Not Quite Up to Expectations – A Call of Cthulhu Review

Not Quite Up to Expectations – A Call of Cthulhu Review

If you’ve been a follower of mine for a while, you may recall that I’m a fan of the cosmic horror genre. The very first game that started my streaming career, such as it is, was The Secret World (now Secret World Legends): a game that maintains that every urban myth and legend is true, all while mixing in a lot of cosmic horror. As a result, any time I’m presented with a game that allows me to go back to these roots, I get incredibly excited.

The fourth game in my horror game playthrough, Call of Cthulhu, is such a game, one I was excited to get to until I remembered the man who created the Cthulhu mythos was problematic, and that’s putting it mildly.

H.P. Lovecraft as an individual was extremely racist, homophobic, and xenophobic, even for the time in which he lived. He was ignorant of any group that wasn’t straight, white, and cisgender male, and this resulted in him being terrified to the point of hate. He wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions about this, either, and his views wormed their way into his writing. As a result, these prejudices can and often do show up in a lot of work that takes inspiration from it.

I got an example of this in early 2021 when I played through another game that took inspiration from Lovecraft’s work called The Sinking City.

Now, The Sinking City did not shy away from including those elements in the game. Before you start The Sinking City, you’re met with a message from the developers that flat-out condemns Lovecraft’s views, but then goes on to say that they’ve included them for a more accurate depiction of the time rather than pretend that they never existed at all. The game also makes a point of giving the character you play options to combat those prejudices head-on.

Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, The Sinking City depicts an era in which the ethnic, racial, and other minorities were frequently mistreated by society. These prejudices were and are still wrong, but have been included for an authentic depiction of that time, rather than pretend they never existed.
‘The Sinking City’ opens with this message from the developers about the game’s content

Now, that said, the dialogue from NPCs in those instances was incredibly uncomfortable. The game and the storyline were incredible, and I appreciated that the game really made me think about the choices I was making, especially in dialogue that would impact the outcome of whatever I was doing, but I did have a hard time moving past some of the dialogue simply due to its nature. I know a lot of my viewers did, too.

As a result, when it came time for me to take on Call of Cthulhu, I was… well, apprehensive, which is probably putting it mildly. Everything I had read about the game indicated that the more problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s writing were pushed to the background or were non-existent, but background racism is still racism and I wasn’t sure to what extent such content would be present if at all.

Please note before we continue that in no way do I share the views of H.P. Lovecraft. They were wrong then, and they are absolutely wrong now. I think it is entirely possible to enjoy something without sharing the views of the creator or the time in which the thing was created in some cases, but I also don’t think the answer is ignoring them. Those elements need to be challenged and looked at critically.

In my opinion, the best Lovecraftian-derived works are the ones that actually deal with those elements rather than ignore them. They reclaim them or reinterpret them. There’s some incredible work that absolutely does that (see Lovecraft Country). This is also something that I think The Sinking City did beautifully. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, did not.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Call of Cthulhu takes place after World War I. Much like The Sinking City, players assume the role of a private detective, Edward Pierce. Pierce is a former soldier, haunted by his memories of the war. He drinks and uses sleeping pills largely to try to block out the nightmares.

The adventure begins when Pierce is approached by a gentleman begging him to look into the disappearance of a famous artist whose work focuses on the macabre and grotesque. And since he can’t afford to not take the case on due to the threat of his license being revoked, Pierce sets out for Darkwater, a little island off the coast of Boston.

A screenshot from Call of Cthulhu. On a foggy dock, a groupf of people stand clustered in front of a bloody body of a beached whale. A police officer, Officer Bradley, stands between the crowd and the whale. He says, "Gentlemen, please, move back. Let the police do their work."

The longer the game goes on, the more you realize there’s something off about this island and the circumstances surrounding the artist’s disappearance. None of the inhabitants seem particularly happy to see an outsider, though some are more willing to talk to you than others. You learn about a creepy asylum run by a doctor who may be doing some questionable experiments on his patients. There are signs of a cult that’s taken root on the island itself.

Overall, Darkwater is creepy as hell, and all these elements combined add to the atmosphere of the game. However, some might find this incredibly predictable.

One thing I surprisingly didn’t find predictable was the gameplay. You’re locked into a first-person viewpoint which absolutely immerses you in the environment. You feel like you’re Pierce as you’re walking through this island and talking to people or even pushing items out of the way to get to new areas of the game.

A lot of the gameplay honestly just involves talking to people, which I very much enjoyed. There’s a colorful cast of characters in Darkwater to interact with, everything from a captain whose ship you sailed to the island to strange or compassionate doctors at the asylum to a bootlegger who all but runs the majority of the island and is a badass woman besides. In my playthrough, she kicked Pierce’s ass not even five minutes after she first interacted with him, which, let me tell you, is a hell of an introduction.

