Call Of Cthulhu’s horrors might be too familiar

Right near the beginning of the Call of Cthulhu [official site] hands-off demo I saw last week, an angry caretaker confronts the player character. Suddenly Lovecraft Country felt a bit Scooby Doo. The game’s central mystery, or at least its initial hook, centres around a family who died when an accidental fire raged through their massive island home. Old man caretaker doesn’t think you should be poking around inside.

Once you do get inside, there are clues to investigate, unnerving paintings to shatter your sanity, and monsters to hide from. It’s the caretaker that sticks with me though, and that gives the clearest impression as to how the whole thing might play out.

I’d expected something similar to the Sherlock Holmes games, which have gone full Lovecraft in the past. Call of Cthulhu looks like it’s taking enough cues from the Chaosium tabletop RPG to have an identity of its own though, mashing up traditional adventure game logic with character sheets and skill checks. With the caretaker, you can choose to deal with his threats – he’s waving an axe in your face – using one of several approaches: persuasion, small talk, intimidation or psychology. Other options unlock if you have found clues elsewhere before engaging in dialogue.

There may be RPG elements but they don’t extend as far as character creation. You’re playing as Edward Pierce, a former soldier turned private investigator, and the case that opens the game brings you to the aptronymic Dark Water Island. It’s actually quite picturesque, as far as these things go, and the game is handsome in its horrors. In the short demonstration, there’s little of the detailed muck and grime that Resi 7 did so well, but it’s all pleasantly moody.

It’s also, in terms of setting and tone, pretty much exactly what I expected. Cyanide are determined to “stay true to the spirit of Lovecraft”, as I was told later, and in this case that truth is in the form of shades of noir, sanity meters, a desolate New England setting, and culty murmurings. It’s so true to a certain idea of what the mythos is all about that I was feeling a heavy sense of deja vu long before the chase sequence that saw Pierce hiding in a closet, where his claustrophobia threatened to…kill him?

There’s quite a bit to unpick in that last sentence. First of all, yes, there are chase sequences. The monster in this one was stalking a gallery packed with the sort of sculptures and paintings that would have had old H P reaching for his thesaurus. It’s cracking stuff, the art. Suitably unsettling without resorting to wings and tentacles – the best of the sculptures are recognisable things rendered slightly wrong. The sort of thing that you need to look at twice to figure out exactly which part is disturbing.

And then a monster appears, pushing its way out of a painting in a way that’s reminiscent of Sadako forcing herself through telly static (or that one bit in Bava’s Demons 2, Italian horror fans). You can’t fight back so you hide, sneaking around the sculptures, which don’t look quite as sinister now there’s an actual monster in the room. I didn’t get a good look at it, partly because the person running the demo was quite good at hiding, but also because looking at it drains sanity so it’s best not to study the thing too closely.

All the sneaking ending with a dash for escape and then poor old Pierce had to cram himself in a wardrobe. That’s when the claustrophobia kicked in.

There will be various phobias accrued through the course of the game and in this case, staying hidden in an enclosed space causes sanity to drop, forcing you to emerge sooner rather than later. The sanity meter might cause hallucinations and the like, but the key to it is that Pierce dies if it hits rock bottom. That might work out well enough, I can’t say for sure until I play the game, but I’m inclined to think that killing the player off is too harsh. Make him burst out of the closet, screaming and drawing attention to himself, but kill him outright? It’s one more fail state on top of the possibility of actually being caught.

And that’s how the demo ended, with Pierce making another dash for the door, being spotted, grabbed and killed. It was an effective sequence, tense and frightening in its way, but the combination of the chase and the claustrophobia seemed a little too scripted. As with the conversation choices, there will be different ways to approach encounters, using occult knowledge, investigative skills and even weaponry (though guns will be ineffective against most creatures and possibly only handy against human cultists).

Going back to the caretaker, the demo saw Pierce arguing his way out of the confrontation. If he’d failed a skill check or attempted a different conversational technique he might have been unable to enter the house immediately, and been forced to break in rather than convincing the caretaker to give him the key. If every possible branch is executed well, Call of Cthulhu might feel like taking part in a roleplaying session, and while the writing and voice acting doesn’t convince me I’ll be in the company of a stellar gamesmaster, I wouldn’t mind a few hours of paranormal investigation.

When Pierce reached the room where the fire had started, he was left to sniff around for clues. That was the most Sherlock-y part of the game, as the player pieces together the evidence to form a conclusion. As in 2014’s Crimes and Punishments, it’s possible to arrive at false conclusions, but these don’t lead to failure immediately. Instead, you’re armed with incorrect information that might bite you in the backside down the line.

