HP Lovecraft invented the idea of being scared. Before him, nobody was ever scared of anything, and after him, we've all been scared of everything. Every horror writer and moviemaker has been inspired by his work. Yet we've never really had a successful Lovecraft movie or a successful Lovecraft video game.
Isn't that weird? I think it's weird. Maybe it's because the cosmic forces ranged against humanity in the Cthulhu mythos are ineffable entities that cannot be defeated. Maybe the pathetic insignificance of humanity in the face of the mythos goes against the power fantasies of most gamers. I dunno, perhaps the poly count for Cthulhu is just too demanding for most PCs. But while the influence of Lovecraft's work has been creeping into the periphery of games since Quake, there have been no truly concerted efforts to push the mythos into the limelight of gaming.
Back in the mists of time, there were a couple of strangely-paced point-and-click adventures with the Call of Cthulhu logo on them, and of course there was Dark Corners of the Earth, the middling and occasionally brilliant shooter from 2005, but there have been more games about managing theme parks than there have about the cornerstone author of modern horror.
Well, this ain't sitting right with Cyanide Studios. I felt good about this. Cyanide recently published the surprisingly wonderful intrigue-laced adventure The Council, and I thought its complex and thought-provoking approach to solving mysteries would be a great fit for a Cthulhu investigation. My favourite scenes from Dark Corners of the Earth were scenes where you had to flee relentless enemies, and Cyanide's keenness for stealth seems like it could be a good fit for this kind of thing.
And so it is, sometimes. There are a few nice set pieces where you're hiding in a cupboard from a nasty gribbly, and it all gets a little pant-soiling for a bit. These stealth bits are few and far between, and often combined with some mystifying mechanics that I never fully got a handle on. There's practically no actual combat at all, and what little is there is delivered in a strangely cumbersome manner considering FPS games were invented over three million years ago.
But if you're looking for a shooter, Call of Cthulhu isn't really what you're after - nor should it be. Proudly leaning on its license with the popular Chaosium tabletop RPG (one medium where Lovecraft's work seems to have found real success), the videogame follows the pattern of a classic Call of Cthulhu tabletop scenario:
1). The protagonist is called upon to investigate mysterious shenanigans.
2). After interviewing everyone in town, climbing through a few windows in the dead of night and reading an armload of occult books, the protagonist discovers that said shenanigans are occult in nature
3). Protagonist bravely confronts the shenanigisers in question, usually just as they summon a squamous beast from beyond the cosmos.
4). Protagonist runs for his or her life before going insane.
It's a tried-and-tested formula, and the video game sticks pretty closely to many of these tropes. You play Edward Pierce, a private investigator who has weird dreams. You have a handful of simplistic stats that range from 1-5 (although most of them start at 2 or 3), and you level them up as you progress. These skills can be used to investigate the story as you go along, including during special reconstruction scenes where you work out what must have happened at a crime scene (similar in many ways to the detective scenes in the Batman: Arkham games) although I never really noticed success or failure being determined. The plot is extremely linear and there are precious few things to collect, so success or failure is pretty moot anyway. The game needs to feed you the necessary plot points, and you need to be able to progress, so there's not a great deal that the RPG elements really add.
Linear is fine in some games. It can even sort of work in a mystery story - BioShock is a great example of this. But Call of Cthulhu just has a few too many holes in important places. Too few mythos entities. Some new ones who communicate directly with you in a profoundly un-mythosy way. Odd pacing and game balance, where a series of literally un-failable levels are followed by an unfair and unbalanced set-piece where you'll die over and over until you learn the special path. Characters with motivations that are incredibly difficult to fathom, all the more so if you really think about it rather than letting it all wash over you. An uncomfortably abrupt ending. Lack of real player agency. There's a mystery to solve and damn it you're going to solve it in the exact order you are supposed to. Some of the 'descent into madness' stuff is handled in an interesting and confusing way (this time I suppose it's confusing in a good way) and the sounds are creepy and evocative, and many of the levels are beautifully depicted in ways that stay extremely close to the concept art upon which they were obviously designed.
But when all's said and done, there's a clunkiness to the pacing, plot and gameplay that relegates Call of Cthulhu to the second division.