Call of Cthulhu is a first-person horror adventure set in an appropriately disturbing universe based on the works of author H.P. Lovecraft. The game's 3D-rendered environments are not static, as windows can be broken and walls can collapse, adding to the sense of the unknown and encouraging player interaction. As the adventure progresses through diverse locations, the player will also be called upon to pilot a variety of different vehicles, including an airplane, a submarine, and even a dogsled. Multiplayer features are supported, as up to four gamers can join for cooperative play over a local network or the Internet. Online players can also face off in deathmatch battles.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is the story of Jack Waters, a hotshot police detective who's called to a mysterious mansion one night in 1915 to investigate a bizarre cult that's been terrorizing a local town. When cult members begin taking shots at the police, Waters runs inside (without a weapon) to investigate. What follows are his first steps into an ongoing nightmare that threatens to consume his soul, his sanity, and his life -- and not necessarily in that order.
Cut to 1922. Waters is now a private investigator with amnesia, struggling to piece together what happened to him in the six years since he walked into that house. When he takes on the investigation of a missing grocer in the isolated town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, he gets more answers than he wanted, at a greater cost than he ever imagined.
The greatest strength of Call of Cthulhu can be boiled down to one word -- atmosphere. The game does a superb job of transmitting the kind of gut-tightening, nerve-wracking sense of fear and paranoia that Lovecraft's stories thrive on. This starts with the storyline. The script is based primarily on two of Lovecraft's classic stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "The Shadow out of Time," although no familiarity with the stories is necessary to play the game. In fact, not knowing anything about the storylines might actually enhance the experience, as the player can better share the sense of unfolding horror as Jack slowly discovers the hidden secrets of the town of Innsmouth, including just what happened to the missing grocer, why a town with no discernable industry has so much gold floating around, and just what that strange disease is that's making the surly townsfolk so... fishy.
That terrific atmosphere of lurking horror can be attributed to several things. From a technical standpoint, the graphics are pretty far behind the curve (the game was in development for years and delayed repeatedly), but that's more than made up for by excellent, if disturbing, art design. The predominant palette of the visuals is drab browns and grays that give the entire game a washed-out sepia look that evokes the feeling of an old photograph. The rundown town of Innsmouth feels dirty and creepy, artifacts associated with Cthulhu and other mythos entities are often beautiful in disturbing ways, and the game's monsters are exceptionally freaky, particularly the shoggoth, a shapeless blob of eyes and mouths that the player must fight in one memorable battle sequence.
The game's sound effects also contribute a lot to the proceedings. They range from the subtle, like the poisonous wind whistling over the rocks of Devil's Reef, to the full-throated roar of Dagon and the gurgling cries of the Deep Ones. Weapon effects, particular the staccato rattle of the tommy gun, are meaty and satisfying. The music, consisting mostly of deranged-sounding flutes and drums, is subtle, but well done, and the sounds of tearing flesh or snapping bone (sometimes Jack's when he gets injured, sometimes that of other people meeting gruesome ends) had me wincing more than once. The only false note is the voice acting; the dialogue is mostly good, but most of the voice cast is merely passable, especially the voice of Jack Walters himself, who can be menaced by the most unearthly horrors imaginable and still sound like he's ordering lunch at a local bistro.
Jack's steady voice is even more puzzling when one considers how much effort went into the game's "sanity" system. Jack's not really the most stable sort to begin with -- among other things, he suffers from acrophobia (the fear of heights). Then there's his problem of continually running into grotesquely murdered people and shapeless horrors from beyond space and time. The more of this stuff he sees, the more it affects his perceptions. As Jack starts to lose his mind, the screen will blur, he'll get double vision, the image will swim, time will slow down, and the player may even begin to hear voices whispering things into his or her ears (this works really well while wearing headphones). Eventually he may go irretrievably insane and become catatonic or, if he's carrying a weapon, turn it on himself. These effects are really well done, and trying to aim a gun, time a jump, or avoid a swinging tentacle while the whole screen is swimming adds a whole new dimension to some of the game's encounters.
The biggest thing that pulls players in, though, is the sense of immersion generated by the game's invisible interface. Unlike most video game heroes, Jack's a pretty ordinary guy, and like most ordinary humans, he can't take a lot of physical damage, nor does he have some sort of magic "health meter" or anything else on the screen to tell him when he needs to stop and apply medical treatment. Instead, the game lets the player know Jack's been hurt by splashing blood on the screen, slowing down movement speed or screwing up his aim when he breaks a limb, and slowly draining the color out of the world as he loses blood. This dynamic works quite well in the game. It takes time to apply specific sorts of medical aid (bandages, sutures, splints), which means that it can't be done during combat. That means that players need to make plenty of judgments about when to attack, when to retreat, and what monsters to avoid. There's nothing quite like watching the color drain out of the world as you bleed, desperately hoping it'll stop on its own because you're hiding behind a crate with a Deep One walking the hall and you're down to your last bandage.
In fact, the game's at its best when Jack has no weapons at all and is forced to hide and run to avoid a whole host of nasties. Early on in the game there's a brilliant sequence where Jack wakes up with a horde of angry Innsmouth citizens at the door of his hotel room, and he's forced on a panicked run though the town, desperately locking doors behind him and piling up furniture to get a few precious seconds of lead on his pursuers. Those times when Jack is armed, however, and can turn the tables on his tormentors, seem to drain all the fun and fear out of the game. When the player isn't running from enemies or whenever the action isn't scripted, it becomes painfully obvious just how stupid the creature AI is. Most of the game's levels are also designed around narrow hallways and tight corners perfect for running, dodging, and hiding, but simply miserable for a straight-up FPS. One particular sequence in a refinery in the middle of the game could easily have been jettisoned.
The biggest source of frustration, however, has to be the save-game scheme. Much of Call of Cthulhu involves scripted action sequences and environmental hazards that often require a trial-and-error approach, and I often found myself replaying segments of the game up to eight or nine times to figure out exactly how to get through. This isn't so bad if you can jump right back to where you died, but Call of Cthulhu uses a console-style save-point system with checkpoints spaced so far apart that I'd be forced to watch the same unskippable cutscenes and run through the same five to ten-minute segment multiple times to make any sort of progress. It's as bad as game design gets.
It's a mark of just how much this game sucked me in, though, that I was willing to undergo these moments of frustration in order to get to the bottom of the mystery of Innsmouth. Despite the occasional missteps, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a more than fitting tribute to its literary inspiration. It's also a great way for fans of real horror to give themselves the heebie-jeebies for a dozen hours or so. Just don't play it late at night, alone.
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