Call of Cthulhu
Choices matter?
Call of Cthulhu places you in the shoes of Edward Pierce, a private investigator that falls firmly in the overused trope of being one drink away from full blown alcoholism. Pierce is a man with a mysterious past and, apparently, a pre-destined future. A future that finds him headed towards Darkwater Island in an attempt to get some concrete answers as to what really happened to the Hawkins family. Was it a simple accident that consumed the lives of a mother, father, and their child, or was it something far more sinister?

Darkwater is as much of a character in Call of Cthulhu as Pierce or the other island inhabitants. It's as inviting to outsiders as a slap across the face, but serves as the perfect setting for a story that involves the eldritch monster Cthulhu. Darkwater seems almost lost in time, shrouded in what seems like a perpetual green gloom and mist that hangs in the air. Darkwater is a whaling town, a place where everyone and everything has at least some relation to the whaling profession. Different groups have laid claim to different parts of the town, allowing for rivalries to form and heated disputes to erupt. Fortunately, for the sake of the story, they seem to have a universal dislike for outsiders such as Pierce.

Pierce will use his wits and investigative skills as he explores the island in a series of 13 linear chapters. Call of Cthulhu is not an open-world game but the gameplay is set up that seems to allow for a decent amount of player freedom. Need to get into an area behind a locked door? You can simply pick the lock if your skill is high enough. Alternatively, you can make a deal with Cat, one of the gang leaders on the island and she can help you get in at the cost of owing her a favor. Another way in would be to gain access through the sewer. This is just a very basic example. The game is full of stuff like this, but each route ultimately seems to lead to the same story beat.

Call of Cthulhu screenshot

This illusion of choice seems to be a running theme throughout Call of Cthulhu. One thing I was never really sure of was whether or not my choices mattered when playing. Yes, there is a comprehensive dialogue system in the game complete with branching dialogue paths, some of which you can actually lock yourself out of at times. Additional dialogue options did seem to present themselves based on additional clues found in the environment and with certain perks, but did they ultimately matter? I don't know and I feel as though this doubt works really well with the game's theme. Is Pierce damned to live out a pre-determined fate or does he actually have a say in the matter? It is an interesting question and it is one that is explored at various times throughout the roughly seven hour-long campaign. Of course, the argument could be made that this so-called "illusion of choice" paradox is simply an excuse for poor game design. In any other game and setting, I would agree. However, with the way the story pans out, it seems as though it was an intentional decision for Call of Cthulhu to keep the player wondering.

In addition to the theme of choice, Call of Cthulhu also dives head first into the theme of madness. It's never made clear to either Pierce or the player what is real and what is just a result of maddening and traumatic events. I suppose this is as good a time as any to point out that this is very much a psychological horror title. There are a few jump scares here and there but this game really shines when it sticks to the psychological aspect, which perhaps isn't saying much.

That's right, it's not all high praise for Call of Cthulhu. There were many instances throughout the story where I just felt completely lost as to what or why something just happened. My answers came via a loading screen blurb, as a throwaway piece either of dialogue, or sometimes not at all. Having plot elements, seemingly important ones at that, relegated to a blurb on a loading screen just is not something I find engaging as a player. Supporting characters seem to come and go as they please. Choices that ask you to save or kill someone almost never go the distance of showing you the ramifications of your choice. At one point Pierce gains the ability to see through other character's eyes, allowing you to play as those characters in a handful of chapters.

Call of Cthulhu

Animations often come across as stiff, unnatural, or even downright buggy. There was a lot of clipping of cloth materials due to what seemed like broken physics. Though characters seemed to showcase a decent range of emotions, the consistently poor lip-syncing really brought down the experience. And since a significant portion of the game is dedicated to these one on one character interactions, the overall experience suffers. The animations actually seem at odds with the often times eerie and detailed environments.

The acting runs a range from being excellent, if not a little overly hammy, to laughably amateur. I will once again give high praise to Anthony Howell whom voices Pierce. He did a commendable job here just as he did in Vampyr, even if I feel as though some lines were once again a bit over-acted. I will also give praise to Wolf Kahler (Dietrich in Raiders of the Lost Ark) for his portrayal of a doctor that wants to play God. A few other memorable roles had a set of decent acting chops behind them, but I will omit their names here to avoid spoilers. Sadly, a good number of other characters had deliveries that were rather flat and made even worse by the mediocre writing.

