Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth Print
Written by Doc_Brown   
Saturday, 23 June 2007 18:00
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Developer: Headfirst Productions
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Official Site and Trailer
ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol)
PEGI 18+ (Game contains depictions of violence, bad language)

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A Drop of Time
You know how before every Resident Evil game a disclaimer pops up warning you “this game contains scenes of explicit violence and gore”? Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (henceforth simply Call of Cthulhu) has something like that, too. But that’s just the first paragraph. The second paragraph goes on to warn the player that the game will manipulate graphics, sounds, and controls to simulate the player character’s deteriorating sanity. It adds that these effects are unlikely to be a problem with either the game itself or your own grip on reality. That's... comforting...

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A Case to End all Cases
Jack Walters has got it going for him. He’s an up-and-coming detective, solving unsolvable cases through intuition alone. Then one rainy night he’s called to serve as a negotiator with a cult that’s gotten a little trigger-happy. Jack goes in, and then something happens. Something bad. Something that causes Jack to suffer a complete psychotic break and wind up at Arkham Asylum. Six years pass, and suddenly the old Jack is back. Those past six years, though, are a complete blank to him. Nor can he remember what happened in the house that night, either.

His career now shot, Jack takes a missing person case in the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. The locals don’t take kindly to his snooping around, and by nightfall are actively trying to kill him. The closer Jack gets to the truth, though, the more horrifying the answers become. Furthermore, the psychological shock of it all seems to be jogging his memory, as Jack starts getting flashes from his six missing years. It’s no secret that these revelations will be the end of him—the opening cinematic shows Jack, in Arkham once again, hanging himself. The point of the game is to find out why.

The one place where the story fails is in the framing. I would have preferred if the night Jack snapped didn’t serve as the tutorial, since the audience knows more about what went down than Jack himself. On the other hand, they never spell out exactly what happened by the end. In other words, the situation is reversed: Jack learns more than we do, but kills himself before sharing with us. I actually had to look it up online, which is a bad sign. Ironically, the prologue turns out to be necessary after all, because without it we would be completely in the dark, rather than just… you know… mostly.

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A Shoggoth on the Roof
As you may have gathered from the screenshots, Call of Cthulhu isn’t exactly the prettiest of games, but keep in mind it’s not supposed to be.  Innsmouth is decrepit, and the developers have gone to great lengths to show it. Many games have used the occasional creepy-crawly to imply filth, but Headfirst deserves the gold medal. Flies, moths, maggots, cockroaches, crabs… more than enough to make your skin crawl.  Everything’s grainy, like it’s been shot on old film stock, and I also think this is the first time I’ve seen clothes on the line actually fluttering in time with howling gusts of wind.

Control is, unfortunately, a little spotty. There’s no run button, and I know I sure as hell would have appreciated one. While there’s a sneak button, which by all rights and reasons should appeal to me, I dislike the visual glazing that accompanies its use and makes it hard to see. Leaning around corners is a useful move, but not when it messes with your ability to accurately aim down the sights of your gun. And while I appreciate the realism of making Jack stick near a door while he closes it, I don’t know how many times this resulted in the door pushing me back into the room I’d come from. When some lurking horror is nipping at your heels, you can’t afford such mistakes.

Despite qualifying as a first-person shooter, there is no actual HUD in this game. Health is relayed via visual, audio, and movement cues, and you just have to remember how much ammo you have left in your gun. Get shot, and blood will splatter the screen. Fall too far and break a leg, and Jack will slowly limp along, hissing in pain with each step. First aid kits don’t just instantly cure what ails you, but take time to apply, and the more severe your injuries the longer it takes to treat them. You literally have to drag your wounded carcass to a safe corner to recuperate.

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Glad you could join the freak show.
For a first-person shooter, you have to wait a long time before you get to shoot anything. You spend the early portions of the game playing detective, solving puzzles that are thankfully nowhere near as esoteric as the Order of Dagon. There’s a lot of sneaking about, and even a bit of running and screaming, before you get your first weapon. Nor does the game escalate to mindless combat after that, as you’ll continue to solve puzzles and avoid confrontation. But while the combat can be fun at times, it lacks the legs to keep you engaged for the whole game.

One reason for this is the decision to occasionally incorporate respawning enemies. Ammo is scarce, and nothing is more frustrating than clearing out a group of baddies only to have more show up, over and over again. By the time you realize the designers don’t want you to follow this course of action (in spite of giving you the tools to pursue it), you’re pretty much screwed. The bad guys are now on alert and you’re both low on ammo and more than likely injured from all the bullets flying around. You have little choice in these situations but to reload.

The problem is further exaggerated by the save system. While the game does autosave, it does so far and few between. Rather than let you save when and wherever you want, there are specific save locations you must use. This isn’t too much of a problem unless you’re trying to get by without saving (like many survival horror games, beating the game quickly and with a minimal number of saves will net greater rewards), in which case it becomes infuriating. The final playable sequence in particular is maddening, as you’ll die dozens of times before succeeding by nothing more than dumb luck.

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Sanity’s Requiem
Although I’ve mentioned healing already, let me go into a bit more detail. Your first aid kit holds a variety of supplies for use on different kinds of injuries. In theory this is intriguing, as you should be able to examine your injuries and determine the appropriate treatment, but such is not the case. Jack’s character model, which you can see whenever you open up your inventory, simply has generic pain skins. More than that, there’s a simple grid that plainly shows you what’s wrong. There’s even a button assigned to automatically treat Jack’s wounds and skip the whole process entirely.

In the middle of combat, though, you may not have time to sit down and patch yourself up. Still, it’s hard to fight back when you can’t even hold your arm steady. To this end, Jack also carries morphine with him, which temporarily negates such effects. On the downside, addiction will also take its toll on Jack. Mental health is as much a factor in this game as physical health, and all the shocking things Jack sees will strain his fragile mind. Eternal Darkness may have tackled insanity first, but it did so by breaking the fourth wall and messing with the player, not the character.

In Call of Cthulhu, it’s Jack who suffers (though I should warn you, some of the visual effects are genuinely nausea-inducing). He hears voices or starts mumbling to himself. He seems to forget what he’s doing and holsters his gun, or becomes so twitchy it accidentally goes off. If it gets bad enough, he may even try to commit suicide. Like Indigo Prophecy, simple things can be done to calm him down, such as staring at the ground until his head clears. And believe me, there’s a lot in this game to go nuts over. I haven’t spent this much time looking down since Trespasser.

The best insanity effects, though, are the scripted hallucinations. In particular, Jack will occasionally flashback to his stint at Arkham. Let’s clarify that Arkham to begin with is nightmare inducing, a rat-infested hole where electroshock therapy is all the rage. What makes these acid trips so impressive, though, is how the story is actually integrated into them. After Jack comes across a pile of decomposing bodies, for instance, Arkham is portrayed as crawling with bugs. Once someone dies a particularly gory death, blood is seen running down the asylum walls. It’s really quite brilliant.

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Conclusion
So what's the final verdict?  Well, to its credit Call of Cthulhu showcases some impressive attention to detail in its storyline, game world, and mechanics (particularly the insanity system).  On the flip side, however, it isn't much to look at and the gameplay—let's be honest—isn't terribly fun except in small doses.  Lovecraft devotees and horror fans in general should check it out, but the broader first-person shooter audience probably won't find the game to their tastes.  Hopefully, though, this isn't the last the world of videogames has seen of the Cthulhu Mythos...
 

Game Rated 6/10