Reviewed: November 14, 2005
Released: October 24, 2005
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is the long-awaited, much-anticipated first-person horror game that has been haunting expectant gamers almost as long as Duke Nukem Forever. The only difference is that you can actually play this game.
Set during the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu is based on the Cthulhu Mythos of HP Lovecraft, an American writer of fantasy and horror. Lovecraft's stories tell of unthinkable evil, psychic possession, and mythical worlds and his work has profoundly influenced numerous fantasy and science fiction writers, including Stephen King and Anne Rice.
The adventure takes place across numerous and varying levels ranging from quaint towns to alien locations, including Deep One City. A revolutionary Dynamic Sanity system means that encounters and even the environment can affect your character resulting in hallucinations, panic attacks, vertigo, paranoia, and more. Additionally, everything has a distinctive vintage feel including 1920s weaponry and vehicles as well as evil artifacts and alien technology.
Combining intense action and haunting adventure elements, Call of Cthulhu draws upon your skills in exploration, investigation, and combat while faced with the seemingly impossible task of battling evil incarnate. The game is genuinely creepy, ranking right up there with games like Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, and The Suffering.
Other than fighting, you have the ability to interact freely with characters and the gaming environment. To increase the sense of immersion, there is no interface or 'HUD' on screen at any time during normal gameplay. Instead, more intuitive methods are available for you to assess your condition, ammunition levels, and other relevant information.
The combat within the game is extremely realistic, with a detailed damage and healing system that breaks down the healing process into conditions and treatments - rather than having the typical FPS 'health packs' lying around everywhere. Jack can suffer injuries that will genuinely affect the gameplay. Break a leg and Jack will limp as he walks, wincing with each footstep. Break an arm and Jack will find it very hard to shoot accurately. Poison will sap Jack's stamina, and bleeding wounds must be tended to before Jack bleeds to death. Even getting wet and staying in a cold area will see Jack shivering from hypothermia. Luckily, there are many 1920s medical devices in the game, each with a real function, and Jack will be able to make use of these to heal most injuries.
The game also allows you to stamp your own style onto the proceedings via an advanced AI system that can react to your method of play. Cthulhu enemies can roam freely around the environment - opening doors and tracking you down single-handedly or in groups. To stay alive you won't just be able to outshoot them, you'll need to outthink them as well.
You will have to keep your mental health in check as you are exposed to the increasingly shocking images of the Cthulhu Mythos. The 'Sanity' system is a representation of Jack's sanity in the game. This can be unbalanced by what Jack sees, hears and reads as he explores Innsmouth, and can be restored through finding areas of sanctuary or destroying evil creatures. A loss of sanity can be represented in many ways such as hearing mysterious voices, hallucinating or suffering visual impairments (double vision and inability to focus) not unlike those used in Eternal Darkness on the GameCube.
Health and sanity are also reflected with some aggressive vibration in the controller, so much in fact that I burned through a set of batteries in my wireless gamepad just finishing this game. Everything from a subtle heartbeat to violent vibrations that threaten to send the controller flying across the room like a possessed Ouija Board monocle will enhance the gameplay.
No matter how good a gamer you think you are plan on dying a lot in this game. There are far too many surprises that are rigged for your first-time failure, and it can get quite discouraging for dying when the reasons for your death are totally out of your control. Only by dying and learning from that death can you pass the same trial the second time. While this trial and error gaming is mainly kept to the numerous and difficult puzzles, there are also normal game situations that demand your initial death.
The game also offers a basic stealth element but at the default difficulty it wasnít necessary. You can either run or fight your way through most of the encounters where sneaking would even be an option. Perhaps on the harder skill levels that are unlocked when you finish the game, stealth might play a more critical role in the gameplay.
Plan on doing a lot of reading. As with any adventure game, there are countless tomes of knowledge and backstory just waiting to be found and read. Admittedly, you can probably finish the game without reading any of it but you will certainly miss out on a huge aspect of the game, namely the ambience.
Iím getting used to dark games these days but Call of Cthulhu redefines darkness. I refuse to change my TV settings for any game but thankfully the in-game brightness can be adjusted to make the game playable, at least at night or in a dark room. Any ambient room light will threaten your enjoyment of the game.
The entire game is presented with a vintage film style that includes grainy video footage and a permanent grain filter on the gameplay graphics. I supposed it adds some ambience to the game, but when every other game you are playing is in crystal clear hi-def it does take some getting used to.
The environments and character models are suitably complex with some interesting textures and haunting visuals that are often hidden by the darkness of the game. Lighting is extremely important as you are often limited to seeing only what is lit my ambient light or direct lighting. There are a few washed out textures and Iím sure the game looks significantly better on the PC, but for an Xbox adventure game this one is really good.
The voice acting can get a bit campy at times, but no worse than any horror movie you might see on cable or even on the big screen. Most of the time the dialogue is spot on, but there are a few lines that will put a smile on your face.
The game truly shines in the audio effect department with some of the scariest sounds in adventure gaming. If you have a good sound system prepare to crap your pantsÖnumerous times. Even without a Dolby Digital mix the game manages to place all sorts of creepy sounds and random voices in speakers around the room. Youíll be questioning your own sanity along with Jackís.
The music is a simple score composed mainly of piano and a few other stringed instruments. It slips in and out of the gameplay to accent the mood and enhances an already disturbing atmosphere.
Call Of Cthulhu features 16 levels of action-adventure, each containing many hours of gameplay. Most gamers can probably finish the game in 20-25 hours, and there is little reason to replay after that. Keep in mind a lot of that time is spent dying and reloading.
There is a point system in place where players can gain Mythos Points. These reflect a level of knowledge that Jack has gained and are used to access bonuses, such as additional information and items. Dedicated gamers will want to keep playing to keep trying to get all of the Mythos Points, and uncover the full truth of the dark history of Cthulhu.
As an adventure game, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth manages to live up to the genre expectations. With so few true adventures available on the Xbox I can see this finding greater success on the console that it will on the PC where it will have far greater competition.
The gameplay can start to plod along at times but then you have those frequent moments of pure terror and wow moments that wake you from the trance. Call of Cthulhu is a substantial ride that manages to captivate players from start to finish, and a worthy homage to the work of HP Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos.