Conundrums Below The Waves
HIGH The island’s design.
LOW The tides-based organ puzzle. (Or any other puzzle, frankly!)
WTF It’s weird when a game’s title gives the plot away!
Gorgeous sun-soaked beaches, foreboding rain-drenched spires, terrifying subterranean architecture — every new area I found in Call of the Sea was better than the last. By embracing a bright and varied color palette and going the extra mile on level design, the developers have created one of the most visually captivating worlds I’ve seen in ages.
If only the game itself weren’t such a slog.
A first-person puzzle adventure, Call of the Sea puts players behind the eyes of Norah, a woman whose husband has disappeared while searching for a cure to her hereditary illness. As things begin, she’s traveling to the island where his expedition was last heard from. She’ll spend the next few hours following in his footsteps while finding notes and audio logs that detail his trials. She’ll also see the sometimes-terrifying results of his investigations.
Call of the Sea‘s greatest strength is in the story it’s telling. It’s a Lovecraft-inspired tale (although I won’t say which story it’s inspired by, lest the whole thing be given away) and it does a fantastic job of expanding on one of the less-explored facets of his writing. The famously xenophobic Lovecraft had endless references to strange, foreign places in the South Pacific where natives worshipped strange alien deities. Call of the Sea takes players on a journey through one of those impossible locations and gives them a glimpse of things that drove the characters in those stories insane.
This is a great place to start, but the problem with Call of the Sea is that it makes the story so hard to get to. Each of the half-dozen major locations has a handful of puzzles to solve, and they’re some of the most annoying and inexplicable videogamey brain-teasers I’ve ever come across, with most built around deciphering ancient locks or operating unusual technology. None are in any way intuitive.
As I worked my way through the campaign, I found myself alternately delighted and furious. Every new piece of story was pitch-perfect in tone, and the gradual ramp-up of threat is incredibly effective at creating dread. However, just as things got rolling, I’d inevitably come up against another frustratingly oblique puzzle that served only to stop that lovely progress dead in its tracks.
Call of the Sea‘s developers have badly misjudged how much explanation their puzzles require. As Norah explores the island, her journal is automatically updated and supposedly notes everything she needs to know to solve the tasks ahead, but these notes are simply insufficient. It’s not often I have to break out a pen and notepad to make progress in a game, but I did here.
The lack of a hint system is another failure on Call of the Sea‘s part. Generally, I think it’s design malpractice for any puzzle game to not offer one, and Call of the Sea is an egregious example — I had to look online for help on more than half of the puzzles, and I doubt my experience is unique.
While the presentation is clearly built for enmeshing the player in the world with minimal HUD elements cluttering up the screen, some artistic purity could have been sacrificed to make things easier for players at the end of their rope. Things like indicators on faraway points of interest or direct hints (when requested) would go a long way towards making this adventure more playable and less frustrating.
Below this review there’s a disclosure that lists how long I played Call of the Sea for. It says 12 hours, but I believe that number isn’t representative of a normal playthrough. I stubbornly insisted on trying to solve each new puzzle on my own without help, and this resulted in endless checking and re-checking maps while hoping to drive some ideas into my skull. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone armed with a walkthrough could finish it in half the time — and “with a walkthrough” is exactly how I recommend Call of the Sea be played.
When all was said and done, it was a great journey — I just don’t understand why the developers went to such great lengths to make taking that journey as irritating and inconvenient as possible.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Out of the Blue and published by Raw Fury. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence, Blood, and Use of Tobacco. There’s nothing too graphic or gruesome in the game, and the tobacco use is presented realistically per the period and not glamorized.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered or resized. (See example above.) I played the majority of the game without the sound on and encountered no difficulties. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.