Finally, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the game that's been on release lists almost as long as the Old Ones have existed, is on store shelves. It happened almost out of nowhere. No preview copies were ever sent out and barely any screens or video were released. Yet as we here at IGN held at the mythical retail version in our hands it was tactile proof that this title had not been swallowed up by the nameless, ancient evil known as cancelled project.
Anyone familiar with H.P. Lovecraft's short stories written in the earlier parts of last century will immediately be familiar with the setting and conflict of this game. The plot itself is a colossal melding of myriad Lovecraft works including The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Out of Time, in addition to fleeting references to many others. For the most part, the story concerns the events that took place in The Shadow Over Innsmouth. With such a wealth of disturbing source material to pull from, it's no wonder the story is one of DCotE's strongest points. Unfortunately, it's not without its problems.
What you'll find in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is great atmosphere, character designs, story, and pacing. What you'll also find are muddy textures, stilted voice acting, spotty controls, and a few bugs. You'll play as private investigator Jack Walters. Initially you're assigned to locate a person who's gone missing in Innsmouth. As you conduct an investigation you soon find yourself tangled up in a truly unsettling series of events. To top it all off, you're also recovering from a six year period of amnesia and prone to disturbing bursts of recollection of horrible alien visions. Don't worry, this is all information you'll learn as soon as you start up the game.
The People of Innsmouth Need to Brush Their Teeth.
Initially, Call of Cthulhu seems like a slow paced adventure game that combines NPC interaction with puzzle solving and item collection. Once you get a few firearms, be it a shotgun, rifle, tommy gun, or knife, the game takes on a heavy action element. From there on out, the game mixes intense and at times frantic shooting sequences with puzzles of increasing but never mind melting difficulty. Both of these modes are entertaining, but you'll notice one consistent problem throughout: the controls.
The issue with the controls is that they're just too loose. It's difficult to properly aim any of your weapons unless you have a significant distance between you and your target and a few seconds to spare. Eventually you'll get used to how loose the aiming controls feel and might even get good with them. The first few action sequences, however, have a steep learning curve. A larger problem is the inability to consistently tell what you're interacting with.
Dark Corners of the Earth has many, many sequences where you need to manipulate objects under a strict time limit. This wouldn't be a problem if your character would interact with what you're looking at. There were many times when I was trying to manipulate or inspect something directly in front of me, only to have a door close behind me. And no, the door did not close by itself. Somehow by my pressing the A button to interact with something in front of me, it instead closed the door. Also, some objects in the game seem almost moody in terms of when they'll let you use them. At points it I could only interact with something if I was at an arbitrary distance away or if I pressed the button on an overly specific point. For instance, trying to manipulate the bolts on the top of doors to keep pursuing enemies at bay is something you'll undoubtedly have to repeat multiple times to get right. Oftentimes you'll have to go through several attempts in an area before you learn exactly where you need to be looking to get the bolt to slide without the door opening.
You'll spend a lot of your time in Call of Cthulhu looking at the screen that says you're dead. There are several reasons for this. The game has many surprises, some of them deadly. Of those, most are extremely difficult to avoid the first time. There are also a lot of trail and error puzzles where error means death. In addition, your ability to jump is hampered by the fact that it's difficult to tell exactly where your character is positioned when running at a ledge. Since the game is broken up by save points that seem bunched up at times and at others far too spread out, you'll spend a lot of time reloading your game and going though old puzzles to get to the part where you keep dying.
The game features a rudimentary stealth system that lets you hide behind boxes, lean around corners, and pop over low obstacles. As useful as this may seem, I found I could accomplish what I needed to just as easily by sprinting to the exit or, once I amassed enough of an arsenal, wiping out all the enemies in the area. At least on the Private Investigator setting there was plenty of ammunition and healing items to accomplish this. On the Hardened Detective and Mythos Specialist settings which are unlocked when you beat the game, ammo is more scarce and the enemies tougher.
This Ancient Evil Belongs in Your Living Room.
