Published by 2K Games/Bethesda Softworks
Developed by Headfirst Productions.
ESRB Rating: Mature (and they are seriously not fucking around about this).
My Advice: Run (do not walk) to pick this one up.
Since the original Alone in the Dark PC game (c. 1992), I’ve been waiting for an official, non-sucktacular Lovecraft-derived adventure game. The AitD sequels were a bit of a disappointment, and despite all the homage, weren’t as canon as I’d hoped for. A few Cthulhu games have been released, but they met with lackluster reviews, and were too often not as true to the spirit of Lovecraft’s original tales as they were to the surface details. Namedropping the Dread Lord of R’lyeh is insufficient, folks. I want full-on non-Euclidean flavor, complete with Cyclopean architecture and nameless dread. And now, with Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, I’ve got it. I’a!
[ad#longpost]The game, derived at least in part from Chaosiums’ venerable table-top RPG, puts you in the role of Jack Walters, a private detective in 1922. In the game’s opening sequence, Jack revisits a dark night six years prior, when he was called by Boston’s finest to the manor house of a bunch of deranged cultists who insist they will only speak to Jack. As you enter the house, things go a bit crazy, and the cultists engage in a firefight with the assembled cops outside. An investigation of the house leads Jack into pretty dicey territory, sanity-wise, and the next thing he remembers is “snapping out of it” in 1922, with no recollection of the previous five years. The kindly staff at Arkham Asylum inform him that he appears to have spent most of the time traveling the world, but details of those travels are not forthcoming. In order to start the process of putting his life back together, Jack goes back into the detective business, and promptly gets a case: investigate the robbery of a grocery store in the little town of Innsmouth, and discover what happened to the former store manager who has been implicated in the robbery but has since disappeared.
Now, those with more than a passing familiarity with Mythos lore are already apprehensive. Nobody just wanders into Innsmouth nosing around without encountering trouble, as Jack will soon discover. The town is crawling with funny-looking (and extremely unhelpful) natives, and it becomes clear that nobody’s willing to let some snooping outsider detective poke around and then just up and leave. This sets off an incredible chain of events that will have you fleeing fishpeople, fighting off shoggoths and Deep Ones, and even staring mighty Dagon himself in the face, all while your sanity steadily drains away.
Gameplay is a familiar blend of action/adventure and stealth shooter, with emphasis early in the game skewed heavily towards stealth and problem-solving, while the later stages involve some truly hair-raising gunplay. While the shooter segments aren’t really cutting edge, the controls are tight and the variety of weaponry is adequate to the setting and the game’s mood. Patching yourself up after a scrap isn’t as simple as picking up a medpack and watching your health meter refill, either. Along the way, you pick up bandages, sutures, and splints, and in-game injuries will require specific components to recover. Speaking of the health meter: there isn’t one. Your in-game inventory screen shows your actual status, including all cuts, scrapes, broken bones, etc. As Jack is injured and “bleeds out,” the game drains of color and sounds get muffled and far away. It’s an excellent use of non-“game” cues to convey medical information. In addition to your physical health, as mentioned earlier, there are a great many things in the story that have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. Confronting these sorts of things will cause your heartrate to race (pounding through the controller’s feedback mechanism), your vision to cloud, and Jack to start hearing things or whispering to himself. You can control the panics (or temporarily alleviate the inconvenience of injury) through judiciously administered morphine, though the drug will also occasionally cause Jack to hear things or start muttering to himself. The casual inclusion of a bottomless supply or morphine might be troublesome to some, but of course, this is a game where “success” can mean gibbering insanity and a serious narcotic addiction, so take that as you will.
Visuals and audio are excellent throughout the game, though some of the graphics do look a bit dated…this isn’t the latest and greatest 3D engine. Honestly, though, you’ll never miss the bells and whistles of a newer engine. The gameplay alone elevates this title above the pack, and the graphics do a perfectly serviceable job capturing the seriously creepy and disturbing atmospherics of Lovecraft’s world. The audio is likewise solid, with good music, talented voice acting, and great incidental sound effects to heighten the weirdness. Jack’s whispering to himself, or occasionally hearing snippets of alien voices in his head, can prove terribly jarring, and nothing is quite so unnerving as walking through a sewer full of dead bodies, being led on by the singing of a child somewhere out of sight (well, actually finding said child is pretty unnerving, but perhaps I’ve said too much).
Fans of Lovecraft’s world or Chaosium’s RPG must give this a spin. It’s as faithful an adaptation of both the stories and the game as one is likely to ever find. I just hope sales of the title justify a sequel or three.