Call of Cthulhu full review

HP Lovecraft’s influence can be felt across modern gaming, from Mass Effect’s tentacled deep space gods the Reapers to the sanity-driven horror of GameCube classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

Still, there haven’t actually been many games drawn directly from the Cthulhu mythos, which makes the upcoming Call of Cthulhu a pretty enticing prospect: an exploration and investigation-focused horror RPG set in the Lovecraftian lore, adapted from the popular tabletop RPG of the same name.

We’ve been curious about Call of Cthulhu for some time, and were lucky enough to get to spend two hours playing through the game’s first three chapters at Gamescom 2018. Here’s what we thought after delving deep into the Cthulhu mythos and coming out with our minds not entirely unscathed.

Call of Cthulhu: Release date and platforms

First announced way back in 2014, this game has been in development for years, with a change of developer and multiple delays along the way. The final version has been made by Cyanide Studios, and is finally on the way to PC, PS4, and Xbox One, with a release set for 30 October 2018 - just in time for a Halloween all-nighter.

Call of Cthulhu preview

The first thing to know about Call of Cthulhu is that it’s actually based on the tabletop RPG of the same name, rather than Lovecraft’s original ‘Call of Cthulhu’ story, which has left the devs free to craft their own narrative while drawing on the role-playing game’s mechanics.

That means that, like the tabletop title, this has a firm focus on exploration, investigation, and psychological horror, with very limited combat. Broadly speaking, if you get into a fight you’ve probably done something wrong, and there are good odds that you’re going to lose.

Instead you’ll spend most of your time exploring the island of Darkwater, an old whaling island near Boston. Set in 1924, you play as Edward Pierce, your classic traumatised alcoholic P.I. hired to investigate the mysterious of a young painter, along with her husband and son.

As you explore Darkwater you’ll have to talk to the locals (who don’t much like strangers round these parts, obviously) and dig around the environment looking for clues like newspaper clippings, documents, or simply anything that looks a bit odd.

In certain areas you can also trigger a ‘Reconstruction’, which borrows liberally from countless games. The screen picks up a sort of hazy border and as you piece together the clues in that room a series of ghostly figures will appear, re-enacting key moments as Pierce deduces them.

As with any good tabletop-style RPG, it pays to be diligent, and as you collect clues you’ll unlock new dialogue options which may in turn yield extra information or ways to achieve your goals. You can revisit all of those clues at any time in the menu, which includes just about every detail of the island and your investigation, so there’s reams of text to read - if you’re so inclined - and the option for any budding detective to pore over the clues and try to solve things for themselves.

Finding clues mostly consists of walking around and looking for glowing points you can interact with, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for. Some clues will require a check against one of the game’s various skills, so if your level in that is too low you might not figure anything out at all.

Those skills are Strength, Eloquence, Investigation, Medicine, Spot Hidden, Occultism, and Psychology, and while Pierce begins the game with certain stats set, you’re also given a few points to allocate, and will pick up more as the game progresses, seemingly from hitting certain key story points or solving specific puzzles.

You can assign those character points freely as you gain them - sometimes even picking up four of five at a time - and each gives you a five percent boost to a given stat. The only exceptions are Medicine and Occultism, which you only assign points to at the very beginning of the game - after that you can only boost them by collecting medical textbooks or occult items during the game.

The end result of all that is a system that makes your character stats narratively important, as they’ll dictate the methods you can use during the game. If your Eloquence is high you might be able to get into a warehouse by persuading the guards to let you in, while high Strength might mean you’re able to force the rusty old mechanism that controls the hidden entrance round the back.

There’s also some sort of sanity system in place, though this didn’t come into effect much early in the game - other than one are that drove Pierce into a panic, with a warning that his mental state might degrade if he stayed there too long. That’s about right for the mythos - ‘look at unknowable evil too long and it’ll screw you right up’ is pretty much Lovecraft’s whole vibe - but we’re not sure right now exactly how it’ll play out in terms of mechanics.

The story itself is fairly linear, it must be said - don’t expect a sprawling branching narrative here - but you have the freedom to shape the specifics of how your version of Pierce gets there.

This is a Lovecraft game though, so things inevitably get somewhat dark - within the opening seconds in fact, as Call of Cthulhu wastes no time throwing you head first - literally - into blood and gore as you come to in a pile of rotting whale guts.

Beyond that cold open the game’s horror elements - at least in the first three chapters - are more about tone and suspense than outright scares. Don’t expect lots of things to jump out at you from dark corners as you make your way around Darkwater. What’s more likely to get you is the slow creep of dread as the dank, oppressive setting begins to weigh on you - all of which should be music to any Lovecraft fan’s ears.

And oppressive it is. Darkwater is dark and damp, occupied mostly by sailors, smugglers, and the occasional whale carcass. The first two hours only begin to touch on the setting’s more occult elements - think creepy cultists, elder gods, and legend of a giant whale with especially delicious meat (don’t eat the magic whale meat, folks) - but it’s clear that Call of Cthulhu comes from a place of love for Lovecraft.

Pierce can use a lighter to see the way as he explores - or a lantern if he finds one around the place - but these come with their own limitations. Oil is a finite resource, and while we didn’t get too close to running out in this early section, we suspect managing it becomes crucial later on. Keep the lighter on for too long and it’ll get too hot to hold too, prompting Pierce to yelp and put it away to cool down - leaving you stuck in the dark at what could be a very inopportune time.

If we have one concern right now, it’s that the writing is occasionally clunky, with some slightly disjointed conversations and typos in the subtitles. Still, this comes from a French studio and the English localisation is probably still being finalised, so we’d expect to see all those details ironed out by the time the game releases at the end of October.