CALL OF CTHULHU Review: Something Fishy This Way Comes

Developed by Cyanide Studio

Published by Focus Home Interactive

Available on PC, PS4, Xbox One

Available for $60 ($45 on PC)

It’s strange with how few straight Lovecraft video games are out there. The man is a legend. His stories have spawned an endless tide of “inspired by” adaptations, non-canon continuations, and well-intentioned knockoffs. If your story has any kind of sea monster or sanity draining abomination, be ready to be labeled, “Lovecraftian.” The moniker has become so popular with my generation (bullshit millennials) that you can practically interchange “Lovecraftian” with the word “spooky.” It’s not that the man didn’t earn the adulation. It would be hard to imagine the modern horror landscape without the likes of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Dagon.

Now if you’re raising an eyebrow at that previous paragraph, I’m talking about games based on actual Lovecraft stories, not just things labeled Lovecraftian. We’ve got Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Eldritch, Cornarium, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, and a number of older point-and-click adventure games that no one remembers. I have no idea why; it seems that any game just bearing a Cthulhu title would be launched into success by name alone. Perhaps this is the work of a far greater force, something more insidious and malignant than any creature living or dead: licensing restrictions.

On the other hand, maybe it’s because Lovecraft stories are just a bitch to adapt. As much as I love undying horrors from beyond the far reaches of the cosmos, there’s only so many ways you can say, “I saw something super duper scary, and it broke my brain.” Even the most faithful and direct Lovecraft adaptations use the source material more as a springboard to launch into a more detailed story. Cult favorite Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth takes a lot of creative liberty in stitching like, four different stories together. Which leads us into Call of Cthulhu.

Honestly, just leaving your derelict ships beached on your shores, awash in the ominous glow of a distant lighthouse? Do you WANT fishmen? Because this is how you get fishmen.

Call of Cthulhu, the 2018 video game, is an adaptation of Call of Cthulhu, a pen-and-paper RPG created by Chaosium. Call of Cthulhu (2018) is not related to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. None of them are direct adaptations of “The Call of Cthulhu,” a short story about a guy who finds a spooky statue. The “Cthulhu-verse” is where all this takes place, although Cthulhu himself hardly ever shows up. Okay… I think I get why there aren’t more direct adaptations.

I’m going to assume you’re unaware of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG. I’ve only ever even met four other people that have heard of it, and all of them were in my playgroup. It’s super fun and I’d highly recommend it, but it’s certainly not Pathfinder levels of popular. It has plenty of mechanical flaws but makes up for them with the limitless possibilities and unbridled creativity the medium of pen-and-paper offers. Fortunately, your ignorance isn’t going to heavily hamper you, as the people at Cyanide Studios seem to have also forgotten about it.

Doing away with all of the breadth and creativity the pen-and-paper world offers, Call of Cthulhu is a linear adventure game. All that remains of the system that inspired it are seven skills that you can improve up to five times each. These skills act as gateways to certain dialogue options or puzzle solutions. If your strength is high enough, then you can just muscle your way through some puzzles. If your investigation skills are high enough, you can pick locks instead of hunt for the key. If your occult is high enough, you can speak fish. Cool.

“Hey kid, you wana learn fishpeak?”

You play as Private Investigator Edward Pierce, a WW1 vet with a drinking problem and a troubled past. After a fitful dream rousts you from your mid-afternoon booze-nap, a mysterious stranger arrives at your office with a job to investigate the Hawkin’s family estate. Off you go to the ominously named Darkwater Island. Once there you will point, click, and dialogue tree your way through that one Cthulhu story we have all come to expect.

Ha HA! I’ve got you eldritch horrors! You can’t break my mind if I break it first!

Now, none of this sounds bad so far. I’m certainly not about to shit on a Cthulhu story for being a Cthulhu story. As soon as you saw Cthulhu in the title, the betting odds were on fishmen, cults, glowing symbols, and a hefty dose of wobbly camera distortion. I’m fine with standard Cthulhu. As long as it’s told well, give me all the wall-eyed fish people you can muster. It’s in the execution that Call of Cthulhu ultimately fails.

Storywise, the pacing really screws the pooch. You very quickly sense that something is off in the world of Darkwater, but the game lacks the length or depth to allow that foreboding sense to naturally grow. The game is only like seven hours long, and by the end of the first level, you’ll have glimpsed your first painting of a fishman. By level five, you’re already locked in an asylum after coming face-to-face with a creature of the deep. It all just happens so fast, you have no chance to let the feeling of dread and mystery build. You’ll learn about, discover the location of, and acquire the fucking Necronomicon all in the same investigation of a derelict bookstore.