Cyanide told me that their game won’t become a shooter, as Dark Corners of the Earth did in some of its later stages, and that investigation and conversation are the keys to progressing the story. The voice acting isn’t final, thankfully, but the actual writing of the dialogue might need some work as well. When the caretaker called Pierce a prick I was less concerned about any possible anachronistic phrasing and more concerned that it came across as a bit more like a row down the city centre on a Saturday night than a sinister encounter on a doom-haunted isle.

There are entire areas of the game I’ve seen nothing of, still, including character recruitment and side stories. While you won’t have a party following you around, you will be able to recruit certain characters if you deal with them properly, and they can be sent to investigate other matters, bringing back information that might save Pierce’s skin later in the game.

That entire side of the game – the actual investigation of a case that threatens to become overwhelming and incomprehensible – has caught my interest. The phobias and sanity clauses, less so. It might all come together but I worry that the phobias will be too scripted, a way to spice up encounters and add a layer of difficulty to certain areas of the game.

With the RPG elements allowing some flexibility of approach, Call of Cthulhu is doing enough to differentiate itself from other investigation-based adventure games. It’s not just Sherlock with monsters and violence – Holmes under the Hammer, say – but what I’ve seen sticks a little too close to common Lovecraftian tropes. “True to Lovecraft” might be Cyanide’s goal but aspects of the mythos have leaked out into pop culture to such an extent that the bumps in the night and lurkers in the dark don’t seem all that fresh. Hopefully what I’ve seen is just the tip of the tentacle and there will be some unknowable terrors along the way because first-person horror that gets this much right on the surface is always welcome on my hard drive.

From this site

32 Comments

  1. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    I’m just here to applaud ‘Holmes Under the Hammer’. Outstanding work!

  2. Seafoam says:

    Yeah, Lovecraft is a bit played out nowadays. But hey you know, public domain and all that. I hope they can capture the original feel of the stories, instead of shouting “Cthulhu! Soggoth! OOooooooOOoh are we spooky yet?”
    But if the gameplay is good that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      There’s been almost zero videogame stuff from people who earnestly, unironically adore Lovecraft’s mythos and want to capture that feeling. I know a ton of people who do, but none are in the videogame industry. Many are actually making tabletop RPG material and board games (the Arkham Horror LCG is good!).

      Whole lot of cutesy bullshit and second-hand references from people who can’t even spell Cthulhu without looking it up, but really nothing that even captures the feel of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, let alone Lovecraft’s writings themselves.

    • SaintAn says:

      Shame I can’t read a Lovecraft article anymore without some ignorant commenters saying this. Lovecraft inspired is not the same as Lovecraft, and it is rarely done right.

  3. Someoldguy says:

    I like the idea of multiple routes and options to use several different skill checks, but that seems rather pointless if you’re always playing the same person. Your persuasion will always be higher or lower than your small talk or psychology, so the game is always going to steer you toward certain choices unless you’re deliberately making life harder for yourself just to see what different fluff text they bothered to put in if you succeed or fail that way.

    • April March says:

      Presumably, you’ll be able to pick what skills your character have on each playthrough, even if he’s always the same person. If that is not the case, I dumbfoundedly agree.

  4. Lacessit says:

    Ha! You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

  5. seroto9 says:

    I’m fairly sure that the doctor doesn’t check your sanity meter if go to him wondering about your sanity (at least he didn’t with me). Also I don’t remember Lovecraft writing about a sanity meter.

    I appreciate that the game it’s based-on had sanity stats, but a computer game gives you the freedom to hide that stat, so when the weirdness starts, you’re not actually sure what’s real and what is your sickness. That would make it more Lovecraftian, and quite a bit more like life…

    • Dman of Dhour says:

      I’m already sick of sanity being a second health bar. I’d like to see a developer use it as a game mechanic.

      For example, when the hidden sanity meter is 0, the world is fairly normal. As you start to uncover the mystery the insanity of the situation makes you start to question reality, and this is reflected in the game by things starting to look a bit off. Then it gets higher and monsters start coming out of paintings, previously harmless statues are now trying to kill you, stuff like that. Then it reaches a fever pitch where you’re seeing stuff that isn’t there, but can’t differentiate it because it looks the same as the stuff that kills you. I think that would be a lot more interesting than a second health bar.

