and shrouded in a miasma of desperation even more cloying than the thick fog that shrouds the island. It is a place ripe with dark possibilities, archaic and occult knowledge and as our protagonist, Edward Pierce soon discovers a place where the residents guarded hostility masks more inscrutable motivations against forces as yet unseen.
Which is why it is such a shame the mists do little to obscure how unintentionally ugly and ungainly Call of Cthulhu is. While the landscapes deliver all the dank run-down decrepitude you’d expect from an early 20th century fishing village gasping for air as it lies beached and broken on the almost forgotten island's coast. The same cannot be said for the character models which look copied from the previous title to bear the Call of Cthulhu name, a game that was released 13 years ago. NPCs are universally awful from their primitive models to their muddy textures and awkward facial rigging, they have no place in a game released in 2018. All the atmosphere so artfully built through environmental storytelling is immediately lost whenever you interact with these dated character models and their stilted dialogue. It is an issue that constantly detracts from the experience as this is a game that requires you to talk to practically every person on the island. While some of the voice acting is quite decent, for the most part, they feel unnatural and not in the way you would hope from a Lovecraft inspired game. Edward himself speaks in an awkward almost distracted tone throughout. To the point that when he does emote or react to an encounter it feels forced and loses all impact as a result. Couple this with awkward animations and a multitude of invisible walls I could not help but think I was playing a game from over a decade ago given only the most arbitrary polish to bring it closer to modern standards.
Despite this being a game about unexplained deaths. The real crime here though is not the murders themselves, or even the horrors alluded to by visions and rumour. Instead, the travesty is in how at no point does Cyanide deliver any of the actual horror that is seething under the surface. Exploring the island does provide tense moments as you investigate leads and collect clues, but its hobbled by the clunky mechanics that rather than seamlessly holding up the game are instead constantly fighting against player immersion with their needless inclusion and awkward menu navigation. You are never allowed to just immerse yourself in the world and the adventure without the game telling you to go to a menu screen or forcing an interaction outside of the game world.
There are pointless RPG elements where you upgrade your various abilities aimed at increasing your aptitude, but they seldom feel like they have any meaningful impact on the experience or your ability to complete your investigation. They’re also completely arbitrary within the context of the game they reside. You collect Character Points as you complete tasks in the game or reach certain narrative milestones which can then be assigned to either Eloquence, Spot Hidden, Investigation, Strength, Psychology, Occultism, or Medicine but they’re never contextualized and make no sense in relation to your in-world actions. If the system was deeper or better designed perhaps this would be less of an issue, but as it stands the game would lose nothing if they were removed. In fact, it would feel more cohesive with their removal. That is ignoring the fact that they don’t really have any impact on the game in any meaningful way. Instead, they seem to exist simply to tick a box on a checklist.
Stealth is clumsy and poorly implemented and what should be a tension builder is instead an exercise in annoyance. Many puzzles are needlessly difficult, not due to their complexity but instead because the game so poorly communicates what it wants you to do. The latter parts of the game drop much of the walking simulator/investigation aspects and attempt to lean on the horror elements a lot more heavily, but at this point I really didn’t care. And the tonal shift from investigation and exploration to “run from the monster” is so abrupt that it felt like I was playing a game made by a different team, not only that it failed to even provide an initial jump-scare which at least would have injected a little excitement into the experience. If the story was not so often impeded or distracted by the noise of clunking mechanics this could have been a great addition to the Cthulhu Mythos, instead what we have is a monstrosity best forgotten and left to sink into obscurity.