On the surreal, gritty, isolated little strip of land known as Darkwater Island the Hawkins family has met their untimely demise. Our unlikely hero, washed up Private Investigator with (or without, depending on what you choose) a drinking problem Edward Pierce finds himself in danger of losing his license if he doesn’t take on a case. The first to fall into his lap is that of the Hawkins family, and so in order to preserve his livelihood, Pierce accepts the case and sets out to Darkwater in order to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of the young family. It is up to the player to guide Pierce through unnerving narrative that starts as a simple murder investigation but quickly devolves into a surrealistic romp with the occult that is based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
Call of Cthulhu’s gameplay is rooted predominantly in a classic pen and paper style RPG, which gives players the option to characterize Edward Pierce in whatever way they deem ideal. Pierce has several optional skills that can have character points attributed to them, with each skill having drastic effects on how Call of Cthulhu’s narrative is experienced by the player. Should you choose to put your points into Eloquence, for example, uncovering details about the actual events going on around Darkwater Island from its inhabitants becomes dramatically easier. Choose strength, instead, and you may find yourself more apt to rely on brute force and broken noses in order to convince NPCs to turn loose of vital details that you need to progress.
Other skills, such as psychology and hidden spots, help the player discover more clues hidden among the world and determine the motives of the other characters. Likewise, Pierce’s knowledge of the Occult and Medicine can both be increased though players are forced to go off the beaten path in order to discover books on the respective topics that are hidden in the game. Finding these hidden books is easier than it may sound, however, as there are plenty of instances in the game that you’re encouraged to look for alternate routes. If Pierce’s lockpicking skill is low, there may be an option to encourage NPCs to create a distraction for you, or to muscle your way through a boarded up doorway. Despite a fairly linear narrative, Call of Cthulhu still manages to present several different ways to approach each obstacle which does a fantastic job of keeping the low key gameplay from feeling stale or dull.
While the RPG element of Call of Cthulhu is important, most of the gameplay is spent searching for clues. There’s a few layers involved with that, as well, as Pierce can see the obvious clues that are laying about, as well as some more carefully hidden ones that glow green if the appropriate skill is leveled up enough. Additionally, Pierce has the ability to ‘reconstruct’ certain scenes, allowing him and the player to glimpse into the past for additional clues and memories that can help fill the information gaps in your investigation. During these reconstruction sequences everything in the room becomes slightly hazy, adding to the unnerving atmosphere already solidified by the game’s dingy, muted color palette.
While Call of Cthulhu’s environments, which range from the claustrophobia inducing tunnels of underground caves all the way to the decrepit corridors of an insane asylum with a penchant for torture and experimentation, are undeniably detailed the character models placed in the world do suffer from some visual anomalies. These include scenes where characters are clipping through the environment in awkward and unusual ways, or their movement animations are just plain old janky and erratic. Even the player’s camera control suffered at times, with the crosshairs lingering just beside of an item that could be interacted with but then becoming ‘stuck’ and not actually selecting the specific item. Likewise, Call of Cthulhu suffered from several crashes during our time with it for review, resulting in lost progress that required segments to be replayed. It is worth noting, however, that for the purpose of this review the game was played on an Xbox One S, and that these problems may not be evident on other versions of the Xbox console.
With any luck Call of Cthulhu will see a performance patch in the not so distant future, as the game is truly an enjoyable experience when it functions properly. The game manages to use atmosphere and circumstance to create unease and discomfort, rather than relying on jump scares or other cheap horror tricks. The story contained within is uniquely intriguing, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for replayability. Still, Call of Cthulhu is a madness inducing joyride that Lovecraft fans or those looking for a twist on the typical RPG experience are not going to want to miss out on.