The stars align, the cosmos arranges itself, the portents cry true and whispers seep into the minds of faithful and weak-willed alike. The Great Old One rumbles in sleep in sunken R’lyeh but soon enough all will hear The Call of Cthulhu.
How’s that for a review intro?
Call of Cthulhu blew my expectations out of the water. I expected something like the previous first-person Cthulhu Mythos game I played, Dark Corners of the Earth, but what I got was a first-person RPG based on the classic Chaosium tabletop RPG ruleset, with deep storytelling and ways to influence encounters based on the elements in your character sheet. I expected action, but got deductive problem solving. What I’m trying to say is I’m impressed, which doesn’t happen that often.
I also played the game and went straight to order the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu RPG books, ‘cause I couldn’t resist.
Call of Cthulhu stars Edward Pierce, a private investigators arriving on Darkwater island, investigating the deaths of the Hawkins family, particularly Sarah, a rather famous painter with something of a bizarre style, her paintings almost otherworldly. Soon things take a turn for the bizarre, as Edward delves into the hidden secrets of the island, the cults that make it their home and just how alien Sarah’s paintings really are!
Let’s get to the finer points:
- Read a Damned Book: As I mentioned, Call of Cthulhu uses tabletop RPG rules, and as such you have a character sheets with attributes/skills. You can use experience points gained by completing objectives in the story to increase their effectiveness, with certain conversation or interaction options locked out unless you have a minimum rating. But the two knowledge skills, which help tremendously in uncovering truths, Medicine and the Occult, you can’t raise with experience. You have to find books, scrolls, diagrams, treatises and so on, each found advancing your growth towards the next rank of these skills. It’s a wonderful way to promote exploration and replays!
- Sweet Skills: Your character’s skills aren’t just for use in conversations or contextual interactions but on every aspect of gameplay. For instance, Strength will help you do certain things quicker and if you must wield a weapon, your accuracy is deadly at higher ranks. But my favourite aspect of skill use is with Investigation, which will let you know if there are hidden items in the environment, such as a note hidden under a table and behind a burnt doll that holds key information about the next puzzle or about the characters in the story.
- Professional Gumshoe: Call of Cthulhu has a pretty good story, with enough twists to keep you interested and a myriad of characters with their own motivations who you may trust and then regret. The story even plays with your perceptions at times. Best of all, it’s not just a game of picking up evidence and talking to people. There are wonderful deductive puzzles and some crime-scene reconstructions that beyond being awesome, also blur the line between reality and insanity. I was never sure if this was just the character’s deductive reasoning in at play or if he really hallucinated those reconstructions.
- It’s all in your head…until it isn’t: A staple of the Cthulhu mythos and Eldritch horror is the loss of sanity and hallucinations and there are so many wonderful and hideous ways to lose your mind in Call of Cthulhu, from looking too intently into the abyss to willingly immerse yourself in the Mythos and learn its secrets. In fact, the Mythos as a whole is part of the story as an entity, forbidden knowledge that consumes you as you explore it. The coolest thing about going mad is that new conversation options open where it’s just Mythos script gibberish, with the character saying some rather ominous things.
- Creeping Terror: The Call of Cthulhu has an amazing atmosphere, constantly keeping you on edge. There is a wonderful mix of visuals and audio to unnerve you at all times, even when nothing is happening. This is not a game that relies heavily on jump scares, instead using that oppressive atmosphere to unnerve you.
- Paths of Damnation: Because of the RPG system that powers the Call of Cthulhu, you have a myriad of approaches to the game’s challenges and in doing so create a fair amount of branching paths, making the game incredibly replayable, as you can try different approaches and skills. After publishing this review and finishing another title, I will run this game again on my Twitch streams, with different skills and approaches. I’ll try this time to avoid the occult and learn all the medicine, instead of the balanced character I took on my first trip into the Cthulhu mythos.
- Fateful Binary Choice: The entirety of your time on Call of Cthulhu you’re making choices and using your skills to create a unique narrative path. Some people talk to you, others refuse to help you and you may even get into trouble with yet another group of people. Yet even so, it all boils down to a binary choice in the final confrontation. The options are wonderful in their consequences but I would have liked something more organic and befitting the narrative you build throughout the game, instead of a “Light” and “Dark” side equivalent.
- Sneak Attack: In Call of Cthulhu there are several instances where you must engage in stealth, to hide from a hideous creature whose very visage will drive your psyche to horrible corners in your mind, or to escape from an insane asylum as deranged in staff as the patients it houses. The problem is that the stealth mechanics are too shallow and simple, and thus the challenge is not there in these sections. It feels forced and lacking the same polish as the rest of the game, especially when only one of these sections manages to keep the tension up. The rest of them disrupt the atmosphere and when, like me, you walk almost