For many years there's been a disturbing lack of Lovecraftian video games but after FMV title The Infectious Madness of Dr. Dekker and the turn-based Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, we're now getting treated to a proper horror adventure in the shape of an officially licensed Call of Cthulhu video game (a pen and paper game first released in the early 1980s). It's a busy time for fans of Cephalopods.
This game follows the trials of Edward Pierce, a World War I veteran turned private detective who's struggling in his new profession, with life, and memories of the war. He's taken refuge in alcohol and sleeping pills and as a result hasn't been getting around to solving many cases. Under pressure to clear cases, he takes an assignment to look into the deaths of the Hawkins family on an island called Darkwater not far off the coast from Boston. Sarah Hawkins was a famous artist and her wealthy father seeks you out in order to convince you to take the case. There's not much to go on other than a mysterious painting and a shipping label that suggests it's been sent from a warehouse on Darkwater Island. Sarah, her husband Charles, and their son supposedly died in an accidental fire, but the police report is sketchy and mentions Sarah's mental state, which triggers the feeling that there's more to the story.
Darkwater Island is as depressing as it sounds. A small settlement built around whaling, but the whales no longer frequent the waters, and there's not much to do except to drink. At least not on the surface of things. It starts out fairly straightforward, but as you'd suspect from there on it's a downward spiral into the occult where you'll never quite know what's real or not, who's friend or foe, and if you're even acting according to your own free will.
From a gameplay point of view, things are also evolving throughout the game. At first, it is mainly a narrative adventure where you solve puzzles and explore dialogue trees, but as the game continues there are stealth sequences and even action scenes, and your dialogue choices come with more in the way of consequences. There are also scenes where you recreate a sequence of events by examining clues. Similar to The Council, the episodic occult mystery game from the same publisher, there is a slight RPG element here where you spend points towards abilities. These abilities, in turn, will see you pass or fail various skill tests. It's a fairly limited system, and while some options or choices are only available with certain skills levelled up, it doesn't really have a huge impact on your path through the game.
Call of Cthulhu is never top of the class in terms of any of its mechanics but it's all solid and works for this sort of game. While most of the game is played in fairly linear fashion in smaller environments, there are levels that open up more and allow for exploration. However, there's a bit too much trial and error to the game design in some cases and at times your objective is a bit obtuse which leads to some mild bouts of frustration. While we appreciate a game that doesn't always hold your hand, we do feel like there should always be ways to be able to succeed without having to fail first.