Call of Cthulhu Hands-on Preview – A Taste of Madness
Call of Cthulhu managed to creep me out, which if I’m honest, is not particularly difficult. But being in the middle of an immensely busy, loud and unpleasantly warm convention centre, I wasn’t quite expecting it.
I’ve seen it a few times before and honestly wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy the two hours I got to play. The series is based on the pen and paper RPG, which in turn is based on the legendary H.P. Lovecraft work. It’s a title that feels like it may have missed its opportunity, at least on paper. A couple years ago the world could not get enough of the apocalyptic Great One, but since then his popularity has somewhat diminished.
But perhaps that works in his favour. Just like the Lovecraftian lore, there is something worryingly familiar about his presence. We all know some of the basics, the tentacles, the madness, the whispering in dreams, even if we don’t know anything concrete. And it was with this half-knowledge that I began my journey to Dark Water.
Unfortunately, I had thought this opening sequence had confirmed my worries about the game. While searching for a warehouse, I was assured there were several ways of achieving my goal. With a background in pen and paper, Call of Cthulhu has multiple skills you can invest in to try and unlock particular routes, but I was struggling. As you play as a private detective, I had decided to invest in the equivalent of charisma, with the notion of talking my way in and out of trouble, but nothing seemed to work for me. I had found the warehouse, but from the police officer guarding the front to the bootleggers at the back and even the drunkards at the side, I could not convince anyone to help me. It wasn’t until I stumbled into another warehouse that I could progress, and even then, it wasn’t certain. To open a grate on the floor I had to find some hidden objects. The only problem was the game didn’t tell me what the objects were or where to find them.
Being rebuffed by the various NPCs then stumbling around in a warehouse had left a distinctly poor taste in my mouth. But after investigating the warehouse and making my way to a nearby, abandoned mansion, things started to change.
Although it did begin with another awkward conversation. The groundskeeper wasn’t happy to see me, but I was able to convince him to let me explore the building. The problem was, I didn’t think I was very convincing. The dialogue sort of defied its own logic, but the axe-wielding old man was skill pacified. But that was forgettable and may well have been the game pitying my previous attempts my conviction.
If like me you only really know about Cthulhu through the pop culture phenomenon, you may well have heard of the Mansions of Madness also based on Lovecraft's seminal work. This periphery knowledge made the derelict grand house all the more spooky. The typically olden design, with long stretching corridors and huge hanging paintings reminded me of every ghost story and Scooby Doo episode I could think of. And then it started to creep into my skin a little. The level design here was top notch, and I can only hope it is replicated throughout the rest of the game.
It's also here that the story started to pick up the pace to something more suited to a thriller. Twists that left more questions then answers, as well as a chance to peek into the slightly off-kilter world just below the surface was more powerful then I expected. I don’t want to talk about it much here, as I feel it might spoil the experience for people to go in with too much information about the subject. But the camera work and level design meant that you would walk into situations without seeing the full picture, only to be surprised and spooked when you things start to fall into place.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about this, and since this is about the only section of the game we’ve seen except for a glimpse of a museum last year, it feels like we might not see a lot more until release. Its branching skill based options might feel underwhelming, but a truly unnerving story and plenty of room to miss and find secrets makes it well worth keeping an eye on.