Cthulhu flies in the skyyyyy. Your whole world will dieeeee! Just take a look, it’s in this book, the reading brain blowwwwww.

Side characters suffer from the same lack of development. The cast is pretty standard, consisting of a mad scientist, crime boss femme fatale, tortured artist with evil premonitions, an insane scholar, and a fish person. Okay, so not “standard” standard, but certainly what we expect from a Cthulhu story. Once again, the major issue is that none of the characters get enough screen time to really give a shit if they survive.

Seriously, detective no-eyes here is a pivotal character

It’s a big problem when a Cthulhu story doesn’t grab you, but all of this could be forgiven if the game was fun to play. Unfortunately, the gameplay suffers from the same lack of pacing. Fundamentally, Call of Cthulhu is a point-and-click adventure in 3D. You’ll investigate crime scenes, amble about towns, and stumble your way through conversation trees in an attempt to suss out all the eldritch secrets your mind can fathom. There are also a few stealth sequences and one abysmal “gunplay” section that boils down to “click mouse to kill zombie.”

Once again, I’m not going to shit on an adventure game for being an adventure game. You’re a detective, so I expect most of the gameplay would revolve around your detective stuff. The big issue is that none of the skills feel meaningful. Aside from unlocking certain dialogue/puzzle options, there’s no benefit to upping your skills. If you go for better lockpicking, you’ll be able to pick better locks. If you pick higher strength, you’ll be able to shoulder bash more locks. If you pick higher dialogue skills, you’ll be able to convince people to open the door for you. Three different skills, all the same conclusion.

If you look very closely, it kind of looks like he’s pooping.

None of this is helped by the fact that none of the puzzles are particularly difficult or intriguing. Even without the beneficial skill checks, I didn’t once have to look up a guide or bust out my thinking cap. One particularly egregious action sequence had me smashing open different display cases trying to find which dagger was the magic monster killing dagger. There was no thought involved, just trial and error until I picked the dagger with the special blue marks on it.

God, you don’t just KNOW that the bone dagger is the only one that can kill the dimensional shambler spawned forth from the nightmare painting of a cursed oracle? You absolute scrublord.

Now I’m getting pretty down on the game, but I don’t feel like Call of Cthulhu is all a wash. The core story is pretty great, with enough spooky eldritch depth to feel like a true Cthulhu story. If the game just gave itself some more time to tell it all, it could be something really special. There are also a number of fantastic set-piece moments, where the line between what is real and what is imagined blur to a point worthy of the Lovecraft name. For fans of the mythos, it will be fun just for that alone.

I have to also acknowledge that much of my opinion is contingent on the $60 price tag. For a game this short and mechanically limited, it’s absolutely absurd to be charging full price. If this were a $20 fan game, I could easily see this making its way onto some Game of the Year lists. As a $60 title, I cannot imagine buying this and not being disappointed.

Ultimately, Call of Cthulhu is a cool idea that just doesn’t deliver. Building a game off of the Chaosium system is a monumental task, so I can see why they slimmed it down. But the amount of fat that they trimmed also cut away all of the meat. Call of Cthulhu is anemic, too short and contained to properly elaborate on either the story or mechanics. There are some great moments, and I would highly recommend it as a discount buy during a sale. As a full priced game, there’s no way I could recommend it to all but the most diehard fans.

The post CALL OF CTHULHU Review: Something Fishy This Way Comes appeared first on Dread Central.

CTHULHU DARK Review: Insane Non-Euclidian Fun

Written by Graham Walmsey, Kathryn Jenkins, and Helen Gould

Published by Thieves of Time

Available in hardback for $43.00 

Beneath the stinking Thames of 1851 London, among the glorious towers of 2037 Mumbai, and in the doorways of cursed Arkham, something lurks. It is a monster, an idea, the terrible truth of the universe. The only thing standing between the madness of reality and humanity’s fragile sanity is the illusion that anything we do matters. Welcome to the world of Cthulhu Dark.

Cthulhu is a much-invoked eldritch horror in nerdom, but these days he’s less mind-bending terror and more, uh, cute and cuddly? It’s rare that I go to a convention anymore without seeing him making chibi heart-eyes at some crossover villain on a print in Artist’s Alley, or incarnated as a crocheted plushie. I was delighted then, when I discovered Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark. I cracked open the rule book and realized almost immediately that it was a return to the heart of the Lovecraftian mythology that had enthralled me as a teenager. Not only does Cthulhu Dark do an excellent job of getting at the core horror that drives Lovecraftian stories, it also provides a very effective set of tools for making your own non-euclidian stories. I summoned a group of friends using an ancient ritual involving candles, a goat, and Facebook messenger, and we got down to playing.

