Confession time – I have enough Cthulhu-related shirts in my closet to wear a different one every day of the month without repeating. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a bit of a fan. When Focus Home and Cyanide Studios announced that they’d be tackling the Lovecraftian mythos of dread Cthulhu I was, of course, very excited. When I then learned that they’d be using the Chaosium tabletop game rules as inspiration, I was positively giddy. At E3 2017 I sat down for a 30 minute demo with the current build of the game.
Jumping ahead in the narrative, the demo started in Chapter 3, which focuses on the Hawkins’ Mansion gardens. Our character, a Boston-based Private Investigator named Edward Pierce, has been called to the estate by the local constable, Officer Bradley. It’s here that a massive fire occurs, turning the once beautiful mansion into a somber mausoleum. It also serves as the final resting place for the entire Hawkins family. Sarah, a local artist and mother, Simon, her husband, and Simon, their young son, all perished here.
As the constable opens the gates to this creepy mansion, our job is to investigate the fire to see if there is foul play, or if this was just a tragic accident. Set in the early 1920s, Pierce will have to rely on his powers of observation and limited tools to uncover the truth…and what else might lie beneath it.
The courtyard is filled with Gothic architecture, dead trees, and generations of marked graves. Investigating the family mausoleum and tombs, we see that all of the graves have flowers, except for the one belonging to Charles. It seems that the patriarch of the Hawkins family may not have been well liked — information that may be useful later.
Finding the front door locked, we move around to the side of the courtyard and find a small service door. As we reach to open it, an eerie caretaker named Silas Winchester sticks an axe into the door frame and lets us know that we are exactly the type of person he’d gladly “gut and throw into the ocean.”
Dealing with Silas, we had our first brush with the skill-based underpinnings of Call of Cthulhu, where we were offered three symbols – a fist for intimidation, a mouth for persuasion, and an eye for small talk. Next to each was also a rating based on our skill level. Selecting Intimidate, we push back the caretaker with our words and explain why we are here, demanding to see the scene of the fire. Silas insists that the mansion is unsafe, but thanks to our investigation of the graves earlier, we select a gear icon, remarking that he left flowers for Sarah, immediately softening Silas’s demeanor. Apparently he was no friend to Charles, offering us the needed key and a final warning.
As Pierce meets the inhabitants of Darkwater, biographies for people and places will be filled out in your notebook, along with their general disposition towards you. Beyond the inhabitants, there are also fellow Investigators that may join to help you in your investigation. Not simply recruits, their decision to join is entirely based on information you gather and decisions you make based on that intel. Drawing the wrong conclusion may force them to deem that you aren’t worth helping. Similarly, if you use your skills and fail, it may close certain paths as well. Without the right information, conclusions may be harder to reach, or you may simply lose your mind in the attempt. There is a tradeoff of relationships, story paths, and sanity, and losing the latter will cause you to lose your free will, and “the worst could happen.”
Looking over the horizon, a lighthouse cuts through the dense blanket of fog in the area, but just barely. With one last look across the bay, we head inside and begin our investigation of where the fire originated.
Grabbing a nearby lamp, we light up the otherwise entirely-too-dark mansion. Finding a painting sitting on a nearby mantle, we attempt (but fail) to use our Psychology skill to see that dad is missing. Had we been successful, we might have gotten more information. There looks to be a tree in the background that is on fire. Our skill might have made us draw some conclusions about people who calmly stand in front of a blazing inferno, but for now we had to move on.
Opening a door into the main hall we find a room that is all but obliterated by cleansing fire. Our oil lamp running out of fuel, we strike up our zippo lighter. Light is a precious resource in Call of Cthulhu and is occasionally the only way you’ll survive. Illuminating the ground, we find clues that the Police missed. Using our passive investigation skill we find a shoe, a man’s handprint burned into the door, a charred alcohol bottle, and a burnt clock stuck at 10:00pm. Moving a bench seat, the situation worsens as we find blood and a lamp, as well as a small wooden soldier. How could the Police miss all of this? Are they incompetent, or are they trying to hide something?
With this orgy of evidence at hand, we can begin to draw some conclusions and invalidate the Police report. The report shows the time of the fire as 00:24, but our clock shows the needle stuck at 10:00. The broken lamp clearly wasn’t an accident, given the blood on it, so we select those two and make some deductions. Transitioning to a cutscene, we get a CSI-like recreation of what likely happened here. We believe that Mrs. Hastings may have thrown the oil lamp at her husband, cutting and immolating him, causing him to run from the room, leaving a bloody and charred handprint in his wake as he fled the scene. We’d need more information to draw any final conclusions, but this clearly was not an accident.
The demo skips forward a bit to Chapter 6, The Sanders’ Estate, to demonstrate how unnatural evil can begin to erode poor Mr. Pierce’s sanity. Popping open our own biography we see that our current sanity state is “stable”, but we have some phobias from The Great War — specifically Necrophobia. Scarred for life, both physically and mentally, Pierce is also Claustrophobic and haunted by the horrors of his past on a nearly nightly basis. Pierce is a strong personality for the normal world, but the supernatural will clearly cause him issues.
This chapter of the game brings Pierce to The Sanders Mansion as we dig further into the death of Sarah Hawkins. The Sanders family was close to Sarah, and that makes us wonder about the nature of that relationship given the amount of twisted and disturbing sculptures, daggers, and artifacts that fill this creepy mansion. In Sarah’s diary she talks about an evil creature inhabiting one of Mr. Sander’s paintings, but that can’t be real…right?
Approaching the one picture showcased above them all, we see the gaping maw of a somewhat blurry monster is the subject of the painting. Stepping up on the dais for a closer look, all of the window shutters slam shut. Looking back at the painting, something spectral reaches a claw out from the canvas and begins to rip through from some other world. Eyeless and lanky, this horror spills out and clambers over furniture, peering its blind face over the desk as we hide behind it, paralyzed with fear. There’s absolutely no way we can kill this thing, so we wait it out and use stealth to escape as it eyelessly looks elsewhere in the room.
Running for the door we came in, we find that it’s now protected by some sort of force field that slams us backwards, skidding on our ass as we scramble to try to hide in a nearby cupboard. Our heart is racing and getting faster as our claustrophobia threatens to force us to break free from the confined space. (And yes…you can die in here) This creature shouldn’t exist, and we know our gun will be of little use against it, but perhaps one of these grotesque bone-handed daggers could kill it? As the creature moves away from the cupboard, we make a break for it and smash the glass display. Grasping the weapon, we plunge it into the painting to try to banish the creature.
That was the wrong decision.
The creature, unphased, impales Pierce through the chest with both of its blade-like arms, spraying blood everywhere, and ending our demo.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
Like the tabletop game, it’s very easy to go mad or die in Call of Cthulhu, but good investigation will help you survive. You might not get the happy ending, but you might just live. It’s all about choices, human interaction, and the consequences. Once you lose your sanity, it’s gone and never to return. There are no solutions in violence. You can buy time, you can use your wits, but your gun will not save you. As your investigation progresses, you’ll come closer to the truth, but can your feeble mind handle what it might uncover?
Call of Cthulhu: The Official Game will release the Great Dreamer on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in December 2017.