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Panzadolphin56 avatar 7:02 AM on 01.15.2014  (server time)
Call of Cthulhu and the Spectre of Good Horror

So I picked up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth in the Steam Christmas sale and despite some minor problems was able to power through it quite quickly within a week or so; what I played left me intrigued enough to want to jot down a few of my thoughts on the game.

I think the first thing I'd say about this game is that I enjoyed it, it is sort of buggy and broken in a lot of respects but I also can't help but feel underneath all of its problems is an interesting game with a lot of potential.

Often with games they forget the story/narrative side of the experience and tend to just be 'games' what does that mean? Well, the game isn't so much about playing the role of the character you're playing as but rather just repeating patterns of mechanics, for example, walk into room, shoot wave of enemies, engage with bit of story, enter next room, rinse and repeat. Which personally feels a bit soul-destroying to me, a game needs to be a good compromise between the mechanics and the intent who am I pretending to be? What do I do in the game? Where's the fun supposed to come from?

If I'm a detective I need to feel like a detective, if I'm the commander of a starship I need to feel like one; if you spend your game days dipping into trash cans for snacks then there's a good chance you might undermine the sense your character is some sort of heroic (and thin) pinnacle of manliness, if your character never has to worry about stopping to reload or check their condition then you might undermine the sense that the player is in a scary horror game.

What stood out most about Call of Cthulhu for me is that for the most part I did feel I was playing the part of the character I was playing, even if buggy the developers did seem to have the right idea about how to construct the gameplay and story. I was playing a Lovecraft horror story for all intents and purposes, I was the weak (though apparently very debonair) protagonist, stuck in a world of madness and abhorrent horrors and trying desperately to find a way to escape, and I liked that, a lot.

In Dark Corners of the Earth you play Jack Walters, a detective who after a stint in a mental asylum (having seemingly lost a large chunk of his life and memories) takes a case to locate the missing manager of a small convenience store in a close-knit fishing town. Things go down hill very quickly though as Jack finds himself drawn into a very dark and otherworldly conspiracy.

This is what I think works best about Dark Corners of the Earth, as it does feel as though over the course of the game there's a steady downward spiral in terms of how bad the situation gets - the shit really hits the fan - as you go from tackling a conspiracy to battling otherworldly creatures.

One of the best/most interesting aspects of the game is that it initially starts off as a sort of stealth/detective game, it takes a fair amount of time for you to get a weapon and in the meantime the threats to your safety (not to mention your life) steadily increase. The very first sections of the game have you mostly exploring, talking to people and doing just enough sneaking and snooping to get the clues you need to figure out there might be more going on in the town of Innsmouth. The game then shifts into full-on sneakathon, as you're forced to make your escape after a botched attempt on your life; this lasts probably the first 1/3 or around 1/2 of the game as you desperately try to evade regular human enemies.

In the 2/3 or 2/2 of the game the dynamic shifts further towards action, you're still sneaking but you get access to firearms and are able to force your way through situations more. And as the game develops further still the enemies change also, becoming more challenging, and a lot less human. The nice thing is though it doesn't lose that horror edge, you don't actually gain anything from killing enemies (well, aside from them being dead obviously) and in some areas they respawn so you have to be careful about when you decide to start shooting everything in sight.

There's also a nice mixture of stages the stealth aspects don't completely disappear, even when you do get guns, and even after you start to confront the larger, more otherworldly, threats of the game. Indeed, even though the action sections do seem to get longer as the game progresses they always seem sandwiched between sections where stealth is either required or heavily suggested.

I like this a lot, I think too many horror games (at least AAA ones) think of tension and atmosphere as something to use in the early stages of the game, to set the scene, to unsettle the player, then just completely forget about them and just throw action scene after action scene at the player. So it's nice that Call of Cthulhu never really forgets that it's a horror game.

The game isn't without its faults though, to start off with it is very buggy. Even alt-tabbing while in-game will make it crash, I patched the game prior to even booting it up but without the patch I've heard there's a fair few other crashes that can happen. It's very unstable.

The game is also very hard, at least without the fixed executable, which (separate from the patch) alters some of the in-game parameters to make it less of a ball-buster. Now, I don't mind hard, but a game has to be clear about its mechanics if you're going to challenge the player and Dark Corners of the Earth really isn't. There's no HUD and no real visual clues as to how what you're doing affects the game world so it's often impossible to know how you're failing except to know that you are failing and keep doing it. There is, for example, a sneaking section early on where you have to sneak into a room without being seen... sounds easy enough, but for some reason even without making any obvious noise as soon as you get in the room you're somehow seen, I replayed this section several times and regardless of how careful I was the guard seemed to be almost omniscient.

Aside from the bugs I think this is the biggest problem I have with the game, there's a lot of interesting aspects and mechanics to it but most of them feel pretty disconnected from the player if you're going to have action and shooting sections (especially in horror) then guns need to have weight, presence, you need to feel that what you're doing has purpose, you need to feel in a certain amount of control.

Likewise if you're going to have sneaking sections the game needs to communicate to the player how effective their stealth is. In some games this is done in a very obvious way with elements of the HUD displaying visibility or how alert guards are, but it could be more subtle say, with environmental cues, perhaps guards' footsteps being louder the closer they are or your actions having relatives degrees of noise comparative to how likely to attract attention they are. Yet Call of Cthulhu has none of this, and it really suffers for it.

This is the real shame about Dark Corners of the Earth, as the story really is interesting and it is a pretty stand-out game in a lot of respects, it's just the mechanics really haven't been developed as much as they need to be, so at times it can feel like a very disconnected experience. That said I'm still pleased I bought it, though glad I didn't pay anything near full-price for it. I love Lovecraft stories so it's right up my alley (oo-er.)

Here's hoping in the future someone has the good sense to take the model the game provides and improve on it, I'd love to see that.

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