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Lovecraftian preview Top Trumps: The Sinking City vs. Call of Cthulhu

Did you know octopuses have three hearts?

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Lovecraft seems to be the theme du jour at the moment. 2018 trends: pair tailored suits and details inspired by fetish wear with cosmic horror and old school ’20s racism. I saw probably the two most prominent games inspired by Lovecraft at Gamescom, Frogwares’ The Sinking City and Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu (though there were others, including a turn based, tactical affair called Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones). I was going to do separate posts about them, but then I realised I would just be reusing the same jokes about Lovecraft. So instead I’m going to smash them together, and make them fight in a playground in my own head.

The caveats: I played the first four-ish chapters of Call of Cthulhu, while The Sinking City gave me the hands-off presentation treatment. (It was a very slightly expanded version of the latest gameplay footage to come out of Gamescom, which is alpha.) Neither game is finished, but Call of Cthulhu is a lot more finished than The Sinking City. They’re also different types of game. Call of Cthulhu is a more linear game with some slightly branching elements, whilst The Sinking City is a larger open world piece. So I’m sort of making a kickboxer fight a punchkicker. Dunt matter!; seconds out, round one!

Lovecraftiness


The Sinking City
The descriptor “Lovecraftian” has to do more heavy lifting for some games than others. That’s not a measure of quality for any of them, just that some of them will have your actual Cthulhu in the title, and some of them won’t. The Sinking City, from the bits that we’ve seen so far, is a little more -ian than Lovecraft. The city is half flooded, and things are getting occult and strange, but there have only been a couple of nods at your favourite big squid energy boy, the latest in the cinematic trailer. This suits me fine because I like a creepy 1920s vibe, but [stage whisper] I actually find the Lovecraft love-in a bit boring.

Score: 7

Call of Cthulhu
By the end of the Call of Cthulhu hands on we’d gone full R’lyeh wgah’nagi fhtagn. The titular cult and a lad who looked like he was trying to swallow an octopus were both very much in play. It does what it says on the tin, I suppose. After we’ve played both to completion, it might turn out that Call of Cthulhu is just an Audi salesman in a cheap suit: has flashy licensed goods on show, but when you get up close it’s lacking heart.

Score: 9

Winner: Call of Cthulhu, technically.

Grizzledness of detective


The Sinking City
Charles W. Reed has an unshaven face on him like a bloodhound chewing pissy nettles. Even his backpack looks lifeless and sad, sagging down on his back like it’s unhappy to exist in general. Excellent work. Could do with a cooler gumshoe trench coat, though.

Score: 8

Call of Cthulhu
Edward Pierce is so grizzled that if he stood under a lamp post in the rain he’d spontaneously morph into a literal bear. But his world weariness is very by the numbers. Drinking problem? Check. Used to be in the army? Check. Loner? Check. Kind of dishevelled but in a kind of still attractive way, like if one of the Hollywood Chrises (Chrisii?) was going for an Oscar by being gritty? Check.

Score: 6

Winner: The Sinking City.

Actual detecting skills of detective


The Sinking City
The coolest thing about The Sinking City, in my opinion, is that when someone tells you they have a problem at their house on the corner of Drizzle Street and Malaise Ave. or whatever, you don’t get a quest marker. You have to open the map and find that intersection, and chump on over (like that one bit in Frogware’s last Sherlock Holmes game, The Devil’s Daughter).

Once you’ve gathered clues, you might have to pursue different routes to analyse them. In the case shown, for example, Charles has to go to the library to find a book. Finding it involves inputting at least three bits of info about it (e.g. author, title, subject, period, etc). But another way to solve the case might be going to the museum, or hospital, or school, or etc. The city of Oakmont is an open one, so Charles can explore fairly freely and take on side cases if he feels like it. You know, like an actual detective.

