Call of Cthulhu was in development for so long that it had become a welcome friend at Bethesda’s E3 showings. The waves crashing over the ship’s bow sequence made its appearance in 2003 and 2004, and the anticipation for the game’s eerie, Lovecraft brand of pacing and horror had worked itself into a fever pitch. Some rather rabid Lovecraft novel/adventure gaming fans were reported as having gone insane from staring at the ever changing release date. But was it worth it? Dare you gaze upon a scene of horror so intense it could quite possibly drive you mad as your feeble human brain tries to wrap itself around its meaning? Could the buggy controls and graphical glitches drive you to the brink of that madness before the horror gets its chance? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding and obnoxiously loud “YES!” delivered into your ear through a bad Vincent Price impression.
What any potential player should know is that Cthulhu delivers a gameplay style in which the pacing and presentation are more closely related to old school adventure gaming than today’s twitchy finger standards. For some this can be the main reason to avoid the game, and for others a full-bore reason to recommend it. As private investigator Jack Walters, players enter this horrifying tale via a missing person case in the town of Innsmouth, a shanty of a place whose locals treat strangers much the same way Sweet Haven’s treated Popeye on his first day in town. Every step of the investigation brings more bizarre circumstances to light, including the fact that Jack himself suffers from amnesia and is prone to various non sequitur flashbacks every now and then. It also seems appropriate to say that players enter this ‘tale’ rather than this ‘game’ as that’s what playing through Cthulhu feels more like… stepping into the world (and mind) of H.P. Lovecraft himself.
Your initial impression of the game would be that you’ve just buckled yourself into a first-person shooter. Although you would not necessarily be wrong for thinking that, the game is far less a shooter as it is a thinker. You will not come across any firearms for a good portion of the title, and once you do you may find yourself wishing that you didn’t, and even pining for the gameplay style of the title’s initial sections. One of the main draws in terms of the title’s presentation is its completely clutter-free interface. Yes, Jack’s vision is completely devoid of meters, health bars, ammo counts, or any of the usual ilk fans of FPS are used to. When Jack is getting his tail whipped by an enemy, spurts of blood will appear around the edges of the screen (his field of vision) and he begins to loose color in his eyesight. Jack’s wailing and cries of pain are also a clue as to how badly a player has been hurt, and you will not be able to move about very well if you’ve really been put through the ringer. There are first aid kits about to perform the usual healing techniques, but you’ll need to find a quiet spot to take care of the more serious injuries. Also, Jack is subject to various bouts of mental anguish including panic attacks and hallucinations and these cause various bizarre and interesting effects to appear in his eyesight. Lovecraft’s work revolved around presenting horrors so imperceptible to humans that they would go insane from looking at them, and in this regard the title does a great job. It’s reminiscent of the effects from Eternal Darkness, a remarkable title on the Nintendo GameCube.
As stated before, the game is much more of an adventure title than shooter. There are several brain teasing puzzles to overcome, but none of them are too obscure or heavy as to grind the game to a halt, Discworld style (those out there old enough to be hardcore fans of the point-n’-click adventure genre know exactly what that means). There are both memorization puzzles and your typical find-key-to-lock puzzles littered throughout. The best moments the game has to offer are not its shooting or thinking moments, but rather its run away in sheer, stark terror sequences… these bits are some of the finest methods for creating real fear in gaming today (Resident Evil 4 has some of the same type of scares).
The times in which Jack does handle a weapon seem to be the clumsiest. The controls in these areas feel just a little too shaky and inaccurate. Players get to handle machine guns, rifles and pistols and the like, but the sequences themselves seem like such an afterthought that they convey a real half-baked type of gameplay. That is not to say that the whole bottom drops out of the enjoyment of the game the second you acquire a firearm, but it does seem to be a secondary thread to the game’s main investigative sections.
Considering that the investigative end of the game is where the real enjoyment is, the fact that it shares its own set of problems is a bit… deflating. For instance, like any other adventure title you must manipulate subtle objects in order to progress. Cthulhu makes it so difficult to manipulate a simple object that often things that should be simple to accomplish become needlessly frustrating. The ‘hot spot’ for being able to open, say, a locked door can be so pinpoint that you just might miss it and waste time searching for other avenues.
Although not swathed in pretty textures, the game’s graphical presentation and modeling is pretty decent (Jack’s got this ‘thin Russell Crowe’ look to his face). That is, of course, when it’s not glitching. The sound effects and eerie orchestral presentation really create an amazing tale of terror, and the character dialogue is believable (considering what you're already buying into story-wise).
All in all, Call of Cthulhu is an amazing adventure title full of horror and thrills throughout its fantastic story. It’s also a game full of glitchy little problems that can wear away on your nerves before the sanity meter gets full. If you’re a fan of detective-work type games, old school point-and-clicks or survival horror titles, this game is highly recommended. If you consider Halo 2 to be a bit too slow for you, you’ll want to look away immediately.