Initially, Call of Cthulhu showed a lot of promise. The first third of the game are perhaps the best two to three hours of the game. Pierce is doing what he does best: Trying to solve a case by piecing together clues, be they from the environment or by interviewing people. He can even recreate a crime based on the clues he's discovered, leading to additional dialogue options with some characters. It's actually quite a bit of fun! It's also the part that seems to be seen the most in the pre-release previews. After the initial awe wears off, it's just a steady downhill decline right to the ending that presented me with three different scenarios to choose from. How I arrived at those three specific choices, I'm not entirely sure. The game was gracious enough to keep my auto-save at the point right before I made those choices, so I was able to watch those three different endings and I'm going to be honest with you, the ending that seemed to be the "worst" of the three choices was actually the most enjoyable to watch.

Call of Cthulhu

The game has the seeds of many great gameplay systems but it ultimately fails to excel with any single one of them. It feels as though the team at Cyanide tried desperately to make fans of multiple genres happy, yet they came up short on every front. The ability to engage in extra dialogue options via the skill system is perhaps the only real shining light. The sanity system is just kind of there. If there is a way mitigate the insanity effects or segments, I never found it. It is perhaps telling that I was never able to figure out if these moments of insanity were always going to happen despite my actions or if my actions resulted in actual changes to the gameplay.

Though they are not numerous, there are a few levels in the game where stealth is "required." The problem here is that the stealth mechanics are borderline broken to the point that it's often easier and faster just to run around and quickly hop into a conveniently located closet for a few seconds to throw off your pursuers. The lines of sight of your foes also seem questionable at best. I have been spotted through walls at times while at other times, I could be within mere inches off to the side of someone and they do not notice me. The somewhat broken checkpoint system also does not help matters out either. If you are caught or killed during these segments, you may be placed at a point prior to a cutscene. Yes, you can skip it but the point is you shouldn't have to. The checkpoint should have been made after the cutscene was over. Maybe the developers just wanted you to watch their cutscenes again because they are, honestly, quite well done.

I almost do not want to talk about the brief segment of the late game that allows you to shoot a gun at some hypnotized, zombie-like foes. The gun showing up late in the game is actually rather hilarious because it's not like you picked up the gun off the ground. The gun was something Pierce had on him from the start but never opted to use at any other point in the game before this singular late game segment becauseā€¦ Well, I just don't know why. It is at this point that the game literally turns into a point and click adventure that requires virtually no skill on the part of the player. The experience felt dumbed down to the point of boredom. All you need to do is press a single button when an icon appears above an enemy's head and they are dead. There is no reloading. There is barely any aiming. This segment lasts for all of five minutes max, after which the deus ex machina gun goes away just as quickly as it magically appeared. I guess those that hated the second half of the older Call of Cthulhu game may see this as a welcome change, but it could have been handled so much better. "This could have been handled so much better" seems to be a running theme with this game.

Call of Cthulhu review

For those out there wondering about PC performance, I will say that I had multiple framerate drops on my system. I should note that this was played prior to the release day patch and with every setting initially set to "Epic" at 1080p. However, the drops consisted of multiple instances of sub 60 FPS, sometimes hitting as low as 33 in a few cases. A few of these drops happened at somewhat expected times, such as when looking back towards the seaside town from a little distance away. You see a lot of the town all at once, so a framerate issue in that case makes sense. However, other drops just happened at the most perplexing of times. Moreover, at the time of these drops, neither my CPU nor my GPU were anywhere close to being maxed out on usage, so I'm not really sure what the bottleneck is.

In spite of the game's lackluster everything, it still managed to keep me engaged over the course of a couple of three to four-hour long play sessions I spent with it. Maybe it was just the appeal of the setting or the core idea of the Cthulhu mythos that kept me entertained even while I rolled my eyes or sighed at yet another inexplicably random sequence. Maybe it was the fact that I am someone who enjoys collecting clues and trying to piece together a mystery. Or maybe it's just because I'm a fool. Call of Cthulhu had promise but the execution just failed to deliver. The setting and the story deserve so much better than what you can find here.

Call of Cthulhu review score - 2 out of 5 stars

Additional Information
Call of Cthulhu (Developed by Cyanide Studio, Published by Focus Home Interactive)
Starting at $44.99 (USD) for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
Game was reviewed on: i7-6700K at 4.5GHz, 32GB DDR4-2666, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, Windows 10 64-bit Version 1803
This game was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes.

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