Posted on 29 Oct 2018 by L Coulsen

Call of Cthulhu

The Defence

Developer: Cyanide
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genre: Adventure, Horror
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: No data.

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i5 3450 @3.1 GHz
AMD FX 6300 @3.5 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB
AMD Radeon HD 7870 2GB
HDD: 13 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Unknown
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i7 3820 @3.6 GHz
AMD FX 8370 @4.0 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 4GB
AMD Radeon R9 390 4GB
HDD: 13 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Unknown
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Ahh, Lovecraft. Long considered the Granddaddy of horror, for good reason, his works have seen many an adaptation over the years. Some good, some less so. But all too rarely have we seen a truly great entry, in any medium other than his original literature. Silent Hill probably stands as the best representation of his style of horror, at least in spirit. Though the strongest contender with the actual name attached would be the table-top roleplaying game by Chaosium. Which this latest video game is based upon. Brought to us by Cyanide, who are perhaps best known for the two Styx games, and published by Focus Home Interactive, my personal favourite publisher. So let’s take a look shall we.

The Trial

Powered by the good old Unreal Engine, one can and should expect a high graphical standard, which the game mostly delivers. However, some stylistic choices may not be to everyone’s liking. Each area you visit has its own flavour, mostly in the form of a consistent colour gradient and filter. Some of which work better than others. The main town of Darkwater, for example, is a very cold blue/green coupled with a thick fog. It does lend itself well to an oppressive, grimy atmosphere, but it can be a little too thick and overpowering in places. This certainly fits with the theme of the mythos, but makes things unpleasant to look at perhaps a little bit too well. Other areas are less, intentionally, ugly though. And I personally very much appreciate just how distinct the look and feel of the different environments can be. You can tell, at a glance, where you are once you have familiarised yourself with each locale.

Textures are equally varied, with few repeating, even in areas that look very similar. The sanatorium (it’s Cthulhu, of course there’s a sanatorium) in particular had some top-notch art design. Each corridor had its own feel to it, allowing players to easily get their bearings even in a later stage of the game. When reality starts to bend and our erstwhile protagonist finds himself being shifted around the place by the will of the elder gods. It’s a stand-out section of the game actually, really hitting things spot on for that sense of otherworldliness that so many other attempts at the medium have fallen short on.

Another strong point in the game’s favour is that our boy squidface is never, really, actually seen. Nor should he be. His presence has always been a more insipid, implied sense of dread. The chief antagonist, if such he can be called, is one of Cthulhu’s children, the aptly named Leviathan. Whom the protagonist, Private Investigator Edward Pierce, comes into direct contact with along the way. Alarm bells aringing for anyone even moderately familiar with the lore. Yep, his sanity does not come through too well at all, and does indeed play a large roll in both the narrative and game design.

Yep, this is fine.

A large, but not overt, part of the game is trying to stop Eddie going totally batshit. Something that is much easier said than done. See, when it comes to Lovecraft, one thing he made clear. Death is not what you should be afraid of. Nay. Rather, ’tis far more worrying that you might survive, having first-hand knowledge of exactly what is out there. And that leaves a few marks. As such, you will find yourself assailed by harrowing visions that come out of nowhere. But also, just as with the RPG it is based on, the only way to really deal with the problems at hand, is to learn more about them. Which requires actively seeking out arcane lore, which leads to an assault on your sanity. Something that is contextualised extremely well by the game. There are a number of instances when you will stumble across occult works, and you are given direct control over whether or not Edward will examine them. Meaning his ultimate mental wellbeing is entirely at your discretion.

This was an excellent decision on behalf of the dev team. Far too often we see games that force the loss of sanity on players. And though this, too, is an underlaying theme of the mythos, relying on this method solely robs the world of much of its sense of existential dread. Personal choice has always been a strong element of what makes Cthulhu so chilling. It preys on Human curiosity, never coercing but still compelling us to dig deeper. We doom ourselves to the seductive embrace of madness, naively believing we can somehow turn out the victor. When all we are doing is giving squidface exactly what he wants.

