Though he was a xenophobic racist, H.P. Lovecraft was also an inventive writer of occult horror stories that have inspired and influenced everything from the Hellboy comics and misspelled Metallica songs to episodes of South Park and, just recently, The Simpsons. And that’s not even counting all the books and comics by Alan Moore, Clive Barker, William S. Burroughs, and many, many others. And yet, attempts to translate his works into the medium of video games have largely fallen flat or just been superficial in their liberal use of tentacles. But in the new adventure game Call Of Cthulhu (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC), Lovecraft’s unique aesthetics are well crafted into an interesting adventure game. Well, if you’re in the mood for observation over action.
Inspired by the 1926 story of the same name — and, more to the point, the classic 1981 pen & paper role-playing game that was also inspired by Lovecraft’s tale — Call Of Cthulhu casts you as Edward Pierce, a Boston private investigator in 1924 who’s hired by a Mr. Hawkins to investigate the death of his daughter and her family. The woman was a painter, and was either clairvoyant or insane, and it’s her instability, the police believe, that led to the fire in her house that killed her and her family. But since her dad doesn’t believe this, he’s hired you to go to the island where they lived and investigate the fire.
And investigate you shall. For the bulk of what you do in Call Of Cthulhu is spent looking around, examining things, and occasionally talking to people to find out what they may know. You also, using an alternate vision method, examine such crime scenes as the fire in a manner that’s similar, though simpler, than what Batman did in Batman: Arkham Origins. (Which is fitting given that Arkham Asylum, the fictional psychiatric hospital in Batman’s comics that gave this series its name, was a nod to the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham in Lovecraft’s novellas At The Mouth Of Madness and The Shadow Out Of Time.)
This, however, is largely the limit of the action in Call Of Cthulhu. While your conversations work like those in Mass Effect Andromeda, the game is played from the first-person perspective, and you do occasionally use a gun, this isn’t a first-person shooter with conversations, scavenging, and deep customization. While there is a leveling up system, it’s not that deep, and while you do look around, it’s not to find treasure, currency, or resources. All of which makes this more like such Sherlock Homes games as The Devil’s Daughter and Crimes & Punishment than Fallout 76 or Far Cry 5. Though it’s still decidedly a game and not a glorified interactive movie like Detroit: Become Human.
Even solving problems in Call Of Cthulhu isn’t that complicated, as the solution often just requires you to look around. For instance, early in the game you find a trap door that’s connected to a rope and pulley, and have to find its missing parts. But unlike most games, where you’d put them in the right place on the apparatus, and then move them in the correct order, here you just plug them in and turn the crank.
Similarly, when using the aforementioned Batman-esque alternate vision mode, you hold in two triggers to activate it, but then just look around like you normally do. And you do even less when picking a lock. Instead of including a mini-game or some similar gameplay mechanic, you just sit there and watch as Pierce picks it himself.
This is not to say that Call Of Cthulhu is completely passive. More that the challenge, such that it is, comes from being observant and knowing what to say to people. Items you need to examine don’t glow or have any other visual clue that makes them stand out in the world, while just random picking dialog choices can backfire.
Of course, because of all this inaction, Call Of Cthulhu is not for everyone, especially not action junkies. You just have to be in the right mood for this game. Not just the mood to be scared — and more psychologically than by things jumping out at you — but also for what you will and won’t be doing when playing it.
As for how the video game version of Call Of Cthulhu compares to the pen & paper RPG…sorry, I never played it and have no idea how faithful or deviant this might be. Though this is clearly not a virtual version of that table top game. Unlike Space Hulk: Tactics, which digitally recreated the real-world mechanics of the table top strategy game Space Hulk in video game form, Call Of Cthulhu is a video game, and requires no knowledge of the physical version to understand or enjoy.
But I can say, having read the titular story and other Lovecraft tales, that Call Of Cthulhu does do a good job of adapting the vibe of his horror stories to an interactive experience. While it doesn’t have much, what it does have works well, and in concert, to really give you the same sense of dread as Lovecraft’s story has for more than ninety years.