Call of Cthulhu is a detective game first and foremost with some RPG elements, presumably taking inspiration from the tabletop RPG that the video game shares a name. Over the course of the game, you earn character points that can be spent on a variety of attributes, each one adding some new elements to the game itself. Increasing your ability to spot hidden things, for example, reveals new clues that would otherwise be unavailable to you.

A screenshot from Call of Cthulhu. A cultist wearing a mask covered in white tentacles and covered in a black robe stands in a cavern.

I think my favorite element in the game, however, was a sanity meter which depleted the longer the game went on depending on things you encountered or choices you made. You even had a visual record of all of the things that wreaked havoc on Pierce’s psyche as you encountered them, many of which were still locked to me by the time I finished the game, so there were a few I still hadn’t encountered.

However, I wanted it to be utilized more than it actually was. Because the gameplay was more on the minimalistic side, Pierce’s deteriorating sanity only resulted in a few dialogue options in R’lyehian, a fictional language heavily associated with the Cthulhu mythos.

And don’t get me wrong. This was cool, but I wanted more to be done with it.

I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to give us something trackable in the menus like this, that thing probably should be utilized more, and it never was. I am aware that the loss of one’s sanity is going to present itself differently in every individual, but the sanity meter in this game genuinely felt like it didn’t matter. Pierce in a tight, enclosed space for an extended period of time had more of an impact on my gameplay than that meter did.

I think that was my problem with Call of Cthulhu in general. A lot of things in it never seemed to matter.

Don’t get me wrong. It had some very cool elements to it. No spoilers, naturally, but I greatly enjoyed the characters we got to interact with, as well as a plot point that was introduced about halfway through the game. I especially enjoyed the endings I got to witness (there are four of them in total), and in true Lovecraftian fashion, even the “good” endings had some sort of consequence in the end.

A screenshot from Call of Cthulhu. In a cavern illuminated by green light. A group of cultists stand in the background wearing black robes. Peering around the rock in the foreground is a police officer.

However, in the course of the game, I started to realize that the choices I made never seemed to have much impact. I could reference a few things I uncovered in investigations in later dialogue trees, but no one really reacted to Pierce any differently as a result of things he said or actions I made him take.

There was an instance late in the game where I chose a specific dialogue option that resulted in none of the NPCs involved in the conversation mentioning a location I needed to go to. However, the game was still programmed to bring you to that location a minute later, so when we started walking in the direction of that location, it was mentioned rather abruptly and awkwardly because I didn’t have whatever bit of dialogue would have initially introduced it.

While I feel kind of terrible constantly comparing Call of Cthulhu to another Lovecraftian game in this post, this is just another thing that I feel like The Sinking City did better. I could come to some pre-determined conclusions in The Sinking City, but the decisions I made as a result of those conclusions were mine, and they had an impact on the overall story. NPCs would react to the player character differently depending on how previous conversations with them went or how I chose to handle certain things.

If I’m playing a game as a specific character, a character that absolutely has a personality, I want them to matter. I want them to have some sort of an impact on the world around them, and I never felt like I got that with Call of Cthulhu.

I will say that my community enjoyed the fact that Call of Cthulhu wasn’t so heavy on the racist NPCs as The Sinking City was. However, it accomplished this by never addressing it at all.

As I mentioned earlier, the Lovecraftian works I love the most are more modern fiction where the marginalized groups Lovecraft rallied against make us think critically about the prejudices inherent in the work. They have something to say about it. I’m always going to appreciate that.

Call of Cthulhu didn’t seem to have anything to say, new or otherwise, about the genre. The trappings of your typical Cthulhu storyline were there, but it felt stripped down and a bit blander than I think I expected it to.

A screenshot from Call of Cthulhu. The protagonist, Edward Pierce stands in a room surrounded by books. An open book on a desk in front of him is glowing with an eerie green light. Several of the books are lifting into the air and are in the process of flying around the room.

When I finished the game, I realized while I did enjoy it, I wasn’t satisfied with the experience of playing it. The story was good. I cared about the characters I encountered, but it never felt like it was more than that. There wasn’t a feeling of satisfaction after experiencing something truly remarkable at the conclusion of Call of Cthulhu as I had with The Sinking City.

I think if I hadn’t played The Sinking City first, I would have found Call of Cthulhu to be a good game and a decent Lovecraftian story. However, a lot of what Call of Cthulhu did, I feel like The Sinking City did better.

Call of Cthulhu took the dressings of typical cosmic horror and stripped it down to mostly predictable bare-bones elements. At the time of its release, it was probably a satisfying game to play, but when I have other options, I may be defaulting to those from now on, and I genuinely do not know if I would actually play this again.

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