This week, Yahtzee reviews Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu is a game based upon the works of H. P. Lovecraft, America's favorite racist, and alongside the large numbers of horror games inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos over the years, Call of Cthulhu can certainly claim the lofty title of "another one". "Come on, Yahtzee! Be nice in the opening spiel! You've got six whole paragraphs to dump asparagus urine on the game!" Well, you certainly can't deny that it's an extremely dedicated adaptation; as in, they set out to make a Cthulhu game, but when it came to deciding which specific story or aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos to adapt, someone got a bit overexcited and said, "Let's do ALL of it! Like, at once! Can we do that?" And so, an attempt was made to see how many of the clichés of Lovecraftian storytelling we can squeeze into one small game before its delicate little rectum bursts, even a few that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth didn't already do.
So with all that in mind, how could the main protagonist NOT be a grizzled private detective with a drinking problem and a dark past in early 20th century New England? And how could they NOT get called out on a routine investigation to a highly suspect, isolated community with a permanent green filter over it like the whole island's been dipped in snot? But to say the protagonist, Edward Pierce, is basically the main dude from Dark Corners of the Earth would be to miss out on the opportunity to say that he's basically the main dude from Vampyr; quite eerily so, actually: same face, same beard, same voice. The only real difference is the specific nature of their drinking problem. Wait a second... Same fucking voice actor?! Talk about typecasting! I checked, and the games are by different developers; although, they are both French, and therefore, probably incestuous.
Call of Cthulhu is by Cyanide Studio, who are best known for Cycling Manager, Cycling Manager 2, Space Marine: Deathwing, and Cycling Manager 3; not exactly big-time award-winner types, unless there's an award for "World's Most Basically Competent Midrange Developer". But anyway, Edward Pierce is hired by Rich Uncle Pennybags to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter, an artist whose paintings have a slightly alarming habit of making people go "Toblerones-in-the-eye-sockets" mental. Also, she had been living in a remote fishing community that seems to be muddling on suspiciously well for there not being that much fish around, and all the locals treat you like a black person in an affluent Midwestern suburb because you haven't got boggle-eyes or smell faintly of death and sandwich tuna.
So by now, your Cthulhu game bingo card should have more crosses than an infant graveyard in an anti-vaxxer community, but ironically, Call of Cthulhu misses out on the free space by forgetting that the defining element of Lovecraftian horror is the fear of the unknown, and Call of Cthulhu just can't make things known fast enough. Sorry to keep bringing it up, but Dark Corners of the Earth shows how pacing is supposed to be done, at least in the bit before it turns into a crappy stealth shooter, when you can feel tension slowly escalating until you find yourself getting chased over a rooftop and stumbling upon a fish finger in a negligee. In Call of Cthulhu, meanwhile, Pierce is barely off the boat and getting the stamp on his Lovecraftian Protagonist Rewards Card before he's stumbling on secret cultist lairs and getting thrown into the usual local franchise of Stock Horror Asylum, where they had to fire the cleaning staff to pay the electricity bill.
I think the moment the game officially lost me was when a giant, spindly monster climbed out of a painting for a surprise stealth section, in full view, with no subtlety or buildup, and it might as well have been wearing a top hat. And it wasn't even much of a surprise, 'cos ever since I had entered the room, Pierce had switched from "Searching" the cupboards I clicked on to wanting to "Hide" inside them, which instantly informed me that either we were about to have a stealth section, or Edward's social anxiety problems were kicking in, which might as well bring us to the gameplay.
Call of Cthulhu is, on the surface, an investigative game, patterned with basic "use key in door" inventory puzzles, accessorized with dialogue trees and light stealth. Very light stealth, actually; it'd struggle to leave a fingermark in a bowl of watery custard. Run away from an alerted human guard and turn precisely one corner, and they'll usually write you off as a mystical vanishing wizard, and it's far more important that they investigate the mystery of the nearby stain on the wallpaper. The spindly monster is a bit more dogged, and can insta-kill you as soon as it catches up to you, but it's more irritating than scary.
In fact, I don't remember feeling the least bit scared by any of Call of Cthulhu which, for a horror game, is a big red cross and a "See me" note; the world of the game just didn't feel real enough for me to get sufficiently immersed. I found it slightly hilarious how Pierce has a special designated "horror" face, where his eyes are all boggly and his hair's mussed up that he flips to like a fucking toggle switch every time something weird happens. But I'm with you, weird-faced version of Pierce; I do get the feeling there's something very wrong with this island. The main town appears to consist only of several empty wooden sheds and a pub, populated by about fifteen copy-pastes of the same three guys.
The story feels patchy, like bits of it are getting skipped over; you escape from McHorror Asylum - or rather, the basement of McHorror Asylum, with still the top part of McHorror Asylum to worry about, I'd have thought - and the game goes, "Hooray! You escaped, and now you're back at the house you were in earlier that you've decided to use as a hideout, and a bunch of other characters are there and are now your best friends! Sorry you missed all that, but you seemed really into that loading screen, and we didn't want to interrupt." There's this gangland boss character who gets built up for the whole first half of the game as a major player that everyone's scared of, and they just fucking disappear without payoff before the end, and sit out the finale eating Twixes in the green room.
See, I assumed the patchiness was because the game was going for branching paths, and was swapping characters and events around based on my actions. There are heavily-emphasized choices that do the Telltale Games thing where it flashes up a bit of text saying things like "Yog-Sothoth will remember you did that"; also, the RPG elements let you put points into things like "Eloquence" and "Psychology" to unlock new paths and dialogue choices. But as I discovered on my second playthrough, this was all theater; the RPG elements and the Sanity Meter - Whoops! Another cross for the bingo card! - are all a paper-thin veneer to make you think your path isn't completely predetermined. Most of the events that reduce sanity are mandatory, and even if you skip the few optional ones, Edward Pierce goes just as banana-flapjacks nutty at precisely the same point in the story as before.
In the end, the only thing your choices affect are what options are unlocked on the Endingtron 3000, and after going over the guide, what choices unlock what seems to be completely arbitrary. Say "Yes" to character A, drink the whiskey in Act IV, and stick an olive up your nose to unlock Ending 1; say "No" to character A, molest a baby harp seal, and put on the kilt instead of the chastity belt to unlock Ending 2; pull your trousers down, select "Quit to Desktop", and open your preferred web browser to unlock "Slightly More Fulfilling Afternoon"!
- Great Old One: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Still it's nice to see that the Shambler's managed to lose a bit of weight since the Quake days
- No baby harp seal was harmed for this video except one that deserved it