Writer H.P. Lovecraft created worlds of eldritch abominations and existential dread, reaching into the boundless depths of his characters’ fears. Lovecraft’s protagonists are often torn asunder by their consumption of forbidden, archaic knowledge, and eventually reduced to shambling husks of their former selves. The deaths of his parents, who both suffered from mental illness, left an indelible mark on the young Lovecraft, who channeled his traumas into macabre depictions of mental trauma and sobriety throughout his oeuvre. And such anguish is the ostensible focus of Cyanide’s video game adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Despair certainly hounds private detective Edward Pierce, whose past as a military veteran informs his PTSD. He drinks too much, a result of the vivid nightmares from which he screams himself awake. These are clichés that should be more than familiar to fans of the horror genre, but at least the game refrains from featuring a sanity meter and having you keep tabs on Pierce’s mental health. Instead, his psychological well-being is expounded on in a separate menu, laid out like an encyclopedia entry that details his history of trauma, from his military experience to other ghastly horrors he may uncover later. While it’s not immediately apparent how his sanity affects the playthrough, prompts like “This will change your destiny” that pop up at various moments point toward Call of Cthulhu‘s multifaceted endings.
At the start, the game has you investigate and piece together disparate clues in order to unravel the mystery behind the murder of the Hawkins family. The experience is told in the vein of an interactive walking simulator, where you’ll need to search for and interact with various clues and evidence. And it’s in these early stretches that the game is at its most intriguing, with you gradually peeling the layers of the plot away to learn more about the case’s occult origins—the stakes and tension rising with every revelation.
Call of Cthulhu, however, tends to dole out the narratively driven elements of Edward’s sleuthing in frustrating half measures, before suddenly blooming into a straight-up survival-horror experience in its second half. It’s a rather abrupt shift in tonality, not least because the familiar tropes of survival horror feel like arbitrary inclusions rather than necessary ones. The dichotomy between the deliberate procedures of putting clues together versus the frenzied pace of escaping from sinister horrors ramps up too significantly and quickly, making the game’s later half feel increasingly labored. At one point, you’ll encounter shambling zombies who’re so zealous in their efforts to make sure you don’t move an inch past them that they end up feeling more threatening than the omnipotent dread god Cthulhu itself.
Making the game’s survival-horror elements feel more hackneyed is how they’re typically deployed in conjunction with such groan-worthy clichés as the creepy mental asylum, here run by inhumane doctors and apathetic staff itching to perform a lobotomy on you. Which is to say that this stretch of the game leans heavily on stereotypical fears about mental illness. Lovecraftian horror is typically defined by the impossibility of trying to comprehend otherworldly entities beyond our understanding. Yet Call of Cthulhu‘s survival-horror elements don’t come close to capturing the existential unease of Lovecraft’s original story. Rather, they simply feel exploitative.
The appeal of Lovecraftian horror lies in its depiction of how encounters with the inscrutable drive individuals to madness. Call of Cthulhu attempts to capture that cause and effect but does so in an almost perfunctory fashion. Initially, the game is enjoyable for how it propulsively details Pierce’s investigation into occult happenings and how he’s spooked by supernatural forces beyond his understanding, only to give itself over to superficial depictions of mental anguish. In the end, the eventual revelation about Cthulhu, cultist conspiracies, and Pierce’s loosening grip on reality builds up to a conclusion that’s surprisingly more prosaic than cosmically profound—and as such unworthy of the subgenre to which the game pledges allegiance.