Investigate a dark town and the insidious evil hiding beneath it.
PC Release: April 26, 2006
By Ian Coppock
Hello everyone, and welcome to the 2016 review series, which I aim to make Art as Games’ most memorable. As I get back into the swing of things, I’d like to take a look at a few classic games that I’ve been meaning to write about for years, but never got around to. Tonight’s review is a critique of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Despite its commercial failure and numerous design flaws, Call of Cthulhu is significant for several innovations in the survival horror genre, and is thus worthy of modern reappraisal.
Call of Cthulhu is, of course, based on the eponymous horror-verse created by H.P. Lovecraft. It is a partial adaptation of The Shadow over Innsmouth, originally published in 1936. Despite a troubled development cycle and having several gameplay features amputated for the sake of time, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was well-received by critics nigh a decade ago. Unfortunately, it sold poorly, and frustrated audiences with its high difficulty and numerous bugs.
The game’s story is set in 1920s Massachusetts and follows Jack Walters, a former cop whose career as a Boston detective ends tragically. Walters, now a private eye, is hired to investigate the disappearance of Brian Burnham, a grocery store manager who’s gone missing in a creepy village called Innsmouth.
Walters arrives in Innsmouth, the dreariest seaside shitheap since the Jersey Shore, and immediately puts his police skills to use. Problem is, the locals aren’t talking. Most have claimed never to have even seen Brian, much less know of his disappearance. Even the town’s police department offers no help, but plenty of obfuscation. Cops rope off Brian’s store and threaten arrest if you attempt entry.
Walters notices other oddities about the town. The weather seems unusually cold and wet, there’s a big ziggurat thing in the middle of town, and the people… well… they look a little different.
As Walters, you have fewer tools than you’d like for snooping around Innsmouth. You have no weapons, at least at first, and must rely on stealth to get into restricted areas. Clues are scattered about various locales for you to find, and some are easier found than others. Stealth and investigative exploration are the two gameplay mechanics most present in Call of Cthulhu.
Another gameplay feature that caught my eye was the presence of a sanity meter. Walters will start to lose his mind if he stares at unsettling things for too long, and the game world will be distorted in response. Fictitious people, creepy voices, even demented whispers from Walters himself will fill your screen. And, if your bar drops too low, you might just commit suicide from the sheer horror of it all. Creepy stuff, but the sanity meter is a mechanic that would go on to be in my favorite horror game of all time: Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
The people of Innsmouth don’t like Walters poking around their town, and set out to kill him once he’s stepped on a few fins too many. Stealth becomes more crucial than ever as hulking fish-people stalk the streets, but we also see some gunplay introduced, with weapons drawn from the American arsenal of the 1920s. In fealty to its attempt at survival horror, Call of Cthulhu provides you with very limited ammunition, and maintaining it becomes as crucial as that of your health and sanity.
Call of Cthulhu also broke the gaming convention of its time by giving you no heads-up display. You have no visuals on your health, sanity or ammo. All of this is instead indicated by audio cues, from Jack’s grunt at a broken rib to a curse at being out of ammo. The game strips down the concepts of first-person shooters to give a more minimalist, immersive take on gameplay. You still have an inventory to peruse, but the usage of your items becomes another test of survival and resource management.
Anyway, after an attempt on his life and a severe drubbing from the local constabulary, Jack escapes into the underground to find respite from hordes of angry villagers. The search for Brian Burnham becomes more complicated when an FBI agent and a wealthy heiress step out of Innsmouth’s shadow, and Jack is thrust into the center of a wider conflict between the human race and a submerged demigod we know all too well. Cthulhu fhtagn!!!
So, what’s my take on this horror adventure set in a Lovecraftian play land? A survival horror game that bucks convention and is definitely the best digital adaptation of the Cthluhu mythos around today? Well, as with most games, Call of Cthulhu has its high points and low points. The high points are its intriguing narrative and spooky atmosphere, as you’ve hopefully felt from reading these words. The low points have much more to do with the game’s mechanics than its plot, and I think they ultimately ended up sabotaging its potential.
