Focus Home Interactive’s reputation for creating daring tie-ins to lapsed license continues. This time we’re taking a peek into the unknowable with Call of Cthulhu, which is based more off of the pen-and-paper RPG of the same name than the original work written by notable author H.P. Lovecraft, who once referred to people of colour as a "beast filled with vice". Call of Cthulhu is another attempt to wash away Lovecraft’s inherent racism and establish a legacy of cosmic horror but without the early 1900s prejudice.
With that said, adapting a work by H.P. Lovecraft – whose horror is so often incited by fear of the “other” – you can’t help but be reminded of where this game came from, its origins, and its attempts to divorce itself from a toxic legacy. There’s not even really a debate to be had around the uncomfortable nature of Lovecraft’s writing when viewed through the lens of modern society, and the developers of Call of Cthulhu have to reckon with that fact.
Call of Cthulhu takes place just after World War One, where you take up the role of Edward Pierce, a war veteran who wrestles with nightmares, drinks like someone is going to take it away from him and self-medicates a little too much, too. At the beginning of the game, Pierce is tasked with finding out exactly what happened in a mysterious fire on the fictitious island of Darkwater. From this initial setup, Call of Cthulhu shows its hand as a game where you have to explore and investigate your surroundings, peering deeper into the mysteries of Darkwater, and talking to its many inhabitants.
The atmosphere that this breeds is darkly oppressive, with the game’s dank and dreary palette further serving this gothic tale of cosmic horror. It manages to build tension easily, and a few hours into the game, you’re quickly wanting to know more about Darkwater and the monsters just creeping beneath the surface. For those who are familiar with the works of Lovecraft, this setup quickly unravels. This is no fault of the game itself, but instead, one that arises with the sheer saturation of Lovecraftian horror games that we’ve played in recent years. Soon the story beats become rote, and you start to know exactly what the unknowable is.
Exploring as Pierce is great, and you’re able to assign points to traditional tabletop RPG stats such as Psychology, Eloquence, Strength and more. As you dive deeper into Call of Cthulhu, you’re able to level these up and unlock more options within the game. However, the usage of these is based around percentages which then, in turn, use a behind-the-scenes dice roll, which can feel frustrating at times.
The first-person exploration feels solid enough, and throughout Call of Cthulhu, you’re presented with a wealth of choices and options. The game is operating as its prime when you’re walking around as Pierce, but we can’t help but feel that certain missions give you more limited choices in certain scenarios, and the numerous forced stealth sections are a detriment – as they tend to be to any game they’re placed in. When paired with some frustrating puzzle-design, the unknowable madness of Darkwater may as well have been the act of playing through Call of Cthulhu all along.
It’s a mild complaint about an otherwise competent game where your detective and P.I. skills are put to the test in an interesting environment and setting. As we said previously, the environment is thick with atmosphere, and fans of the genre will find everything they’re looking for while playing Call of Cthulhu. However, there are some technical issues that the game suffers with, too.
Just as Pierce stares into the abyss, we stared at our own personal abyss, which was our face’s reflection on the Nintendo Switch screen while stuck on one of Call of Cthulhu’s many lengthy loading screens. Paired with flat, basic visuals where textures can appear to be muddy, it’s pretty safe to say that Call of Cthulhu is very much in the same ballpark as games such as Elex and the Sherlock Holmes series when it comes to polish and presentation – which is to say, the game might attempt to deliver a certain look and feel with ambition, but falters somewhat on a technical level.
There are some pretty significant framerate issues within Call of Cthulhu when inspecting objects and exploring large areas. It’s glaringly obvious where the game falters, and while undocked the experience is playable, it’s hard to really enjoy things through the flat textures and low overall performance. That said, it does look reasonably impressive when you remember the hardware that it’s running on.
Call of Cthulhu manages to deliver a game that’s ripe with atmosphere but is built upon tried-and-true tropes of the genre that never really manage to evolve beyond the scope of what’s already been seen and heard before. Paired with some technical hiccups, we can say that Call of Cthulhu is only really for truly dedicated fans of Lovecraft; everyone else is advised to look elsewhere for their entertainment.