      • Premium User Badge

        Captain Narol says:

        Indeed, an hidden sanity meter where things get weirder around you when it rises would make a very interesting game mechanism, as you could never be sure of the in-game reality of what you see…

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        Wait, what, that ISN’T what the sanity bar does in horror games?!? I remember being very excited reading articles about Amnesia back in the day because that is exactly what I expected the sanity bar to do. I raved about how cool that gameplay mechanic would be till eventually a colleague bought the game for me to shut me up. And then I never played it. It’s still sitting in my Steam backlog peering out at me, ominously. But if the sanity bar is just a health bar then thank God I never played it, as I would have been crushed. Perhaps, just like in horror, it’s the anticipation of something that is more impactful than the actual thing.

        • Dman of Dhour says:

          I feel like it’s excusable in Amnesia because your vision will distort and your breathing will get heavier as your sanity goes down, which makes the game feel more intense and works well with the atmosphere. It gives you a good reason not to look at the monsters, because it’s uncomfortable and eventually you’ll die, but that’s all.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            I might be misremembering (mercifully, my mind is unable to crrelate all its contents), but don’t the whimpering and heavy breathing that result from insanity eventually attract the monsters? And in the game?

      • aerozol says:

        Sounds like fun, but in practice a game that subtly does things to you without making it REALLY clear what exactly is happening, and what specific action you did to make that happen, usually ends up being incredibly frustrating, and also makes your decisions not feel meaningful and random.
        I don’t think you need a health bar, but after playtesting a bit you might end up doing pretty much the same thing, be it a filter over the screen that gets more textured or something like that – a health bar in practice, if less on the nose.
        I’m not saying you’re wrong, and you might have a concept in mind that just happens to work in practice, but it’s a very interesting problem to think about in regards to game design :)

        edit: best insanity effects is still done by Eternal Darkness, if anyone wants to youtube it, scary stuff!!!

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          It looks a bit cheesy now, but yeah, breaking the 4th wall is a great way to simulate someone’s reality collapsing.

        • April March says:

          Eternal Darkness did it right. (Though it was still a “second health bar” in the sense that if it was depleted, actions that would cause sanity loss would cause health loss instead).

          There is a lot said about pretending to erase the game files and pretending to end the demo version and crazy stuff like that, but the fact that there was a room where I’d always fought three strangely weak zombies, until on about my fifth playthrough they weren’t there, because my sanity was nearly full. The zombies were a hallucination and I’d believed it all along.

      • Premium User Badge

        Benratha says:

        Maybe they could include negative status effects in a similar manner to ‘Darkest Dungeon’? Or even have some effects that seem negative to start off with, but give some kind of buff/ boost for specific psychic talents or possibly increased detection ranges for monsters?

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Let’s not forget that Howard P’s portrayal of insanity was pretty off, too. Apparently, insane people are prone to writing 10,000-word suicide notes, 500-or-so of those being either “squamous”, “cyclopean”, or “daemoniac”.

  6. Turkey says:

    It would be interesting if instead of sanity being another life bar, the whole game would warp your perception of the world based on your sanity level to the point where it becomes really unpleasant to play if you reach bottom.

  7. driftwood says:

    this article keeps bringing up the sherlock holmes games but isn’t this a completely different cthulhu game from the one the sherlock holmes developers are currently working on?

  8. Uberwolfe says:

    This looks great… this looks like what the Alone in the Dark series should have become..

  9. Sunjammer says:

    Excited for this, as I am with anything Lovecraftian, and hoping I won’t be disappointed again, as I have been by literally everything Cyanide have done..

    Shameless plug for article/ramble I wrote on lovecraftian gaming.

  10. hfm says:

    The closer it sticks to the P&P RPG the better.

    I do like the idea of not being able to see your sanity meter. This is one thing you CAN do as a digital game that’s difficult to pull off playing tabletop.

    If your sanity drops far enough in the tabletop game, you could possibly get some random side-effects and disorders. One of them being anxiety and severe phobias related to that. So the keeper could decide Severe Claustrophobia is your bag. And it could be extremely dibilitating to the point of killing you from shock.

    So lets not be so hasty about counting out something like that being crazy. Of course, just running around sane then hiding in a box and going insane from that doesn’t quite fit that mold, but as a demo it’s not a bad thing.

    I guess as well we have to remember this has to be fun and accessible. CoC Tabletop is fun and accessible, but it’s also unrelenting and difficult. You die. Often. Hope your GM has multiple char sheets lying about for you to get added in after you die.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>