Cthulhu Dark comes with several pre-built stories, including titles such as “The Doors Beyond Time” and “Consume”. We picked “Screams of the Children”, because it’s hard to beat the aesthetic of 1851 London, and one of the players was not-so-secretly hoping that Jack the Ripper might show up. The responsibilities of the game are split up between a single Director, who runs the story, and the players trying to unravel the mystery, who are dubbed Investigators. A word of caution if you’re trying out the game yourself: if you’re hoping to play an Investigator, don’t read beyond the player section. The pre-built stories all include major spoilers early on and so they should be considered Director’s-eyes-only.

The Director’s side of things requires some pre-game prep, but Cthulhu Dark is a very easy game for Investigators to learn. Character creation involves picking a name and occupation appropriate to the story and setting, and then describing what your Investigator looks like. The book contains lots of helpful examples for occupations appropriate to the different settings and time periods. For our setting, 1851 London, the book also provided lots of juicy tidbits about what was going on historically during that time period. For example, London had its first police force during this time, which was respected, but not exactly good at what it did. When they collared crooks, criminals fought back, and usually won. Also, poor people were physically shorter than the nobility, due to malnutrition, which meant the upper class literally looked down on others. It’s the little details like that which really bring a setting to life, and the book does a lot of the heavy lifting in this regard.

The only hard stat every Investigator has is their Insanity score, which starts at one. It’s represented by a green dice. (As a quick note, there seems to be some discrepancy between the quick start guide, which refers to it as an Insanity die, and the rules proper, which refer to it as an Insight die. We ended up using the quick start for most of the game and thus referred to it as an Insanity die. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be calling it an Insanity die.) Every time that die is rolled and comes up higher than their existing insanity score, the insanity score increases by one.

The conflict resolution mechanic isn’t any more complicated. Any time an Investigator wants to do something they might not succeed at, they take one dice for it being within a human’s capabilities, another if it falls within their occupation. They can also choose to risk their sanity on the attempt by adding their insanity dice to the pool. Once the dice pool is assembled, the Investigator rolls all of them and takes the highest number. On a one, the Investigator barely succeeds, and probably suffers complications to their outcome. They might make the jump across rooftops, but break their leg in the process. They might correctly interpret a passage of ancient Latin, but miss the caveat at the bottom about the monster summoned as a by-product of the spell. Conversely, on a six, the Investigator succeeds brilliantly. They land soundlessly and vanish into the night, or gain a helpful warning from a text not to speak to the old man at the bridge, no matter how he wails.

If someone can think of an interesting way you might fail an action, they describe what might happen and then roll against you. Nevermind what the neighbors think; what if your crush is the one that notices you hauling a dead goat across town? If the failure dice comes up higher, the previously described fiction is what happens.

I’ll confess that this failure rule is the one we had the hardest time implementing. I like the rule in theory because it spreads out the responsibility of being the voice of opposition. It means the Director doesn’t have to be the only bad guy at the table. It also grants the players a certain amount of agency to come up with ideas and contribute to the world around them. This is important because the Inspectors of Cthulhu Dark are granted precious little agency, and it’s important that the players still have a way to contribute to the world. Having said that, despite my player’s goodwill to be part of the Investigator’s problems at the start of play, in practice no one wanted to be the bad guy and there was nothing to compel them to do so. Players were invested in their characters and so coming up with fail scenarios didn’t come naturally. Pretty soon the Director was the only one proposing trouble.

Since Insanity is the only Investigator stat, it also functions as a character’s health. Players must roll their Insanity dice whenever they witness something disturbing, but they can also choose to risk it as described above or to prevent disaster. Any time an Investigator fails, the player can reroll their dice, provided they include their Insanity dice in the mix. Since Investigators go mad and exit the story when their Insanity hits six, the threat of their Insanity going up is a very real one.

There’s no healing, per se, but once an Investigator’s Insanity hits five and the end is nigh, they can take actions to Suppress Mythos Knowledge and reduce their Insanity again. They might burn ritual books, destroy incantation circles, or drown the monstrous offspring of the horror beneath the streets. They’re desperate actions liable to be seen as madness by onlookers, but in truth, it’s are the only thing keeping Investigators from truly snapping.

