Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth Review

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, a powerful author named H.P. Lovecraft put pen to paper and created some of the best horror-genre writing ever written.  In a time when horror meant terrible rubber suits and cardboard cutout robots, Lovecraft spun tales that would leave modern horror novelists scratching their heads.  Lovecraft had a flair for the written word that was not unlike having a snake slowly constrict around you – it isn’t anything you’ll notice until it has you in its grip so tightly that you can’t move.  The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Call of Cthulhu are three of those novels, and serve as the basis for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

“Cthulhu fhtagn”, “Cthulhu fhtagn.”

Our story begins as Detective Jack Walters investigates a strange cult in the year 1922.  Jack has the inexplicable power to see his way through investigations in a way that borders on the unnatural.  As Jack investigates this cult he finds that they have an obsession with him.  Jack moves deeper into the cultists home and finds that they worship a race of creatures called Yithians.  Jack, his interest piqued, delves into the basement of the home only to find horrors so far beyond his own imagination that he goes completely insane.  Jack slips into this psychotic episode for six years, and then inexplicably awakens, remembering nothing of that time.  The phone rings. Jack picks up the phone and is hired to go to a sleepy coastal town named Innsmouth to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Innsmouth General Store manager.  Your decent into madness begins here, Jack…welcome to it.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

To prepare for this review, I picked up a few short stories from Mr. H.P. Lovecraft.  Several days later, I found that I too would succumb to the Call of Cthulhu.  I too would descend into the deepest corners of frustration and sanity loss – but I emerged whole to bring you this review.  Consider my tale of warning, fair reader.

I’ve been watching Call of Cthulhu for several E3 showings now.  When I first saw the game, it showed great promise and graphics that were fairly cutting edge.  Time has marched on and the bar has been raised quite a bit since then.  The result is that Cthulhu becomes a mixed bag of excellent and plain graphics.  Don’t stop reading.  Any graphics that may be plain in this game are easily made up for by the incredible atmosphere.  If there is a game to date that has captured the feeling of a Lovecraft story, it is Dark Corners of the Earth.  Innsmouth looks and feels like a 1930s town on the sea – a rank fog dampens the streets, and the whole town just feels too old for its own skin.

Many games throughout the years have tried to pull of a dynamic vision system that ‘adjusts’ over time.  I’ve not seen it work, other than in this game.  Much like any horror game, this game is made to be played will all of the lights off.  This counts double as Jacks vision alters with his surroundings.  If you spend a great deal of time in a very lit area, and then suddenly drop into a very dark area, your eyes will not take in as much of the scene until they have adjusted.  It is almost imperceptible, but the end result is very cool. 
Coolness?  Get off – this is your stop.  Lovecraft novels state that the human mind can only take so much before they begin to crack under the strain.  Jacks mental state isn’t that stable to begin with, so it doesn’t take too long before he begins to suffer from some severe mental issues.  These insanity effects can range from raised heart rate, blurred vision with a liquid-like distortion, a grainy ‘filter’ over everything, black-and-white vision, voices in your head, blackouts, fatal psychotic breaks, or simply pulling out your pistol and putting in your mouth to end the madness.  This effect is so damned cool, when it works properly. 

Throughout the game, you’ll encounter things that your mind simply cannot handle.  You’ll see creatures beyond belief that live just beneath the surface of our world.  You’ll see people mutilated in horrific fashion.  As Jack witnesses the world as he understands it crumble before his very eyes, he begins to suffer from minor breaks in sanity.  The effects I described above start off mild, and eventually progress to the more fatal variety.  When Jack is injured, blood loss can worsen these effects.  As I said, when this works, it works incredibly well.  Unfortunately, it is also bugged.  As I played through some of the levels for the 10th or 12th time I began to notice that the effects didn’t always reset.  For instance, if I was at full health and normal sanity when I saved, but after running around I was going out of my mind and then died, I should restart at the save point without any of these effects still afflicting me.  By the 7th or 8th game load, I had to stand in place to regain my sanity right from the reload.  Obviously, the effects were stacking and not being removed.  It was here that my own sanity began to break down.

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”)

Much like the graphics in Call of Cthulhu, the sounds are a bit of a mix.  The enemies have a guttural and unnatural sounding gurgle to their voice.  The roar of some later enemies is absolutely deafening in intensity.  Weapons, when you finally get them, sound reasonably close to the real thing.  Then there is Jack. 