Each of the game’s multiple endings encapsulates this perfectly. With none of them being what one would call ‘happy’. Even though you are given a degree of control, even a vague impression of choice, every outcome is just a variation of “well that’s another fine mess you got me into, Stanley”. I’d argue the ‘best’ ending is the one where Edward lands himself in the above-mentioned sanatorium. Implying that he was there all along, and everything that transpired was nothing more than the ravings of a madman. A trite, overused cliche perhaps, but one that is perfectly in line with the subject matter at hand.

Gravity! My only weakness!

There is indeed a lot to praise about Call of Cthulhu, but that is not to say it is without flaws. The visuals are above average, yes, but my word are the animations wonky. This is especially confusing considering Cyanide have shown themselves to be most adept at making games look absolutely spectacular in motion. It is possible the wooden, almost clockwork soldier, movements of all of the game’s characters is a stylistic choice. Perhaps intended to put the player in a state on unease and subtly suggest that everything is already going to hell in a hand basket. Like everyone is just a clumsy marionette whose strings are being plucked at haphazardly in idle amusement, and if so, that’s a great idea. But the overall effect is still a little jarring and just feels a little underwhelming compared to the standards most games now strive for.

Voice acting is an equally mixed bag. None of them are what I would call bad, with even the worst still being perfectly acceptable. But they mostly range from average to about okay. Edward Pierce himself, voiced by Anthony Howell who recently voiced the protagonist of DONTNOD’s Vampyr, is the stand-out. He brings a real sense of barely contained madness to every line. Really selling the idea that Edward is a damaged man desperately trying to make up for the atrocities he witnessed during the, then named, War to End All Wars.

My only other complaint is that the puzzles range quite widely in difficulty. Most of them are obtuse, but simple enough to feel satisfying, whilst there are a few that are laughably easy, and one that was frustratingly unclear. At about the midpoint, you face off against a creature called The Shambler. Locked into a small, private museum area, you can’t confront it directly, and without any familiarity with the source material, it may become infuriating due to the lack of hand-holding. The ultimate solution is actually head-slappingly easy, but the time spent sneaking around trying to figure it out might well be enough to ruin the game completely for some. Without going into spoilers, my advice is to pay close attention to the environment and the narrative leading up to this point. Because the game is more than worth sticking with.

No! Don't! Go!

Overall, the game functions well mechanically, with both mouse and keyboard and controllers being equally viable. Though the latter is clearly and overtly the intended control scheme, there is nothing that prevents the former from being usable if one should so desire. The only issue was towards the very end, when there is a brief combat section. Using a firearm, you shoot and sneak your way through some possessed locals. It’s not difficult to do, just point in their general direction and press the fire button, but that is the problem in itself. It is so easy, it might as well have not been there.

The stealth mechanics, however, now those were a genuine surprise. Despite being the focus of the game, they work extremely well. There’s the typical motif of crouch to move slowly, making you harder to hear, but it does add a little bit more than that to keep things interesting. By stripping back the efficiency of the AI, you can pretty much just walk, or even run, around wherever you want. Which sounds terrible on paper, but within the game makes the stealth sections feel quite tense. As NPCs will try to hunt you down, and it’s an instant game over if they get their grubby little mitts on you. So making it so relatively easy to avoid capture allows the game to progress without the kind of frustration some games can have in these situations. There are also very few of the obligatory press use to enter type hiding spots. There are some, but spending any amount of time in them makes Edward extremely uneasy. Rather, it is far better to move behind an object and just stay out of an enemy’s line of site. You know, like you’d do in the real world.

Mechanically, the most interesting aspect of the gameplay is how it stuck so closely to its Chaosium roots. Featuring a levelling system that encapsulates a spattering of setting appropriate skills. These range from knowledge of the occult, to investigation and psychology. With many of them playing a part at the same time during both conversation and environmental investigation. For example, you may first explore the scene of a crime using investigation and the Spot Hidden skill, but then use your knowledge of psychology to better contextualise how as well as what exactly happened. Most of these skills can be levelled up as your earn character points, but the Occult and Medicine skills require finding books and other materials throughout the course of the game.

What was that noise?

