When Cthulhu calls, you had best answer, lest the Lovecraftian horror sucks your brains out through your nose or drive you to insanity. So, I went to check out Call of Cthulhu, the investigative RPG set in the Lovecraft Universe. From developer Cyanide Studio, most recently known for the Styx franchise, you play as Edward Pierce, a former war veteran and private investigator. Taking place in the 1920s, Edward travels to Darkwater Island, to investigate the death of Sarah Hawkins, an acclaimed artist.
I had a chance to watch the developer play through a couple of sections of the game. We began with the obligatory horror scene of our protagonist travelling to the decrepit mansion, cut off from the world by a rusted iron gate. We’re here to investigate the dubious circumstances surrounding a fire that killed a mother and child. Edward isn’t satisfied the police report told the whole story, so it’s time for the gumshoe to earn his keep.
The scenery is pretty standard horror fare. You’ve seen the old mansion before, the winding pathways in disarray, the general air of foreboding and expectation. The obligatory murder of crows leaping from a bush to scare you. A few steps later and we’re standing in front of two graves, flowers resting by their epitaphs.
These graves mark the point where we’re introduced to the main mechanic of the game: information. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is the weapon your beat the Lovecraftian horror with. Accruing information, learning about your environment, and then harnessing it is the main pillar of Call of Cthulhu. By examining the grave and the flowers, we gain some info we’re told will come in handy very shortly.
Winding up the path, we eventually arrive by the mansion, its bricks charred and weathered. The front is closed, so we head around the back to the service door. It’s locked. Wham. An axe slams into the wall. It belongs to an old housekeeper, who isn’t too pleased about you being there. You enter into a standoff with him, prompting a dialogue tree, where your skills define the options you can take. We chose aggression and stole the axe off him, then gave it him back so he would calm down.
He’s still not happy we’re here, so we needed to bring him to our side. You tell him about the flowers, thus engendering a bond, to which he gives you the keys for the service door so you can find out what really happened. This act then makes the old housekeeper our chum.
People you interact with in Call of Cthulhu are added to a list; some are hostile towards you while others are friendly and some can even be recruited, allowing you access new areas and open up new pathways. However, if you would have failed any of the checks with the housekeeper, you would have been forced to find an alternate route into the mansion. The main stats that influence your game journey are broken into three categories: social (dialogue/intimidation), knowledge (to better understand your world), and progression (be able spot more things in your environment) .
With the key in hand, we then headed into the mansion. While we were only shown a snippet, the team assured us the entire house would be searchable upon release. The design of the house itself will be familiar to anyone who has played a slew of first-person horror games, or ingested any kind of early 20th century horror. Of course, we’re in the dark, in a mansion, in a horror game, so that means we need to unleash the lantern. It gives you a wider sphere of light, allowing you to pick out more potential clues in your environment. Light is a resource, and the lamp requires oil. When that ran out, we had to use a lighter instead. Now, I’m no historian, and maybe I’m wrong, but it looked like a zippo-style lighter, which weren’t invented until the early ‘30s, and the wonderlite at the time looked a lot different. Maybe it’s nothing; maybe in a world full of lovecraftian horrors, I shouldn’t be worried about that kind of thing.
Anyway, aside from pulling objects into this realm from the future, psychology is another skill Edward possesses. This lets you examine certain objects; we used it on the painting, which showed the dead mother and son, standing by a car with something in the background. Did it show leaves or a fire? We didn’t have enough points in psychology, so we could not draw a conclusion.
Spooky paintings aside, we pushed further to the scene of the crime: a charred room in the mansion. Here we examined the crispy outline of the boy, a man’s prints on the doorway, a clock stuck at a certain time, and a smashed lamp with traces of blood on the floor. From this, you’re supposed to deduce a conclusion to the events which transpired.
Obviously, the police report doesn’t seem up to scratch, and by using our powers of deduction, we find that the lamp was thrown at a man, who bolted out of the room, subsequently causing the fire. Giving our investigative abilities a nudge in the right direction, there was also a magnifying glass icon which shows there are clues nearby. When all is said and investigated, you have to choose the most relevant clue(s), and if you’re correct, you can follow the “correct” path in the narrative: the clock and the lantern were our choices.
With that puzzle solved, there was a jump from chapter 3 to 6. Previously, in a report, there was a painter mentioned who was a little obsessed with the family. So we have come to check out his private galleria/office, where there are lots of things set behind glass, including daggers, which were mentioned earlier as some kind of fetish of his. It was this time we learn about the various afflictions that Edward deals with. We are told he is claustrophobic, while standing right next to a set of closets… boy, I hope something doesn’t force us into those to, say, hide from a beastie.
As you explore the gallery, gazing at the strange items and curious, you are drawn to the painting on a platform in the centre of the room. Like any good P.I., you investigate the painting, unleashing a horror into the world. This is where Call of Cthulhu’s “stealth” elements enter the fray. You must hide behind objects to avoid the prowling horror, trying to find a way to send it back to whence it came. This leads us to hide in the wardrobe while the beast makes the rounds. Entombed in our wooden coffin, Edward’s heartbeat begins to rapidly increase…
This was the point in time to introduce the sanity gauge/system. There are decisions you make in the game which affect this, for better and for worse. With the more sanity your lose, the more things like hallucinations happen, even going so far as to wrest choice from your hands and force Edward to act independent of your inputs. This sanity tracker functions like a score, so at the end of the game, you can see how well you did. The more knowledge you have, the more prepared you are, then it will be lower. The team stressed Call of Cthulhu’s focus on choice and consequence, mentioning multiple outcomes to scenarios, paths and the game endings.
While slowly going insane, we had time to think and were informed that Edward had previously learned about the man’s fetish for daggers, and that they may possibly be supernatural. Using this weaponized knowledge, we grabbed the most supernatural-looking dagger and rammed it into the painting.
But no, we did not know enough, so the demon materialized in front of us and proceeded to ram its claws into our chest. RIP Edward.
Call of Cthulhu, by design, leans on a lot of visuals and supernatural themes that may seem a little over-saturated, with the Outlast’s, Layers of Fear, and Amnesia’s of the world. However, the emphasis on investigation, choice, and hard-core Lovecraftian themes may be enough to elevate the game above the rest when it releases in Q4 2017 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.