When it comes to describing horror games, the term “Lovecraftian” gets thrown around whenever it’s time to talk about gross monsters, loss of sanity, and a general fear of the unknown. I mean, H.P. Lovecraft’s name is synonymous with horror (and racism and xenophobia) and plenty of writers are inspired by his earlier works, but rarely is the term Lovecraftian used as anything meaningful — it’s like calling a game a Soulslike or a Doom clone, which have become throwaway, generic blanket terms in their respective genres.
Rather than basing their work solely on the writing of Lovecraft, however, the developers at Cyanide were mostly inspired by the 1981 pen and paper RPG of the same name when they took over development duties after Frogwares (known for their Sherlock Holmes games) left the project. With the subtitle “The Official Video Game” slapped onto the box, it’s important to remember where the inspiration came from. This is very much a first-person horror game steeped in otherworldly mysticism and monstrosities, but also heavily leans into the “role-playing” aspect when it comes time to solve puzzles and converse with the locals.
It’s as much an adventure game as it is horror, and while some genre faithful may find the slow-burn narrative and pacing, the branching conversations, and skill trees often found in RPGs to be a turnoff, I beg to differ. This isn’t a great horror game, but it is a damn good (here we go again) Lovecraftian adventure that favors atmosphere, consequences, and narrative instead of being swarmed by a constant barrage of monsters. It’s inspired by Lovecraft, after all. It’s supposed to get in your head, not in your face.
Call of Cthulhu Colon The Official Video Game tells the tale of a down on his luck private investigator named Edward Pierce, set in 1924 Boston. You’re on the verge of losing your license, yet purposely avoid hunting down new cases. The recurring nightmares certainly don’t help and neither does the sleeping pills you chomp down on a nightly basis. As luck would have it, should a concept exist, an elderly gentleman shows up at your door with a “simple” request: investigate the mysterious death of the Hawkins family, especially its young mother-slash-artist, out on the island of Darkwater. That name isn’t ominous or anything — insert Brooklyn Nine-Nine cool, cool, cool, cool, cool meme here.
Why would he come all the way out to Boston, though? It turns out that Mrs. Hawkins suffered from severe mental stress and the sole painting she left behind was particularly disturbing. You know, that Cthulhu type shit. Insert another “cool, cool, cool” meme here for good measure.
So you arrive in Darkwater, the totally not ominously-named shithole that used to be a thriving whaling town until the legendary “Miraculous Catch” of 1847 saved the citizens from starvation. We’re talking a whale so big that it fed the entirety of Darkwater multiple times over. But then the whales thinned out and modern-day Darkwater still suffers the aftermath, now inhabited by bootleggers and drunk fishermen eager for work. They’re a superstitious bunch too, sneering at Pierce and thwarting his progress along the way.
Darkwater is a brooding mass of rock with plenty of dark secrets and shady characters, and the entirety of the game tasks you with seeking them all out. A lot of your time in Call of Cthulhu is spent exploring, questioning the residents of Darkwater, and piecing together the overarching mystery, using role-playing attributes to spice things up.
Being an investigator, you can allocate skill points into a variety of attributes that allow Pierce to pick locks, spot hidden clues, outsmart the village idiots or straight-up punch them in the face during conversations. These neat abilities play their way into conversations, and I’m always a sucker for more dialogue options, but they also determine what and how you interact with certain objects in the environment. For instance, heavily investing in one particular skill will allow you to pick a lock and avoid a progression-blocking puzzle entirely or spot hidden clues to aid in your investigation. It’s rad.
What also plays into the story and how you interact with people is Edward’s sanity, which takes a bump whenever you make questionable decisions or read occult books. It’s kind of like exchanging a piece of real estate in your brain for more knowledge and skill points. I really wanted to dig into Pierce’s instability and by the end of the game, he was so off of his shit that I was fluent in and could reply in R’lyehian.
Between all of the neat story stuff, though, is some pretty mediocre, forgettable stealth scenarios and boss encounters. Basically, when Call of Cthulhu transforms from an adventure game to a horror game, it kinda fails. There’s a late-game puzzle that was poorly explained and had me wandering aimlessly for an hour before I caved and looked up a walkthrough, and both boss battles had me rolling my eyes.
The video game stuff isn’t the highlight of Call of Cthulhu, though. Those aspects are admittedly poorly executed and the same can be said about the Fallout NPC-looking character models and their accompanied voice-overs (which was disappointing, given that Pierce is voiced by Anthony Howell, who was absolutely INCREDIBLE as Dr. Jonathan Reid in Vampyr). But the story… the story is some good stuff and if you dig brooding, eldritch horror, then this is a game well worth checking out.
Call of Cthulhu is a weird game to recommend since it’s obviously catering to horror fans, but likely just a small percentage of them. It’s probably more for folks who enjoy story-heavy genre entries like SOMA, Detention, or Stories Untold, but ALSO actively want to experience the RPG side of things, rather than something combat-heavy like a Resident Evil or a game like Outlast that barrages you with anxiety-triggering chase scenes and jumpscares.
I’m a story guy, though. And I enjoyed the tale Call of Cthulhu weaved quite a bit — so much so that it was easy to overlook every single one of its shortcomings. It’s not for everyone, but what video game is?