Our Investigators got underway pretty quickly. They were the residents of a boarding house, set out to rescue the missing newborn child of one of the house’s former residents. The world of 1851 London they thought they knew unraveled rapidly around them. Cthulhu Dark has some excellent guides for how to tell a horror story. One of my favorite tools the game has for doing this is what it calls “creeping horrors”. They are unsettling moments of weirdness throughout the story where the Investigators get the creeping sensation that something is deeply, irrevocably wrong. This “wrongness” repeats throughout the mystery and gradually becomes a symbol of the horror itself. Like all good supernatural horror symptoms, it’s easily explained away at first and then gets harder and harder to ignore.

At first, there’s a rational explanation for it. For example, in our story, the stink of the Thames was one of the creeping horrors. At first, Investigators wrote it off as part of the scenery. The stink fills the terrified tenant’s room because she has been walking along the river after nightfall. When it wafts into the room after you examine a letter, there must be a draft somewhere. Gradually, however, the creeping horror becomes something impossible. You take a deep breath of the fresh flowers outside the old church and the reek of the clogged, polluted, dying river washes over you. It becomes a thing to be feared and later on in the adventure, a small whiff of the stench in an enclosed tunnel is enough to send Investigators stumbling frantically backward for safety.

I especially liked the creeping horrors because they inevitably result in exactly the sort of behavior one would expect to see in a Lovecraftian short story. Investigators are reduced to trying to stab rich gentlemen to death because their faces are too white, or screaming at people to run because the windows of a building are too round. All actions make sense to the Investigators, but from the outside, they have become mad people. My own intrepid Investigators came to fear not only the stink of the Thames, but also the paleness of buildings, and the sound of a child’s voice.

The rulebook is chock-full of Lovecraftian storytelling tools and tips like the creeping horrors. There’s a collection of threats pulled straight out of Lovecraft to pick from and build an adventure around, as well as ideas for what creeping horrors might accompany them. Each of the abstract horrors, the monstrosities beyond human ken, is also tied thematically to everyday realities. For example, the Deep Ones, from under the waves who breed with humans, might be thematically tied to family, or fear of one’s own body. There are also tips on pacing, scene-crafting, and how to evoke the right emotions in the story’s participants. Even if you never play this game, I would still strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to write horror short stories in general.

As much as I loved how well Cthulhu Dark captures the essence of Lovecraft’s works, I had some complaints of it as a game. Cthulhu Dark is extremely railroad-y. The game largely consists of moving the players along from point A to B and trying to unsettle them badly along the way. This means a lot of prep time for the Director. Even with the excellent tools provided by the sourcebook, it’s still going to take a few hours on the front end to build a story to build a story, more if you go beyond the settings established in the book. As I mentioned before, there are several prebuilt scenarios to get you started, but since you can probably play through most of them in a single sitting, you’re likely to burn through them pretty quickly.

Another frustration I encountered was the level of control exerted by the Director role itself. The Director themselves is aptly named; there’s not a lot of room for player agency of the story itself. In a lot of ways, it functions like a standard video game narrative in this regard. Players might choose to make one choice or another, but ultimately, they’re being trotted along through a series of locations and scenes the Director came up with ahead of time towards an inevitable end. Players of traditional-style games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire: the Masquerade might not mind as much, but those accustomed to play-to-find-out systems such as Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark are likely to rankle under this limitation of the system. As a Director, I didn’t mind so much. The “Screams of the Children” scenario we played through afforded me lots of opportunities to say cool things and slowly feed out the mystery to my players. Had I been on the other side of the table, however, this sort of system would have driven me crazy. Generally speaking, if I’m going to play in someone else’s pre-built story, I’d rather just go play a video game.

Similarly, in character creation, there are a number of limitations imposed by the rigid nature of the story. In “Screams of the Children” for example, it wasn’t enough for players to build characters who simply lived in the boarding house and had class appropriate jobs. They also had to have a positive relationship with one NPC tenant, and have character-defining reasons for caring about children. Without these restrictions, the story doesn’t really get off the ground or function correctly. Having character building restrictions is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does contribute to the overall feeling of lack of player agency that plagued the latter part of our game.

As much as this railroady-ness bothered me, I can see one very compelling reason why it might be a feature, rather than a bug, of this particular system. Cthulhu Dark is specifically exploring Lovecraftian-style stories. An essential part of that mythos is that humans do not matter, and do not ultimately have any control over what happens to them. Any other belief is hubris, but that misplaced self-importance is also possibly the only thing keeping the screaming insanity of the universe at bay. Ultimately, players do not have control, and that is the point. Looked at in that light, the players’ lack of true agency in determining the outcome of the story is just another way in which Cthulhu Dark stays true to its source material. Cthulhu Dark then is a game that tells one very, very specific type of story, but it does that one thing exceptionally well.

