Even the Old Ones themselves would have probably lost patience waiting for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth to finally show up. First unveiled more than six years ago, this horror-themed action adventure based on the work of influential American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is clearly ambitious, mixing first-person action, sneaking, and adventure elements with a creepy story filled with various surprises. The good news is that all the delays have resulted in a one-of-a-kind game that fans of horror and action adventure gaming (and of H.P. Lovecraft) absolutely should check out. However, the presentation looks somewhat dated at times, and some other aspects are also pretty rough, just like the Xbox original released six months earlier. But if you can tolerate a few technical deficiencies and are up for a significant challenge, then you can look forward to Call of Cthulhu mightily impressing you and freaking you out equally in turn.
Hold on to your mind in this tense and memorable adventure.
This is essentially the same game as the Xbox version, with the key differences being that the PC version supports higher resolutions and its mouse-and-keyboard controls are slightly more responsive. It also retails for a lower price. You play as Jack Walters, a private investigator with a history of mental instability. But he's fine now, honest. Jack is trying to get his life and his career back on track, but he just can't seem to remember a six-year period from his past. Soon after the opening of the game, a missing-persons case takes Jack's attention away from his own predicament. He finds himself in the quiet port of Innsmouth, a little-known shantytown with a rather standoffish populace. It's a dismal place on first impression, filled with rundown buildings and thuggish residents who gurgle veiled threats in response to Jack's inquiries. Before long, Jack begins to uncover a sinister secret lurking just beneath the surface. He asks one too many questions and soon finds himself fighting for his life against unspeakable horrors. The game does a great job of gradually magnifying the sense of danger and the scope of the mess that Jack has gotten himself into, and it also does pretty well at evoking the early-20th-century period in which the story takes place.
You don't need to be familiar with Lovecraft's stories or the Cthulhu mythos in order to enjoy this game. In fact, the experience will be all the better if you go into it without any real sense of what you're in store for. H.P. Lovecraft is best known for horror stories that attempt to describe the indescribable--horrifying things that can make a man go mad just from looking at them. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth captures the essence of Lovecraft's work by presenting the entire game through Jack's own eyes, and by incorporating various elements that simulate how fleeting Jack's sanity can be when faced with terrible sights and realizations. It doesn't help the poor guy's case that he tends to have out-of-body experiences from time to time, which let him briefly see the world through the eyes of some rather strange beings. The game also intersperses some choice quotations from Lovecraft, as well as some well-written journal entries and other light reading that helps set the stage for what's happening. Ironically, if any aspect of the presentation doesn't really fit, it's Jack himself. It's his voice in particular, since he sounds like a matter-of-fact private detective...only, his rather calm demeanor isn't consistent with how he's supposedly being driven half mad by what's happening around him. The voice performance itself is fine, but it's too bad Jack sounds so brave.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth looks like it's a first-person shooter, but it combines action and adventure elements in equal parts (fans of the Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock series will be in store for a similar kind of game). In fact, for a large portion of the game, Jack is unarmed, and he'll need to make progress using his detective work rather than his brawn. The game is probably at its best when no shooting is involved, since the shooting portions aren't that great. Your enemies will sometimes use cover when attacking you, but they don't behave very believably in battle, and their bodies quickly vanish when killed. It's a long time before you get into any pure action in Call of Cthulhu, and when it happens, it's at once thrilling and a little disappointing--thrilling because there's been so much buildup and tension leading up to the fighting, and disappointing because the foes you're facing aren't as cunning as you'd hope. Fortunately, the game rarely attempts to create challenge just by thrusting you into first-person shooter sequences, and the shooter portions are at least decent. The period weapons you'll get to use, such as Tommy guns and revolvers, feel like they pack a mean punch.
There's something fishy about the surly residents of Innsmouth...
The stealth portions are pretty good, too, especially because the game never flat-out forces you to be stealthy--it's just a means to an end, useful for avoiding combat (such as when you're unarmed) or getting the drop on your enemies. But if you're spotted, you can always fight...or run. Later in the game, you'll get to perform some highly gratifying stealth kills by plunging a knife into the backs of unaware opponents, who totally deserve it, by the way. All throughout, though, you'll be able to avoid confrontation by sticking to the shadows and keeping a low profile. You may also peek (and shoot) around corners in your efforts to stay safely out of sight.
Others have tried, but Call of Cthulhu is one of the first games to date to succeed at presenting a completely clutter-free first-person viewpoint. There are no health bars or ammo counts or anything to get in the way of your suspension of disbelief, yet the game still provides sufficient visual and audio feedback to keep you informed while playing. While there will probably be times when you'll wish the game were a bit more transparent about telling you when your health is low or when you're in danger of being detected by enemies, Call of Cthulhu's invisible interface definitely is to the game's credit. There isn't even an aiming reticle for any of the guns--you just aim down the sights to line up your targets. And you know you've taken damage when you see spurts of blood along the edges of the screen, and subsequently start to hear Jack gasping in pain and losing color vision. You can even have your limbs broken--you'll cringe listening to Jack trying to walk with a busted leg. Fortunately, he's got first aid kits to bring him back into shape. First aid takes a few seconds to apply, so you can't use your kits in the middle of a fight, but you can use them in a safe spot to cure fractures, bullet wounds, and so on. No, that's not realistic, but it's a good-enough system that's in keeping with the spirit of the game--Jack can't survive much damage in the first place.
Call of Cthulhu also features heavy adventure elements, in the form of exploration and puzzle-solving. A couple of puzzles involve pattern recognition while others simply require you to use the right inventory objects in the right places. The puzzles aren't very difficult, but when combined with the game's rather large and complex environments, they can make it tough to figure out how to proceed. You don't have a map in Call of Cthulhu, and there's no mission-objectives screen or anything like that, so it's possible that you might get confused and disoriented at times--yet even this is roughly in keeping with the feel the game is trying to evoke, unless you become too frustrated or completely stuck. Fortunately, the plot and premise is compelling enough that it's worth suffering through the occasional tight spot. It's all the more exciting and satisfying when you finally get past those parts and set foot in new territory.