Hands-on with this year’s RPG investigation game, just in time for Halloween.
Call of Cthulhu, Cyanide Studios’ RPG investigation game based on the pen and paper game of the same name, based on the HP Lovecraft short story of the same name, aims to emulate the rules of the former and the mood of the latter. Its first four chapters make good on the promise of an atmospheric, slow-moving horror experience that feels rooted in Lovecraft’s world, but I’m still wondering just how much your decision making affects its outcomes.
Call of Cthulhu puts you in the shoes of private investigator Edward Pierce, a grizzled veteran hustling for a struggling business out of his lived-in New England office in 1919. I really loved the attention to detail here: old leather-bound books, yellowed newspaper clippings and dim lighting made me want to settle down in Pierce’s office with a cracked glass of whiskey, which is, incidentally, what Pierce does a lot.
His call to uneasy adventure is to investigate the mysterious death of a family on the remote whaling settlement of Darkwater (so remote it’s pointedly indifferent to prohibition), and the moody atmosphere continues here. It’s in the bars, where down and out fishermen drink because there’s nothing else to do, it’s in the spilt guts of a whale washed ashore, and the deep lines on the faces of the heavily-Boston-accented characters. It’s all pretty gorgeous, and very Lovecraftian.
It’s at Darkwater that Call of Cthulhu’s gameplay loop becomes clear. Like the pen and paper game, you invest character points, gained through experience into your skill tree, which makes you a better detective. Putting points into eloquence, strength, medicine, psychology, ‘spot hidden’ and occultism all theoretically make your mystery solving job easier.
This is most transparent when talking to the various NPCs scattered around Darkwater. If you don’t have enough points in eloquence, for example, tough luck getting what you want from the bartender. Or if you don’t have enough invested in psychology, you’ll be rebuffed by a cop who you try to reason with.
You can also apply your skills while exploring. If you don’t invest enough in strength, you’ll theoretically struggle with turning a handle to open a trap door, and hidden objects will be harder to find without enough invested in the spot hidden skill. Ultimately though, none of this really seemed to matter. I still turned the handle with a low strength rating. I could still find enough clues to proceed without much invested in the hidden spot skill. Hopefully, as Call of Cthulhu progresses, there’ll be more transparency around how these skills work, and how you can use them more obviously to your advantage.
More opaque still is Call of Cthulhu’s ‘sanity meter’. Cyanide is talking about this as a ‘late game’ feature, so there’s not much I can add at this point, other than throughout my time with Call of Cthulhu Pierce would have nightmarish visions, and as his experiences got progressively weirder he began to have panic attacks. In the pen and paper game, your sanity can be measured by temporary insanity, indefinite insanity, and permanent insanity – I’m curious how it will play out here.
I had fun with Call of Cthulu’s reconstruction mode, which is a more straightforward means of video game detective work. Walk around a scene to find clues, which gradually unfurls a sort of spiritual manifestation of what happened. I liked the detail in the clues – a treasured photograph, a shoe discarded under a table, a painting with a hidden meaning. I should note, though, that at one point during the build I played, Call of Cthulu became seemingly ‘stuck’ in this mode until my demo ended, making a dramatic moment pretty anti-climatic.
And there is a lot of drama in Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraftian stories concern themselves with seemingly ‘normal’ people gradually losing their sense of reality, and my demo ended with a cult in an underground cave, squirming fish guts and tentacles coming from places where tentacles shouldn’t be coming from. It’s fun and a little scary, and I’m looking forward to the full harrowing journey Cyanide promises to take me when Call of Cthulu comes out just in time for Halloween, on October 30th.
Lucy O’Brien is Games & Entertainment Editor at Tech’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.