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Enter Madness - Hands-On with Call of Cthulhu's First Four Chapters
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 06:21pm 09/10/18 | Comments
We were recently given access to a four-chapter preview build of Call of Cthulhu on PC. Read on for our in-depth hands-on report...

I’ve been harping on about Call of Cthulhu for the better part of 18 or so months now, after having seen it at E3 and Gamescom both last year and this year, respectively. The promise of an Investigation-RPG based on the Pen and Paper classic, deeply rooted in Lovecraftian lore is, frankly, a perfect concept on paper. Everything I’ve seen hands-off has been exciting, and though I’ve often shown concern for the game’s visual presentation, its themes, overtones and atmosphere -- in my recent opinion -- would hopefully more than make up for any lacking sheen. You know, it’s not always about eye-candy, and all that.

Cyanide Studio, I’ve said in the past, is a developer “verging on Triple-A success”, based on my studio-handled preview sessions with Call of Cthulhu, so it was with great enthusiasm I said yes to being handed a preview key for a PC build of the game where I’d get to experience the game’s first four chapters. What I came through with after playing through all four chapters is that based on this preview build alone Cyanide is definitely an ambitious developer, but that budgets, chapter-focus, pacing and promises are all a bit of a mixed bag ranging from subpar to outstanding, with increments in between. All combined, I had a great time with the game, but it’s clear that there’s areas the studio poured more resources and love into over others, which in preview form gave me a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde experience, to maintain the horror theme.

For example, you kick off the game in a nightmare, which is intense (and interactive), only to awaken on your couch in your office. It’s the early 1920s in Boston, Massachusetts and you play as Edward Pierce -- a Private Detective fighting his own post-war demons with a concoction of antidepressants, sleeping pills and good old-fashioned whiskey. Interestingly, one of the first things you can do in your office is take a drink from a glass of whiskey on your desk, nestled nicely next to a paper clipping about prohibition. Doing so, however, nets an in-game warning that “this will affect your destiny”. How it will doesn’t really play out within the first four chapters, so what impact it has will remain to be seen, but that the game is already telling you decisions you make manifest unique outcomes speaks to the aforementioned ambition of Cyanide’s vision.

"This sort of thing helps contextualise the game-world for the player while also getting you to grips with the deep Character Points system..."

The setting in Pierce’s office is a great introduction to the game. Transitioning from the nightmare to reality, Cyanide’s audio efforts stand out the most. In the nightmare sequence you can feel the tension surrounding Pierce and what he’s seeing, while waking up alarmed in your office sells the period to perfection. Small details litter the place and you feel the lived-in nature of his abode.

The studio has cleverly used the game-world to adapt to the player and to learn about your own habits or gameplay desires, as highlighted by the whiskey sip. But this is amplified with something as simple as answering the phone in your office to have to explain your “personal information” to a secretary of the Wentworth Investigation Agency, of which you’re a small-time part, because said info was “lost in an office fire” at Wentworth HQ. This sort of thing helps contextualise the game-world for the player while also getting you to grips with the deep Character Points system. And this is just two examples of how the game attempts to dynamically dance around you and your decisions.

As you’d expect, a case walks through your door and before you know it, you’re off to Darkwater Island -- a former whaling community now down on its luck with a bunch of angry, drunken sailors and locals mostly out of work. I mentioned prohibition before, because it’s actually a narrative point for some of the early part of the game, and is one of the reasons the locals here are intoxicated and difficult to deal with. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I was underwhelmed once arriving in Darkwater’s port. The level of polish here was subpar compared to the other three chapters that play out, and it just felt unfinished. Limited dialogue, often repeated near groups and a general lack of visual detail made this part of the preview code feel utterly out of place. But it’s here you learn how to utilise the game-world to gather clues and information in order to progress further in.