But first, the narrative. Call of Cthulhu is a well-written game, but I wouldn’t say it’s well-acted. All of our characters, including our sullen hero, deliver their lines with about as much emotion as can be found in a fish carcass. Jack Walters’s voice actor delivers his dialogue with nothing but drab monotony, even when giant fish-dudes with shotguns are trying to murder him. It breaks immersion when voice actors can’t facilitate emotions to accompany the written material, which in turn makes the game less scary. It also ruins character subplots, like a rather interesting series of flashbacks Jack has throughout the course of the game. These flashbacks would scare the hell out of a normal person, but he doesn’t bat an eyelash. So, what, then? Am I to treat these flashbacks as trivial?
The story’s other voice actors deliver similarly underwhelming performances. The beautiful heiress Jack hides with gives the yawniest oh-nos you’ve ever heard, even, again, when her life is in severe danger. It’s like the voice actors for this game trained for their roles by reading about the tropes of their characters, rather than actually practicing delivery. A very amateurish, very avoidable problem we have here.
On top of all this, can we admit that the grim alcoholic detective trope has only been used in, I don’t know, every detective story ever? This guy is hewn from the very core of flask-swigging private eye, and it shows. There’s one additional plot hole in which a person we’re evacuating out of Innsmouth just disappears for the rest of the game, with no indication of what happens to her next.
Call of Cthulhu’s more substantial issues are its high difficulty and number of bugs. The former concern caused many to furiously quit the game, and it’s something I came close to doing myself several times throughout this adventure.
Call of Cthulhu is hard. Not just in a gameplay sense, but in a repetitious, grinding sense. The game will force you to redo meticulously scripted scenes dozens of times, and won’t let you proceed until you’ve grit your teeth into dust. There’s one scene in which Jack is ambushed in his hotel room, and I had to practice a meticulous series of lockings and openings over a dozen times before I got to the next area. By that point, the initial horror of having my hotel room broken into by gurgling squid-women had been worn away by the game’s own design flaws.
The game’s minimized first-person interface also brings its share of problems. Though I applaud any effort to make games more immersive (you know, as long as it works) Call of Cthulhu‘s vocal cue system is confusing at best. Jack has a full library of groans and grunts for any number of injuries, and the game does jack shit in telling you how bad the owie is.
“Hurry, Jack’s grunting!” says Call of Cthulhu.
“Okay,” says I, “How bad is the boo-boo, are we talking a paper cut, or internal hemorrhaging, because all I see on my character screen is a big red dot.”
“Oh GOD, enough with the questions!” Call of Cthulhu seems to reply.
To be fair, the game does an alright job of alerting you to some ailments. If my character starts limping, I can infer that my leg is injured. But the game doesn’t tell you how close the injury puts you to death, only that you have it. You only know you’re dead when you suddenly keel over and die.
And finally, Call of Cthulhu‘s high amount of game-breaking bugs. My game crashed several times, the sanity meter wouldn’t work, I suddenly had no ammo, the grunts telling me I was injured didn’t sound off, my first aid kit didn’t fix the wound, the list goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on.
By now you’ve probably concluded that you’re not interested in actually playing Call of Cthulhu, based on the numerous issues I’ve listed. So, why review it? Because though it’s a buggy mess, Call of Cthulhu has a few diamonds in the seaweed. The sanity meter, adapted from earlier titles such as Eternal Darkness, made its 5th-gen debut in Call of Cthulhu and underwent major refinements. Experiments in sight and sound distortion would inspire later games. And though Call of Cthulhu‘s design is flawed in many respects, its core remains ambitious, eager to show how horror can enhance multiple genres of gameplay simultaneously.
Additionally, Call of Cthulhu has some great artwork. I’m not full of enough shit to tell you that it’s all aged well, but the level design is tight and the atmosphere is of top-notch dread. The game’s clammy clam shacks and rain-drenched windows have a way of making chills go down your spine, and all within a range of subdued, grimy colors. It’s not enough to help the game stick the landing, but it is enough to convince me that a lot of love was put into the production.
So, yeah. While you might not be in a huge hurry to play Call of Cthulhu, it’s a visually diverse game that helped spawn the modern horror game scene, with other developers taking from what it toyed around with. It remains an important part of horror gaming… though I’m not sure Lovecraft would be thrilled with it.
You can buy Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.