Things are stirring in the deep. Beyond the lamplight, the shadows are moving. Unseen design permeates Call of Cthulhu – unknowable forces shaping your destiny, and your playthrough. Narrative and gameplay intertwine to give the game a palpable sense of dread. It’s incredibly atmospheric, as you guide the unsteady footsteps of Detective Edward Pierce towards his unfurling fate. What horrors await us? The great dreamer? The leviathan? An underwhelming ending?
I’ll give you a hint – it’s the last one.
The greatest monster in Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have tentacles. Rather, weight of expectation is the true villain, as the game is crushed by its own excellence. Seriously, the first two thirds of this game are fantastic. The design is a little rough around the edges – a naff character animation here, repeated dialogue there – but there’s a real sense of style, of place. Darkwater Island isn’t some unrelenting nightmare, a Shutter Island mash of tropes. It’s an oily black pool, dragging you into its murky depths.
Call of Cthulhu’s two greatest strengths are its protagonist and its gameplay. Sure, Detective Pierce is a little on the nose – a hardboiled war vet with a drinking problem and strong conviction, both ready to be exploited by the horrors that away. But a living script and excellent vocal work keep you moving forward, even if only doom lies ahead.
Second is the gameplay. Cthulhu throws a range of gameplay mechanics at you over its well-paced running time. To explain any would spoil that sense of unknowability; Pierce doesn’t know what he’s getting into, and neither do you. These sections are atmospheric but don’t linger – the mechanics themselves are at best thin and at worst clunky, and it only takes an extra minute to see through the cracks. Thankfully they’re bolstered by excellent level design. It’s not all growing hair and horse testicles, but its more than enough to ground this chiller in reality.
The game’s bread and butter is investigation – you’re supposed to be a private detective after all. This all works fairly well, jumping between standard conversation wheels and snooping about hunting for clues. The standout is Cthulhu’s ‘recollections’. These spooky sequences task you with reimagining the crime scene, as ghosts shift around you to reveal the nightmares of the past, and hint at those to come.
Call of Cthulhu sucks you in and propels you forward. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of agency; the final act is essentially a walking simulator, dragging you from cutscene to cutscene before wrapping up hours of intrigue with some shockingly binary choices. It’s clear some aspects of the ending change depending on earlier choices – but it’s not pleasantly murky so much as frustratingly obscured. Cthulhu isn’t in need of a mechanic to lay it all out, but this weak ending doesn’t get you excited for replays in the way that it could.
Lovecraft Lovers will definitely get their pound of green flesh out of the whole experience, while more extreme horror fans might find this chiller a little tame for their interests. Unfortunately, it’s hard to recommend Call of Cthulhu without a caveat: horrors await, in more ways than one.