Reproducing Lovecraft’s unique genre of horror in visual mediums is a challenging task. Lovecraft’s primary theme was that the unknown and unknowable were horrifying. The feeling of existential dread is more powerful when you imagine some terrifying reality, which is why many visual mediums struggle to reproduce that feeling. Call of Cthulhu is obviously inspired by Lovecraft, the question whether it can effectively replicate the cosmic horror that he was so keen on.
The premise of Call of Cthulhu is that you are a drunken investigator who has trouble getting a case. When approached by a wealthy man, you cannot deny their request to look into the death of his daughter, Sarah Hawkins. She, along with her husband and child, died in a house fire that was deemed an accident. Sarah’s father seems to believe there was more to the story, and he cites that there is a strange nature surrounding Sarah. As an artist she primarily painted deeply unsettling pieces, and her father believes that her disturbing art has a connection to her death.
You travel to an ominous island off the coast, and you quickly establish that something is terribly wrong here. The town is dilapidated, the citizens all seem delusional, and nobody seems to want you there investigating their business. Over the course of the game, the story will continue to unfold as you unravel the dark secrets of the island. It is a fairly standard Lovecraftian tale, rife with cults, sea monsters, and unspeakable horrors.
The story and atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu is by far the games strongest appeal. The atmosphere itself is fantastic. The entire world is dark, dingy, misty, and all-around unsettling. There are a variety of environments and set pieces that fit perfectly in a Lovecraftian setting. The game also does a phenomenal job at distorting reality. A common theme in Lovecraft’s mythos is madness, and Call of Cthulhu replicates that well. There are many sequences that will have the player questioning what events are actually occurring and which ones are dreams or insanity within the main character’s thoughts. What is less successful is the implementation of the story.
While I do think the narrative had some interesting moments, I don’t think it was particularly memorable or enough to carry a game. I was interested in the mystery aspects of the game, trying to deduce what was happening on the island. But for the most part, I think the story pulled in too many different directions instead of focusing on a couple of stronger and more fleshed out ideas. It almost feels like a collection of Lovecraft’s greatest hits, there are so many different elements at play in a fairly short game. Most of the characters get pitiful screen time, and it feels like each aspect of the story was rushed and barely came together in a cohesive manner. But my larger issue with the plot is a common complaint amongst most Lovecraft inspired media.
Unexplored places like the cosmos and deep ocean were central to Lovecraft’s stories, as they are real places that are unsettling to most people. What lies within them may be so inconceivable and terrifying that it would drive men to madness. At this point, most people who are familiar with Lovecraft already know about the Cthulhu mythos, the references to the occult, and the recurring imagery of the deep ocean. It feels like the writers of these newer stories are missing the point when they directly rip these concepts.
A successful modern Lovecraft adaptation would have to make the consumer uncomfortable. There would need to be unknown elements, things that don’t make sense and are incomprehensible. The feeling that humanity is insignificant when compared to what could possibly be lurking in the unknown reaches of the cosmos. Not just rehash the same themes and monsters that we’ve been seeing for a hundred years. Ironically, the most I’ve felt the signature cosmic horror feeling is in games that weren’t directly inspired by Lovecraft’s work. Visiting Dark Bramble in Outer Wilds, the BTs in Death Stranding, and the Mimics in Prey are all examples of this. It’s not a coincidence that I loved all of those games.
As a game with a focus on story elements, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the actual gameplay is pretty mediocre. There is a mishmash of various elements, with some RPG investigation taking the forefront most of the time. Aside from that there is stealth, puzzle solving, exploration, and combat. These range from inoffensive at best to frustrating at worst. But none of them really take up a significant portion of time and can be gotten through fairly quickly. I appreciate that the developers at least understood that gameplay was not the core focus of the game and didn’t let it get in the way too much.
The only gameplay element that was prevalent for the entire game was the RPG investigations. You essentially search for clues and chat with NPCs to gain information about whatever you are investigating. There are some options that will essentially require a dice roll depending on your skill levels. It’s a little odd that they relied on RNG instead of just pure stat checks here, there really wasn’t any need for a randomness element to be incorporated. This isn’t a game about exploring many different options. If I make a strong character, I should be able to pry open stuck doors. And if I make a charismatic character, I should be able to pass more speech checks. Not have to rely on some dice roll that really adds nothing except for a failure state.
My other gripe is perhaps expecting a little too much for a game without a focus on gameplay. As it stands, investigations are just ways of disseminating information. You click on a clue and the game will tell you its significance, and questioning characters is just an exercise in exhausting all of the dialogue options. I wish there was some actual investigating here. Make the player use their brains to figure out a scene, not just tell them after clicking on enough clues.
Overall, Call of Cthulhu is an at least competent Lovecraft experience. It doesn’t have riveting gameplay. It isn’t innovative in any capacity. And the story is just a rehash of the stories that we all know already. Despite this, it does have its moments of unsettling atmospheric horror. It is for these reasons I give Call of Cthulhu a 5/10. While it’s not revolutionary by any standard, it manages to craft a disconcerting world that will draw you in.