The joy of unspeakable horror.
The literary realm has been virtually untouched by game developers, so maybe Bethesda was onto something when it produced the much-anticipated adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu
tales, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
. For those not already hip to the cult
, Lovecraft's horrific mythos tells a series of horror stories involving the re-emergence of unbelievably heinous elder gods, called "Old Ones," who had been buried in the sea for millions of years. It's filled with nightmarish creatures, deeply disturbed psychotics and really gross imagery. In short, it just seems tailor made for hardcore gamers.
And for the most part, this survival horror game gets it right. While it's probably going to zoom over a lot of gamer heads with its difficult puzzles and toned-down gunplay, we think it's the most interesting Xbox take on survival horror in some time and a worthy purchase if you can't afford that other Xbox.
You play as Jack Walters, a private eye called to investigate a disappearance in the decrepit fishing village of Innsmouth. As you search for the missing boy, you discover that the town is being run by a murderous cult, and before long are knee-deep in battle with evil, prehistoric forces. The story incorporates a number of Lovecraft themes and does a decent job of approximating the mood of Lovecraft's dark style.
Setting the right mood is key in any good horror game, and in the environments at least, this one is usually spot on. Classic cars and old guns capture the 1920's period, and the light and shadow effects provide a brilliant spookiness. Early in the game, you explore the cult's mansion; moving from room to room, plunging deeper and deeper into the dank cellar and sinister sub-basements, you actually begin to feel the dizzying sink into insanity and helplessness so peculiar to Lovecraft's books.
That helplessness is highlighted by the absence of weapons í¢â‚¬" Call of Cthulhu is a first-person shooter minus the shooter bit. Even when you get your hands on the guns (breathing a huge sigh of relief), they are slow and ineffective against more than one or two bad guys. Instead of shooting, you will have to sneak and puzzle your way through Innsmouth and the occasional dark pit of infinite evil. When you're not sneaking and puzzling, you're running away, and, paradoxically enough, those are the most exciting parts of the game.
Take, for instance, when the town comes to murder you in your sleep. Thank the younger gods you bolted that door, right? Well, it's not enough, because they're breaking it down. Run into the room next door and close the door. You're safe, right? Wrong, the bad guys are following you, and if you didn't bolt that door when you closed it, you're screwed. Getting through the entire chase requires closing and bolting doors behind you, pushing furniture out of the way as you watch your pathetic door being broken apart, busting out windows and leaping over alleyways, all the time just mere inches from death. The chase sequences are very scary, very difficult, and very different from much of the goofiness we've come to expect from survival horror.
Difficult and different might be a good mantra (or is that incantation?) for the game's puzzles as well. In Lovecraft's world, we're eons away from the "insert raven crest into the raven crest door lock" brand of moronic puzzles. The game is uncommonly reticent on clues, and often you will simply stare at a locked door in quiet, searching desperation.
In one near-impossible puzzle, you must push three buttons in a certain order. Figuring out that order requires translating a piece of tapestry, kneeling before the statue it obliquely refers to, looking at the six strange symbols it indicates, and then using that pattern as a legend in order to translate a stone tablet on the wall, which has been broken into several pieces, some of which are lying on the floor. It ain't elementary, Watson.
These puzzle challenges and the trial-and-error sneaking and chasing sequences will occasionally have you tearing your eyeballs out in frustration. The game reminds me of the old Infocom text adventures, like Zork or Bureaucracy, in its difficulty and general feel. It's not the doing that's hard, it's the figuring out what to do that will leave you lying on the floor right next to that broken tablet.
And speaking of old, parts of the game look like they were made in 2002, which in gaming years is about as old as Yog-Sothoth. Characters are largely expressionless, other than a shiftiness in the eyes reminiscent of the wooden features of a ventriloquist's puppet. Their mouths open and shut mechanically, their eyes scan uselessly, and words magically emerge from their unmoving lips.
Other remnants of the forgotten past include enemies that disappear when they have been killed and bullets that leave gun barrels at impossible angles. In later stages, evil Swamp Monster things seem unable to point their guns down, but their bullets are not so constrained. A few glitches crop up from time to time, which can be confusing when the game's puzzles are so difficult. When a door doesn't open as it should, you're left to wonder whether the game messed up or whether you messed up the conjugation of N'yleh I'antus. Damn Yithian subjunctive clauses!
Luckily, the developers mastered English, as the writing is consistently excellent. The voice-acting is decent, though Jack's snappy, no-nonsense Yankee wit seems out of step with his struggle to keep sane. Sometimes you'll trigger Jack's inner monologue, where he'll say something sane in a normal tone of voice, like "Hmmm, I've seen this greenish rock before. I wonder if I can use it." Meanwhile in the background, you can hear Jack's other inner monologue whimper something like, "I'm going insane. I think I'm going to die."
The solution would be to take out the no-nonsense Jack, since the game's insanity-effects are what tip it into the keeper pile. When Jack even looks at disturbing images, like a decapitated head or a giant fish monster, all sorts of trippy things start to happen. The screen turns blurry or wavy and colors dim, making it really hard to see what you're trying to kill. The audio also diminishes, leaving you with just the sound of Jack's heartbeat and distracting voices. Since the game relies heavily on sneaking around, listening for enemies, those voices in the back of your head will drive you nuts. Of course, if you're hearing voices, chances are you're already nuts.
These visual effects work so well because the screen is entirely uncluttered by heads-up displays. There is no health meter, no ammo counter, and no map. This makes things a lot scarier in a real way, as you have to keep track of how many shots you've fired, how many shots you've taken in the gut, and where the hell you are.
Still, not having a map makes things really hard near the end of the game, where the labyrinthine caves all look the same. But by that point, you've probably already found a FAQ on the Internet and have given up trying to solve the game on your own. For those who brave this brain bruiser without a walkthrough, you deserve a gold star and a round-trip ticket to Yith, because this is one of the most difficult adventure games ever released to the console crowd.
It's also one of the most compelling. Call of Cthulhu shows that the first-person perspective doesn't always have to pack an uzi, and can even be the perfect view for players interested in a more cerebral challenge. Its dated look and absurd difficulty will probably consign it to mere cult status, but perhaps that's really where a game based on Lovecraft belongs.