What we learnt more deeply about Call of Cthulhu at this year’s E3 got me more excited than ever for the ambitious “Investigation-RPG” experience. *No combat. Multiple pathways and solutions. An ever-changing sense of inner self. Unkillable gods. Relationships. Dynamic conversations. Puzzles. Exploration. Occultism. Deductions. Dynamic investigations…
(*There are combat-like responses you can perform in a controlled sense, or during specific moments in the game, but you don’t have full combat freedom within the larger playspace.)
The investigation side of the game, we learnt, is deeply layered; designed to serve a curious player. However, the madness side of the game (or the “ever-changing sense of inner self”) is intrinsically tied to this, and nothing is hard and fast, nor black and white. Shades of grey permeate the experience, which is amplified by player-choice. It's wonderfully paced, at this point, and while you can stretch the experience out to 20 hours (as revealed to us by Cyanide), if you truly embrace all the disparate mechanics; the way in which it all plays out promises to lead to true Water-Cooler gaming -- where your outcome, path and overall experience will differ to everyone else's, hopefully promoting multiple playthroughs.
The way in which the team has handled this, is in the multiple pathways to completion front. And we’re not specifically talking about the pathways to the game’s handful of endings: everything here has a multiple pathway -- from conversations and the relationships that form from them, to the way in which you progress through the game-world; puzzles, exploration, discovery and more. The patient, observant player, as we mentioned before, might find an item that makes a puzzle impediment easier to overcome. Or they might pick up on a piece of information for deduction that pushes the story, or specific information forward, or even laterally. The dynamic nature of how this is being presented is anything but binary, and we can only hope each and every moment that capitalises on this in the game, doesn’t follow a like-for-like suit. Which so far it appears to avoid.
As an Investigation-RPG, information gathering is one of the key tenets of the player’s overall experience. You’re on the island of Darkwater literally investigating what appears to be foul play at the Hawkins mansion, but the island itself also becomes a source for overall reasoning. The fire is just the first investigative step you take, and the more you utilise Pierce’s detective skills, the larger the world around you appears. You’ll start learning about occultism; the island’s mysterious past -- and present -- and all of this will begin to present you with a conundrum: because the more information you have, the more likely you are to trip up on the insanity side of the game. Though the devs do assure us it is
possible to finish the game not completely insane and with free will intact, but they wouldn’t delve further into this for fear of spoiling the experience.
Still, there’s a telling nugget in there, in the form of “free will”. How will the madness component work and what will that do in the application of decisions you make based on “free will”, or will you essentially be puppeteered by the unkillable gods you’ll eventually summon, and face? We’re also told there will be hardfail scenarios with death, but that death will affect your sanity as well. There is a Checkpoint system, but with the inclusion of death being tied to your sanity
degression, it’s not a binary reset of gameplay. Death is meaningful and largely unwanted, because it will fuck with you when you restart.
One of the key features that came out of our session with the game was the noir-esque reconstructions of investigation scenes and sequences. And this was a standout for mine, because even games like the Batman: Arkham series and The Witcher 3, for example, where you’re also playing detective roles, often the conclusion -- or deduction -- is really close to you and follows a pretty strict path of POIs that are required
to solve the scene or sequence in front of you. There’s no real fluid
system in play based on the player’s own deduction of information and investigation, so it’s all largely binary. However, in Call of Cthulhu, this isn’t the case. And the game’s reconstructions are heavily tied to the earlier-mentioned “shades of grey” investigation and progression. You might miss important pieces of information at a scene, for example, but missing them doesn’t stop you from moving forward, and potentially now with an incomplete outcome.
And this could have longer-lasting ramifications down the track, or even with the game’s myriad NPCs and through the relationships you’ll form with them. How rigid all of this is remains to be seen, but the team appear confident they have a dynamic and systemic gameplay experience that is served first and foremost by player-choice.
Reconstructions play out as mental pictures Pierce pieces together on-the-fly and dynamically. But adding to this is the ever-present “ever-changing sense of inner self”, because the deeper your psychosis, the more corrupted your mental reconstructions become. This is likely going to bleed into the “free will” aspect of the game -- what can you trust, and is your base alcoholism and PTSD from your experience in the Great War a gateway for the insanity, occultism and unkillable gods to manifest in a controlling state? And if so, for what purpose?
What we saw was still in beta, and as with all my other experiences with the game, it’s still only really challenged in visuals, which are still a bit of a mixed bag. Lighting, for example is amazing while the overall art-direction is incredible. Character animations and expressions aren’t entirely amazing (alongside some cheesy voice-acting and dialogue), but they also add some charm to the game. The game-world outside of the mansion also looks like it might need some more detailed texturing and architecture tightening, but we are looking at a game in beta. The good news is Cyanide has confirmed the game is definitely out this year, though that’s not likely until December, but for those of us who’ve been champing at the bit for what is definitely going to be a unique experience, it’ll be worth the wait.