Ia Cthulhu! Ia Dagon! There, am I part of your little cult now, you crazy fish people?
Cthulhu is practically a household name. So many people know or have heard of H.P. Lovecraft and his series of stories about the strange inhabitants of Earth before the age of man. Cthulhu is the most famous among these but if you read enough of the stories you can see almost all of his creations have been a huge influence in many designs in games, books, and films.
Released in 2005 for the Xbox and 2006 for the PC, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was one of the very few games released by British developers Headfirst Productions. The game was a critical success but unfortunately not a financial one and though a sequel was planned, Headfirst was dissolved before any work could be done.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a first person action adventure, stealth, puzzle, horror game. It’s quite the mash of genres really. The player is put in control of Detective Jack Walters, once a police detective but now a private eye after a mental breakdown. The first scene shows Jack in Arkham while a brief bit of narration hints at the terrible horrors he has witnessed. It then flashes back to Jack’s time in the police and a raid on the home of a cult that have planned a mass suicide. Jack has been asked for specifically by the cult leader and is forced to investigate the strange house.
During the events of the raid Jack suffers a mental breakdown. We re-join him a number of years later, though he suffers from amnesia and cannot remember the events after the cult raid. He has become a private investigator and gets called to Innsmouth to investigate the disappearance of a clerk. Innsmouth, as Lovecraft fans will know, is not a place to visit, you don’t want to be there unless you are a local as Jack soon discovers. Following an assassination attempt Jack is left with very few allies, trying to escape the town and its strange, violent people.
The game is an odd blend of good and bad mechanics and story. Visually it hasn’t aged fantastically well but the overall design, with washed out colour and very foreboding locations, stays pretty fresh. It also features a pretty well realised sanity system, as one would expect from a Lovecraft inspired game. Though there isn’t quite the depth to it that some of the early trailers suggested, no hallucinations of people turning into monsters, it is still very well done with camera distortion, muffled sounds, and the very unsettling things Jack starts saying to himself as he gets crazier. The combat in the game is designed to be realistic with no heads up display (HUD) at all. When using guns you have to either judge the shot or aim down the sights for accuracy and if you are injured you don’t have a health bar telling you you’re about to die.
In fact the health system is one of the things I really enjoy about the game. It’s a blend of regenerating health and a health bar. When you are injured your character suffers actual injuries, broken bones, lacerations and such like, which you have to heal using various medical supplies, bandages, sutures, splints, and antidotes. It means you can generally ignore lighter injuries but if you take a bad fall or get hit hard by a bullet you’re going to bleed out or be seriously affected.
The overall feel of the game is pretty great. There is a sense of wild desperation in combat and when you’re trying to sneak by enemies the tension is palpable. The storyline is pretty good and deep but there isn’t always a great deal of time dedicated to helping the player know who this ally of theirs is. I suppose it’s part of the realism, it’s implied that Jack already knows about most of these people and so doesn’t need expository dialogue to identify them.
I’m not wholly fond of a game that grades you at the end on how well you played it but I am ok with that. What does annoy me is that the game basically punishes you for saving, if you save your game more than a certain number of times then it penalizes you on your overall grade. I suppose the idea is to increase tension, so when you mess up a certain bit you can’t just reload to five seconds beforehand, but if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t always have the time to sit down and do a good few hours of gameplay then you’re not going to find out or unlock everything in the story.
The stealth mechanics can also be a little bit dodgy. It could be another attempt at realism which is a very strong possibility but as it stands the stealth sections can be a little bit fiddly to navigate without being spotted almost immediately. If you think about it as realism, however, it takes a bit of the edge off the frustration.
Unfortunately for me the biggest complaint I have is the story and atmosphere in the second half. It is still good, don’t get me wrong, but once J. Edgar Hoover turns up with the FBI and Innsmouth is now being raided by the government you lose a bit of that tension that the game has been so good at building up to now. It by no means ruins the experience but it makes it feel less like a Lovecraft story.
If you’re a fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos you’re going to get a lot out of this game, lots of extra details and references are all gained from reading the stories and it’s good to see some of Lovecraft’s work realised on screen. There is still some very good gameplay here but some people might find the combat and the health management system frustrating. If you’re a fan of survival horror you’re going to have a good time because unless you’re careful Jack’s story is going to end in suicide or bleeding to death with broken limbs in an Innsmouth alleyway. So enjoy and remember, if you’re staying in a creepy town full of hostile people, bolt the door before going to bed.
Available on Steam for: £5.99