One example is that you need to enter a Warehouse owned by the Hawkins family, whose deaths you’re here to investigate. There’s a police guard at its main entrance, and two goons at a side entrance blocking any way in. This is because a woman named Cat who runs the bootlegging business on the island has declared the area in which the warehouse is located is her ‘turf’. Initially I hid in a small shed and overheard a conversation by the goons, then proceeded to lie to them using information heard in the conversation saying that I was also working with Cat. They let me in, but then also went and told Cat who promptly came and literally kicked me in the nads. That approach was now no good.

Another area adjacent to the Warehouse featured a grate attached to a pulley system that I could use to access the warehouse through a drainage channel. I found the handle and a lock for the winch, but when I installed them I couldn’t use them -- not sure if it was a glitch or if I needed something else, but once again another access was blocked. So I decided I’d go back and visit Cat to see how that would play out post-ball kicking. She liked my attitude and after some back and forth, and a promise of returning the favour down the track, she took me to the warehouse herself and even picked the lock for me.

"The lifeless trees that litter the grounds feature highly-detailed bits of decaying bark. Leafless, sharp limbs reach unsuccessfully toward the sky, creating a mosaic that sits juxtaposed to the still moonlit backdrop..."

It was fantastic to see that there were a few ways to go about this and that there wasn’t a hard-fail side to it, per se, which allowed me to kick off my investigation proper and have one of the local officers originally involved in the Hawkins investigation take me up to the mansion where the tragedy took place.

The visual difference between the harbour of Darkwater and within and surrounding the Hawkins mansion is night and day. The mansion has clearly been a more major focus for the studio, and that effort shines through. The lifeless trees that litter the grounds feature highly-detailed bits of decaying bark. Leafless, sharp limbs reach unsuccessfully toward the sky, creating a mosaic that sits juxtaposed to the still moonlit backdrop. Once inside, small atmospheric details help highlight this too, such as the striking illumination from lightning outside that cuts through the heavily-draped gothic windows of the mansion, momentarily darkening the room even more, with thunder realistically following a few seconds later, rather than both playing out at once (a pet peeve of mine across all rolling media).

Dust particles float through what little light there is in the now empty house, and feel naturally occurring due to the age of the place, and the number of books that align its myriad walls. Sarah Hawkins, whose father is the one who offered you the case in the first place, has her creepy, occult-flavoured artworks adorned throughout and you can even see bump-mapped brush-stroke textures on each individual piece.

Moreover, the earlier-mentioned audio kicks it up a notch here. This is where the game begins to feel like a horror experience and Cyanide doesn’t shy too far from dropping you in it early. An unusual “roast” sits uneaten at a giant dining table -- though what ‘animal’ it is isn’t clear, you just know from a single glance it’s not of the poultry, bovine or pork variety. All the while Pierce reveals his thoughts and observations -- it’s not quite noire, but it’s not quite not noire, either. The voice-actor for our main character, Anthony Howell, delivers in spades in what seems to be limited dynamic dialogue on the whole (he’ll repeat the same observation if you’ve clicked on a clue, for example), and overall if I had to highlight my favourite component of the preview I played, it’s that the game’s audio is simply first-class.

Gameplay-wise, the investigation side of the game is the RPG. Medicine and Occult skills are only added to from items found in your investigation, otherwise you can utilise earned Character Points (CP.) across a number of different attributes such as Psychology, Investigation, Eloquence, Strength and an interesting one called “Spot Hidden” which helps you uncover smaller details in the game-world to help in either progression, or with your overall investigation. Each of these attributes also has levels with a large number of CP. required to reach. How it all coalesces wasn’t entirely revealed during the four playable chapters though, and while it’s been touted that you’ll experience panic attacks and more throughout, it was only highlighted once in the final Chapter.

There’s a lot to like and look forward to here, all I can hope is that the final product has more consistency Chapter-to-Chapter and that we see a much higher level of polish. The ingredients are there for this to be an engaging ride through madness, but the fairly budget cut-scenes, and less-than-dynamic NPC-heavy parts of the game-world have me concerned. If, however, the larger focus is on Chapters akin to both three and four, then a sloppy Chapter two will be worth it. We’ll just have to wait until the end of October to see.
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