Video Game Review: Call of Cthulhu

"Enter Madness" is a pretty neat joke.
"Enter Madness" is a pretty neat joke. Screencap from Call of Cthulhu
I’ve been looking forward to Call of Cthulhu since the second it was announced. The game looked gorgeous, and it was coming from Focus, who’s excellent episodic title The Council is doing some very interesting things in the adventure game genre.

In practice, Call of Cthulhu is a mixed bag. Let’s focus on the good first.

The game perfectly captures the Lovecraftian atmosphere. The trippy dream sequence you open with feels like it was lifted right off the pages of “Dagon.” There is an air of menace and suspense all around. It’s low on actual scares, but the ones that do come hit hard.

I love how much attention has been paid to the greater Lovecraft mythos. Some of Lovecraft’s more minor themes, such as the corrupting influence of art, get top billing here. As an adaptation of the horror master’s work it ranks above pretty much any cinematic offering.

click to enlarge The Our Lady of R'yleh statue had me laughing. - SCREENCAP FROM CALL OF CTHULHU
The Our Lady of R'yleh statue had me laughing.
Screencap from Call of Cthulhu
I also like how the game has taken the skill tree leveling system used in The Council and expanded it. Our hero, Pierce, has seven stats that he can pour experience points into, unlocking various dialogue options and ways to play the game. Two of those, medicine and occultism, can only be leveled up by finding objects in the game, which is a really clever mechanic I wish more games would try out. This is a game where exploration matters a lot.

On the other hand, there are problems with this game. For one, it very much seems to be crafted out of the parts of other titles as if Herbert West were playing God with prominent releases of the last decade. It borrows Bioshock Infinite’s protagonist, The Council’s island setting, Amnesia’s madness mechanic, scenes ripped straight out of the first of the rebooted Tomb Raiders, and whole swaths of the last Thief including hiding in cupboards.

That’s not necessarily bad, but it doesn’t do any of these things particularly well. The madness mechanic is atmospheric but purely cosmetic with no consequences. The Thief-like stealth segments give you no warning that’s even how you’re going to play the game now and has zero of the elements that make stealth fun to play. So much of it feels derivative without meaningful experimentation on the aspects it’s mimicking.

click to enlarge It really is a very pretty game. - SCREENCAP FROM CALL OF CTHULHU
It really is a very pretty game.
Screencap from Call of Cthulhu
More disturbing, the puzzle design is just kind of rotten. The skill tree is supposed to change your options of play, and it does, but there doesn’t seem to be any quality control to account for those various play styles. I went for a well-rounded Pierce, and as a result the entire first chapter of the game was a bizarre exercise in trying to break into a warehouse without any of the skills needed to progress the various paths. I was reduced to asking a woman who had pulled a knife on me mere minutes earlier to help me, and she did for reasons in the game that seemed at best arbitrary and at worst condescending to me for not randomly guessing I should have put everything into the investigation stat.

This does get better as the game goes on. If you want my advice, pour everything into occultism in the beginning of the game as those boosts are less numerous than medicine and come later, and everything else should go into investigation for the lock picking skill.

I haven’t finished the game, though I did put about ten hours into it over the last day. The plot is hard to follow, but here’s the thing. I’m not certain it isn’t supposed to be that way. Very early in the game we’re given reason to doubt Pierce's sanity, and by the time you leave the first expedition to the Hawkins Mansion you honestly can’t tell if the game is messed up or your hero is. It plays with reality, maybe not as subtly as Dear Esther, but definitely in a way that is compelling. For all its flaws, I cannot put this game down. It’s a rabbit hole of intrigue and madness that draws me further and further in.

There’s one last major criticism: the price. This is not a $60 game. It’s a beautiful game with Triple A production values, but it’s just not a premium product. I mentioned Thief, and Call of Cthulhu reminds me the most of it. That game is one of my favorites, but it’s also a disjointed mess plagued by a strange development cycle that came out somewhat unfinished. Cthulhu is like that, riding on its famous origin to cover up technical flaws in conception and design.

I like this game a lot. It’s fun and spooky and probably the best Lovecraft video game ever made. People interested in the mythos and a good adventure game will enjoy it. Gamers more interested in a good game will probably find fewer things to like, and certainly not appreciate the price.

Call of Cthulhu is out now in PS4, XBox One and PC.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner