Cyanide’s eagerly-awaited RPG fails to live up to its potential.
Near the start of Call of Cthulhu, I arrive on Darkwater Island to investigate the deaths of a mother, a father, and their son in a tragic fire. I dock and immediately head to the dingy local tavern, The Stranded Whale. Everything in the place is coated with a thick layer of dirt and grime. A man sitting at the bar spits in my direction. Grumpy alcoholic Edward Pierce – that’s me – decides to stick it to this lowlife at the bar. I kick his stool out from under him and the man faceplants into the bar counter. I meet the scowl of the bartender. “In my bar, we don’t serve troublemakers,” he says.
I can test my eloquence and try to charm the guy, or I can test my strength and intimidate him. I know I’ve put points into my eloquence so I try to charm him. I guess I fail the roll. He’s pissed and refuses to serve me a drink. Later, I need the bartender’s services to accomplish my objective, and he won’t help me.
Call of Cthulhu borrows a skill system from its pen and paper inspiration. Unfortunately, that skill system is underdeveloped and often unclear. Like in my above interaction with the barkeep, Call of Cthulhu sometimes allows you to test your skills and roll for successful persuasions, but the game never tells you your odds of success. Later, I replayed the above encounter with a new character, having put no points into Eloquence, and succeeded. A fluke of luck, perhaps, but grating nonetheless.
More egregious is that the game seemingly forgets to include these opportunities most of the time, and they become even more infrequent as the game goes on. When they do appear, they rarely offer any interesting insights or alternative routes for success like the early interaction with the bartender did. Also, their relevance to the skill they’re coded as is often questionable: my proficiency in Psychology unlocked the option for me to tell a woman that she “felt guilty.” Right.
Meanwhile, one skill – the Spot Hidden skill – appears entirely redundant. At no point in the game did I invest points into my Spot Hidden skill, but I was still able to easily find all of the items that it supposedly illuminates.
Outside of dialogue, Call of Cthulhu’s skills ostensibly allow you to interact with your environment in various ways and discover different solutions to the game’s puzzles. It’s a strong idea, but again, any pretense of it is dropped early on. After the opening section – which included my above encounter with the bartender – Call of Cthulhu becomes decidedly linear, the game rarely presenting more than one option to progress.
One of Call of Cthulhu’s other prominent features is its Reconstruction mode. As a detective, Pierce has the ability to analyze crime scenes and figure out what occurred. Call of Cthulhu borrows this feature from better games like Detroit: Become Human and Batman: The Telltale Series – games in which the feature works, because the reconstructions make sense with the evidence that the characters find. But Call of Cthulhu’s protagonist, Pierce, often makes wild leaps of logic, and constructs whole scenes based on the smallest details.
I wish Call of Cthulhu had a more compelling presence at the heart of its story. Pierce is utterly devoid of personality; one in a long line of taciturn, unemotive video game dude protagonists. In fact, he is such an uninteresting cipher that Call of Cthulhu’s most enjoyable moments were when I was momentarily relieved of his presence. At one such point, I was allowed to play as one of the few women in the game; however, that women is quickly and violently dismissed from her role in the plot shortly thereafter.
Call of Cthulhu’s plot fares little better than its bevy of mostly uninteresting characters. Its plot wanders aimlessly. Pierce is thrown from one unremarkable locale to the next, spending a ridiculous amount of time in cells. I never felt like an active participant in the story, and neither did Pierce.
Finally, there’s a sanity mechanic that’s completely unremarkable. The game never bothers to explain it, and it virtually never impacts play.
Call of Cthulhu quickly descends into a confusing, uninteresting mess, its illusion unraveling as you realize that none of your choices matter. Its unsatisfying gameplay structure in addition to its forgettable story and characters make it difficult to recommend.