Score: 9

Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu is way more linear. Edward is only taking on one case (The Case of the Artist’s Weirdo Husband and the Economically Depressed Whaling Community), though it allows for some variation in player approach – I got into a warehouse by convincing two lads on the door I was totally allowed in, while the player next to me snuck around the back and got caught by the leader of the local protection racket (that somehow exists on a tiny island with about 12 inhabitants).

In keeping with this being sort of an adaptation of a tabletop RPG, you can technically decide how good at detecting Edward is. As you progress you get points to put in skills like Strength, Eloquence, Investigation and so forth, which can unlock different dialogue options with the NPCs. The game also does a Spot Object roll for you when you enter some rooms, based on the stats you’ve chosen. If you roll well, there’s stuff to find. Roll badly and you’re shit out of luck. But after that it’s just a case of looking around the room for highlighted objects.

Score: 7

Winner: The Sinking City, though it’s worth mentioning that both detectives are able to do a Detective Vision style reconstruction of crime scenes using special detectoring instincts and/or being a bit occult.

Gun totin’


The Sinking City
We knew already that The Sinking City had some shooting in it, and so far it’s looking as uninspiring as it did in the first gameplay that we saw. Sorry, babes, but I’m much more excited by the exploring bit than I am the awkward basement fights with angry bits of calamari.

Score: 3

Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have any shootouts – at least not in the first third or so, anyway. Edward just grumbles his way around Darkwater, while the locals pronounce it “Dahkwater” and sometimes call him a landlubber. He does get into a scripted chase a couple of times, and there was a very basic sort of stealth segment while creeping around cultist caves. The worry would be that, having discovered the Cult Of Cthulhu is a thing, the game becomes more scripted chases than it is grumbling around with the locals. But there is, alas, no way to tell.

Score: N/A

Winner: Call of Cthulhu, by reason of not having any being better than having a slightly rubbish version.

Sanity mechanic


In The Sinking City your character is described as having a fragile mental state after a traumatic event, worsened by seeing anything horrifying e.g. a flesh teddy made out of a dog. It doesn’t seem to have to be related to the characters specific trauma. Just anything kind of weird and grim. It may be integrated in a better way, but who knows?

In Call of Cthulhu, Edward has a menu screen specifically tracking how sane he is, with swirly icons of insanity waiting to be filled. (Incidentally, the splash screens at the start of each chapter say Enter Madness when loading is finished. Tap A to enter madness.)

While I get that characters’ mental health deteriorating is a big thing in Lovecraft (and in the Call of Cthulhu TRPG), I generally think that in-game metrics measuring how sane a person is, and tying it to certain effects, isn’t a good thing. I say generally because in this case oh no wait, I still think that.

Winner: No score draw

Uncanny Valley metric


The Sinking City
We’ve only seen a couple of characters so far, but they all have a weird kind of fish-eyed look that works well in context. If you were going out to dinner with Oakmont’s residents, right now you’d still be waiting for them to put their faces on, as it were. The footage is early and the developers are still polishing the animations. Currently they look a bit like the local plastic surgeon was having a lunchtime special on forehead botox. There’s a kind of pained expression in the eyes too, but I’m assuming that’s intentional.

Score: 6

Call of Cthulhu
I was told what I played of Call of Cthulhu that its 95% finished, so it either reflects poorly on Call of Cthulhu or well on The Sinking City that the two games’ NPCs and animations can be compared quite favourably. It’s not the faces so much, but the movement, like puppets occasionally encountering patches of syrup while walking. It’s a bit disconcerting. The pockmarked, weather-worn features of all the sailors are engaging, though, and I was a particular fan of the local policeman Officer Bradley.

Score: 7

Winner: Call of Cthulhu, just.

Mouthfeel


The Sinking City
Challenging bite but may lose definition at the edges, like brie left out in the sun.

Call of Cthulhu
Mostly rich, soupy liquid (think bisque) but with an unpleasant fish bone here and there. Predictable chewy rubber bits to finish.

The Sinking City is currently slated to release on March 21, 2019. Call of Cthulhu is out on October 30, 2018.

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Alice Bell

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