After taking all that griping and nitpicking into account, DCotE is still a very enjoyable experience. The character models are great, even if they're not wrapped in a bunch of pretty textures, they're still well built. This is especially true of the enemies you'll run up against later on. This quality and the great story go a long way to weaving together this game's sinister atmosphere. There's also an excellent pacing to the way events transpire. In a gleefully slow and deliberate manner you can watch your own sanity erode as you slowly uncover more and more of the story, descending deeper and deeper into the unthinkable horrors that permeate Innsmouth. In addition to regularly occurring diary entries that provide insight into your mental state and thoughts on what's transpiring around you, you'll also pick up books and tomes that describe a range of chilling details.
To further strengthen the sense of atmosphere, DCotE features a first person view with absolutely no heads up display. If you get hit, fall too far, are burned, or shot, it will be indicated by a yelp or grunt of pain and a few splotches of blood. As you bleed or continue to take damage, the screen will start to blur and fade to grey. In order to heal yourself you can apply bandages, sutures, splints, and antidotes to specific parts of your body depending on how badly you've been injured. The only problem here is you can get shot and have it yield a slash mark on your chest and arm, recoverable with a few bandages and maybe a suture. This is a minor detail, though, and doesn't take away from the gameplay experience.
The healing system isn't as deep as it could have been, though, since there's the option to quick heal yourself. By doing this, the game automatically applies your medical supplies to the proper wounds, effectively removing the need for such a detailed recovery system. In future Call of Cthulhu titles, if they are actually released, it would be great to see this system expanded and micromanagement made more of a necessity. While it could be argued that the system lets you pick and choose which wounds to heal based on your supplies, you really can't leave any wounds untended. If you do, you'll more than likely bleed to death. Also, though you won't have a health bar, Jack can't take very much damage to begin with, so you'll need to do a full heal every time you get hurt.
In addition to monitoring your health, you'll also need to keep track of your sanity. Like your health, there is no visible gauge for this. Instead, you'll be able to tell to what degree you're freaking out by blurring effects on screen. Whenever you see any of the game's disturbing imagery or enemies, of which there is a lot, it will cause your movement to slow and the environments to fade to a dreamlike blur. If you continue to look at the source of what's causing your inanity the effects will intensify. Eventually, the screen will start to swim and distort, making it very difficult to get around. If it gets bad enough you'll suffer a sanity failure and die. As a nice touch, if you happen to be holding a loaded weapon you'll blow your brains out. This is a great feature that augments the gameplay and atmosphere and really helps to make you feel extremely uncomfortable.
Accompanying the visual sanity features there is an unbelievable amount of controller vibration. In addition to your sinister foes and environments, you'll also have flashbacks and premonitions that jolt your heart rate. Though it seems like overkill initially, you'll eventually get used to how often your controller is going to vibrate. In combination with the sanity effects and the clutter free first person display, this feature goes a long way toward making this game an engrossing experience.
Another great feature is the sound. Admittedly, some of the voice acting is unnatural and doesn't flow very well in a dialogue. Then again, there are also points where the voice acting is completely distressing or genuinely funny. Aside from the hit-or-miss dialogue, the sound effects and ambient sounds in the game are truly disquieting. This is especially apparent when your character is in the throes of an insanity fit and starts whispering to himself about how outside forces are trying to manipulate him. Very cool. Though it doesn't play throughout the entirety of the game, the string compositions mesh well with the atmosphere.
Before you start a game, be sure to crank the brightness on your TV and in the game menu. This game is extremely dark, to the point where if left on its default brightness setting you'll have a hard time seeing anything beyond what's directly lit. Though many of the game's textures are washed out and some of the environment geometry is blocky, there are some parts that impress with their lighting effects or strange design. It's unfortunate that we can't see more detail since the game is buried under a constant grain filter that can't be turned off.
The game isn't without bugs. There were multiple instances where I failed to complete an objective in the allotted time only to have the game keep running instead of resetting to the start of the challenge. This isn't really a big deal once you realize the game has screwed up. Initially though, you have no idea that you failed to accomplish something you were supposed to, and it could turn into a large chunk of wasted time. That being said, it doesn't take away from the game, it's just an occasional nuisance.
By the time you finish DCotE the first time around 20 hours will most likely have passed. It's not that the game is that long, it's just that you're going to spend a lot of time reloading your game and figuring out puzzles. Though you'll undoubtedly get aggravated at certain points, there's always a way through to the next area. By the time you get around to playing the game on a higher difficulty level you'll be able to plow through much faster.
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