All in all, I really enjoyed playing Cthulhu Dark. The deterministic nature of the story rubbed me the wrong way, and I disliked how much prep time crafting an adventure involved, especially since most games will be one-shots, but my friends and I had a lot of fun. Players, in particular, liked how easy it was for them to pick up and learn the game. A couple of players said they want to try the Arkham adventure next. I look forward to enjoying it with them. If you need a little more screaming horror of the universe in your life, then I recommend picking up a copy for yourself.

Until next time, happy gaming everyone!

The post CTHULHU DARK Review: Insane Non-Euclidian Fun appeared first on Dread Central.

Night Force – comic book

Night Force is an American comic book series featuring Baron Winters and the Night Force published by DC Comics.

In 1982, when DC’s Night Force first appeared, it was innovative in two ways: first, it was an anthology series with recurring characters; before this, horror comics were usually either anthologies like EC’s Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955), with a horror host being the only recurring character, or they were monster-driven, ongoing story-lines like Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula (1972-1979).

Second, if major characters in any ongoing story-line comic died, that condition was certain to be reversed in a future issue. Plus, those characters were most definitely never injured in any permanent way. With Night Force, the horror anthology story-line comic with truly mortal and battle-scarred characters was born.

Modern (for the early 1980s) settings and plots, dubious characters, and subversive outcomes accentuated the comic and took it out of the traditional shudders-and-creeps realm of previous comics and placed it into the more disorderly world of Cold War occultism, factious character motivations, and sinister éminence grise machinations.

Marv Wolfman and Gene Colon, the writer and artist respectively of Night Force, gave this horror comic its debut as a brief back-up piece in issue #21 of DC’s The New Teen Titans (1980-1984), producing something truly unique by creating a macabre Mission Impossible concept that wasn’t afraid to maim or kill off its agents.

As an example, one of the main characters actually loses an arm and a leg during the first seven-issue story-line. They weren’t afraid to create characters with extremely ugly and realistic psychologies and still make them protagonists; the cynical and self-serving Jack Gold is an illustration, with his constant suspicions, shortsightedness, and deceptive handling of Vanessa Van Helsing in the first story, conduct which may haunt Gold for the rest of his life, placing him in an existential prison of his own making and damaging Vanessa beyond all repair.

Wolfman and Colon were also not afraid to drop all of the main characters, except Winters and Merlin (Winters’ leopard familiar) for the second, three-issue story-line, and bring in fresh faces – some of whom die. They weren’t afraid to bring back a few of the characters from the first story, scarred as they were, to close out the final story, dropping even more hints while still leaving things deliciously opaque.

Winters, himself, is an enigmatic figure, with many things being revealed about him throughout the short series, but little clarity being provided concerning who or what he actually is. It’s known he once worked in a carnival; Dr. Rabin, of the Potomac Psychiatric Hospital, mentions this a few times, always in reference to her belief that Winters is an occult charlatan; Merlin, being a leopard, never speaks, yet Winters converses with him, and is frequently chided by him; it’s revealed in issue #14 (the final issue) that Merlin was given to Winters by an African sorceress, possibly from some other, much older, time period; it’s hinted that Winters is incalculably old without precisely defining his age; for the time being, he’s forbidden from leaving his mansion, Wintersgate, during the current time period and in this dimension, and it’s suggested that it has something to do with the African sorceress.

Furthermore, readers discovered that the structure of the house itself subtly warps in conjunction with Winters’ mood, and that certain doors in Wintersgate lead to other time periods through which he can exit. It was also revealed that Winters is incapable of seeing the future, but is quite capable of being a puppet master, manoeuvring people into frequently deadly situations in order to get what he wants, and that what he wants may appear at close focus to be brutally selfish, but at long-range may actually be the pursuit of a greater good. Maybe.

The occult aspects of this excellent comic are far-ranging and ubiquitous, with Soviet experiments into the arcane taking up the first story, the early stirrings of a possible Lovecraftian trespass constituting the short second story, and African auguries and bewitchments fleshing out the third and final story. These are only the main plot points, though; there are many other morsels to fill these ruptures in space and time, things to unsettle the complacent, and further reveals of Winters’ callousness and rather delicate personality.

Cruel and unsympathetic he may be at times, but it’s also revealed at one point he’s a devotee of chocolate egg creams. And anyone who likes chocolate egg creams can’t be all bad. Or can they? Do yourself a favour; read the comic and decide for yourself. And have a devilishly good egg cream while you’re at it.


Image credits: Comic Vine

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