Best of all, just about every major puzzle has multiple solutions, all affected by your relative abilities. For example, at one point Edward is tasked with opening a concealed door. With potential solutions ranging from solving a rather complex logic puzzle based on longitude and latitude, to forcing the lock by brute force, or using the Spot Hidden skill to find a crowbar. The latter being absent from the game if your skill level is not high enough. That last part might seem a little cheap, but it works well in this instance. Rewarding players for being careful about how they approach levelling up.

The meat and two veg of the game is firmly rooted in conversation and observation. But where some games would make this a flat line of “have skill or don’t”, the more freeform approach means that there is not one true right way to do things. Even your sanity factors in, with new dialogue and interaction options becoming available as Edward becomes more unhinged, and thus more susceptible to seeing things from the perspective of the hidden ones. And though this is still a far cry from the degree of agency some may be looking for in a game, it is most firmly a step in the right direction and allows each player to really feel like the adventure is their own. It also gives a much greater incentive to play through multiple times, just to see what will change based on your choices. Both in skill point allocation, and your approach to the world and characters you will meet along the way.

The Verdict

All in all, Call of Cthulhu is a very good game. The wonky animations do marr it somewhat, but not nearly enough to ruin the final product. And though there is not really any way to come out with a good ending, each of them works well enough in their own right, that they are correctly contextualised by the game world and narrative themes. Think of it like an anti-climax done right. Everyone being arrested at the end of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. Though far less goofy. And that’s all she wrote. There is room for improvement, certainly, and I really hope that Cyanide is given another crack at it. Because they do a superb job this time and I would love to see more from them in this franchise.

Case Review

  • Atmosphere: Dull, ugly and exactly what one would want from a Cthulhu game.

  • Mythos: Using something other than Cthulhu himself is a very, very refreshing change.

  • World Building: The skill tree allows a fair degree of variation on what, and how, players can approach a given situation.

  • Puzzles: Clearly not the focus of the game, even having such a wide array of possible solutions does nothing to stop them feeling a little lacklustre.

  • Animations: Though they are not terrible, they are certainly underwhelming and easily the “worst” part of the game.

4 Score: 4/5
Going insane has never been quite so satisfying


  • Graphics: Fullscreen/windowed modes, resolution, various quality options including VSync and render scaling.
  • Game: Subtitles toggle, crosshair toggle, and detection setting.
  • Sound: Global, music, voice, and sound effects sliders.
  • Controls: Gamepad input diagram, rebindable keyboard controls, camera sensitivity, invert X and Y toggles, and vibration toggle.


4 Score: 4/5

Call of Cthulhu is a game overburdened with atmosphere, like the most oppressive Mythos stories every encounter is filled with dread and uncertainty, and not just encounters with the supernatural. Even those unfamiliar with the setting get a rapid crash course during the first hour of the game taking you on a whistle-stop tour of dead whales, vandalized statuary, seedy docks, drunken sailors, and suspicious locals, amongst other things. It’s at these moments that the game really shines. The writing and characters are all excellent and more nuanced than we’ve come to expect from video game characters and the environmental design can practically make you feel the sucking mud of the dockside or past fears and events of a location.

I’d love to go into more detail on these things but that’d be spoiling the surprise and mystery, which is one of the game’s major strong suits. You actually feel like a detective learning things while playing even if the game’s scene recreation mechanic doesn’t come into play. Little details like the placement of flowers can give the perceptive clues without the developers having to ram them down your throat. Even the most investigative players will be hard pressed to solve the central mystery before the game’s big reveal but, like a great unknowable horror, you’ll probably glimpse the edges of it and gain a partial understanding.

The game’s pen and paper roots show through with a simple but well executed skill system and hidden stats tracking various things like sanity that will change depending on the actions you take. Reading a mysterious book you find on the floor might be appealing in another game but in Call of Cthulhu it might cost you a chunk of your fragile mind. You’ll likely also be maddened by the more action oriented sections of the game – a portion of shooting so boring and easy as to be pointless, and one particular encounter with a monster that caused me serious frustration because I knew what to do but couldn’t do it because the AI was too sensitive. Thankfully these frustrations are few and far between. Also of small concern are the often hilarious and unpolished animations during dialogue; teleporting limbs and sliding people will occasionally do their best to ruin an otherwise tense encounter but aren’t bad enough to spoil the whole experience.

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