Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. ("In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.")—H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
For some unfortunate reason, the name H.P. Lovecraft is all but unknown to anyone outside the hardcore horror literature fanbase. Unlike Poe and Stoker (who died relatively anonymously yet gained critical praise and respect after their passing), Lovecraft remains a tantalizingly obscure figure—one almost as mythic as his infamous creations, The Elder Gods. Maybe it's the name—Poe and Stoker certainly sound pretty ominous and one can certainly imagine the men who bore those names having tortured souls that yearned to explore the darker side of human existence. Lovecraft, meanwhile, sounds like the name of someone who should have been crafting a series of bodice-rippers wherein the polite exterior of Victorian society is pushed aside to expose the seedy underbelly lurking beneath. Yet, in a way, Lovecraft was all about pushing aside the exterior view of his time—only the underbelly he sought to expose had nothing to do with repressed sexual passion…instead it dealt with madness, man's desire to know things better left undiscovered, and a pantheon of malefic alien gods who were so evil and twisted that to even imagine them was to invite insanity. The most famous of these gods was Cthulhu—a being so terrible that mentioning his name aloud was enough to court disaster. Better to never speak of him at all than risk mentioning his name and having him become aware of you…
Lovecraft created an entire mythos centered around his Elder Gods and a mythical book known as The Necronomicon. While HPL may not be a household name, his work has endured for nearly a century, kept alive by scholars and fans who realize that his fiction was not only visionary, but wonderfully entertaining as well. The prose may be dry and arcane, but the stories are timeless.
It's clear, after completing Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (CoC) , that the guys working at Headfirst Productions are not only ardent fans of Lovecraft's unique brand of cosmic horror, but acolytes hoping to spread the gospel of the Old Ones to an entirely new generation. While not a perfect game, CoC does an astounding job of recreating Lovecraft's fictional world in a videogame setting. Not the easiest of tasks—as anyone familiar with Lovecraft's work is undoubtedly aware.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. —H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Drawing from numerous stories (most notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth), CoC takes all the best things from Lovecraft's mythos and translates them into a playable adventure that puts the gamer into the strange world of the stories.
Players control Jack Walters, a private investigator who's been haunted by strange visions (as well as having spent the past six years in an insane asylum where he became a fanatical student of the occult). Jack's sent to the seaside town of Innsmouth to investigate the disappearance of a grocery store manager. The locals (who're a colorful bunch of malformed mutants suffering from what's referred to as "the Innsmouth taint") insist the missing man robbed the store and absconded with his ill-gotten gains. However, something's not quite right in the town—and being a P.I., Jack has to stick his nose into places he'd have been far better off leaving alone. There's an evil at work at Innsmouth—an evil that is greater than time or space. While trying to unravel the mystery of what's happening in Innsmouth, Jack will also begin to discover just what happened to himself during those six missing years spent in the loony bin. These are probably all things better left to the darkness.
Call of Cthulhu is an interesting mix of shooter and first-person adventure game. For roughly the first third of the game, players will explore Innsmouth for clues about the missing grocery store manager, while finding out tantalizing bits of information about what's really going on in the town. In this stage, the game is more of an adventure title than anything—Jack doesn't even have access to a weapon until players have advanced hours into the storyline. This set-up makes things interesting, particularly when Jack finds himself hunted by some of the town's citizenry with nothing but his wits and his feet to keep him alive.
Later, Jack finally arms himself and the game becomes significantly more action-oriented (although it still features its fair share of complex puzzles and moody set-pieces). Once Jack gets a gun, he can approach many of the game's objectives in a number of ways—he can blast through everything in sight or he can sneak around his enemies, only killing when absolutely necessary. While the two approaches are entirely different, each manages to maintain the game's sense of tension. Stealth is always a tense thing and the game's aiming system (which is best described as "loose") coupled with the number of enemies around the player (some of which are well hidden) certainly make the firefights a stressful undertaking.
Adding to the game's immersion factor is the complete lack of any sort of onscreen display. The game features nothing in the way of a HUD—no aiming reticle, no life bars, nothing. When Jack takes damage, some blood splashes up onto the screen. Go too long without treating wounds and Jack could well die of blood loss (as Jack loses blood, the screen starts to go grey). Jumping from high ledges can lead to broken legs, which significantly slows our hero down. Nice little touches of realism like this abound throughout the game.
One of the core ideas of Lovecraft's fiction is that to see terrible things like The Elder Gods was too much for the simple human mind to withstand. Cthulhu is so far beyond our comprehension that to stand in his presence is to go immediately insane. The GameCube exclusive, Eternal Darkness, tried to implement this idea into its gameplay, but results were insanity effects that often seemed more gimmicky than disturbing. CoC goes in an entirely different direction with far better results.
As Jack sees atrocities and things mankind was never meant to gaze upon (the Shoggoth, Dagon, etc.) he loses sanity. As his grip on reality weakens, players will have a harder time controlling Jack. The screen will go wavy, his movements become erratic, he begins to pant and whisper to himself (or hear voices of dead people in some instances) and so on. If left in these tenuous situations for too long, Jack can suffer a "massive sanity failure"—and if he has a gun in his hand, he blows his brains out and it's game over.
Speaking of game over, that's a phrase players should expect to see regularly. CoC is a tough game, made all the more difficult because later sections of the title involve a lot of "try-and-die" game mechanics to solve puzzles. The game has a multitude of save points (as well as several autosave checkpoints), but the placement of these can be a bit weird. Conversely, players are actually penalized for saving in their final rating at the end of the game—save too often and gamers actually lose a rank. So, what is essentially a ten hour game will take twenty to beat because players are forced into doing some sections over and over before they finally get it right. This is one of the few areas where the game is a little annoying. I wanted to keep going to see the story, but invariably I'd find spots where I'd have to go through the same few rooms repeatedly to finally figure out how to live and advance the plot.
The game's other issues are pretty minor. The graphics, which are generally nice (despite being a little light on the textures) are often hard to see because the game is dark. Adjusting the brightness setting on the television is a good idea—I found one notch up in brightness made a big difference without actually affecting the mood or feel of the game. My only other issue was that some of the voice acting wasn't as good as it could have been. Jack's great, but some of the other guys sound off (one guy sounds just like Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt). The rest of the audio is good, though—particularly if players have a surround sound set-up.
I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness... —H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond
Despite the minor nitpicks, this is a great game that has sleeper hit written all over it. The guys at Headfirst Productions certainly did their homework and researched the material before making the game. The end result of their labor is a rock-solid videogame that almost perfectly captures the dread, majesty, and sheer abject terror of Lovecraft's world. One doesn't need to have read the fiction to enjoy the game, but those who're familiar with the world of Cthulhu and Innsmouth will find the game even more enjoyable because it works on multiple levels. Lovecraft may not be a household name, but if more games like this are created based on the fertile imagination of his fiction, it's only a matter of time before this generation of gamers discovers the dark and terrifying lands that Lovecraft called home.