Jack’s voiceover sounds slightly out of place for one who has suffered in such a fashion.  Sometimes he sounds surprised, yet bored.  Other times he is spot-on.  The issue usually stems from what is said, not how it was said.  Jack will make comments that aren’t really in line with the mode of speech used in the time period.  With a game with this much immersion, it can easily snap you back to reality when Jack makes some inane comment. 

Speaking of immersion, there are some genuinely scary moments in Call of Cthulhu, thanks entirely to the sound.  Enemies can sneak up behind you so silently, only to roar in your ears as they claw the life from your fragile body.  As you take more damage, you’ll begin to breath heavy due to blood loss.  You’ll also get a satisfying wet crunch if you try to walk on those broken legs Jack.  I’m not sure what the Foley artists used for that sound, but it is pretty vile.  Good job!

I already mentioned the sanity system and how it can get stuck above.  Unfortunately, it can also stick your health effects.  During certain points of the game, I was at full health with bandages to spare, and yet I was breathing hard and seeing black and white.  One more for the bug list.

One of the immersion-enhancing elements of Call of Cthulhu is the lack of an interface.  You do not have a visible ammo counter, health meter, sanity meter, or any other meter for that matter.  This means paying attention to the number of rounds you’ve expended, how injured you are, and how mentally strained you are by the number of voices you are starting to hear.  A’i Dagon, indeed! 

Ultimately, you can look at your heart rate and any accumulated injuries by pressing the black button.    The left thumbstick handles movement, and the right thumbstick handles the camera.  The left trigger allows you to aim down the sights of your weapon, and the right trigger fires it.  A button is your action button, B button is crouch.  The X button handles the jumping (and there is plenty), and the Y button reloads your weapon.    The white button does a quick heal, attempting to rapidly patch you up, but the game states that this is wasteful on your supplies – I can’t confirm this to be the case via gameplay.

For the first few hours of the game, you’ll be without a weapon.  You’ll rely on stealth (without a fancy stealth meter), and timing to advance the story plot.  That simple fact really accents your desire to stay out of sight.  You never know what lurks around the next bend. 

When you do discover what lurks around the next bend, you’ll often have to complete some jumping puzzle to reach it.  One particular area has you jumping over appendages of something not of this world.  While a simple bit of timing is all it really takes to get past this area, you have to do it not once, but twice.  Add on top that you are probably already very injured, there is only one health kit in the whole area, and this creature causes massive sanity hits.  Needless to say, this makes the jumping puzzles that much more difficult. 

Frustration began to fill my mind.  A haze of red clouded my vision.

Headfirst has been working on this game for several years now, filling it to the brim with little nuances and references to Lovecraft’s work.  The result is a very immersive world that pulls you in and makes you care about what happens to poor old Jack.  Horror genre fans will find this game to be right up their alley.  Lovecraft purists will find a lot to like, and a lot to shake their head over.  There are several scenarios and locations throughout the game that Lovecraft stated would simply end a normal person outright.  One particular battle stands out as the coolest battle above all others – it also stands out as something that Lovecraft would not have written.  These creatures should be all but impervious to the trappings of our world.  It’s a minor thing, especially in the face of what I am about to tell you.

I have not thrown a controller in over a year – until now. 

“If that abyss and what it held were real, there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time.”

Call of Cthulhu completely broke me.  With a maddened ferocity I threw my Xbox controller like a boomerang across my front room, landing with a loud smack against the hard floor.  I had found the end of my sanity – it resides in the Marsh Refinery. 

As you uncover the storyline of Call of Cthulhu, you encounter a character named Marsh.  He runs the local refinery, and has become a head of the local Esoteric Order of Dagon.  When you try to catch up to him in his refinery you’ll be rolling the dice.  There is a showstopper bug that a percentage of people have encountered in the game.  It involves jumping onto a bucket system to travel around the refinery.  Unfortunately, the area is blocked by an invisible wall that can stop you dead in your tracks.  You can ‘push’ against this ‘wall’ only when a bucket it in place.  If it works and you punch through, you’ll move a few inches ‘into’ the bucket.  If you wait for the next one, you can continue into the bucket and move on.  If you ‘push’ too far, you’ll fall into a grinder and die.  It gets worse…

Cthulhu doesn’t like people who jump the shark.  Headfirst is guilty as charged, and the Old Ones are not pleased.  The Marsh Refinery area, and several others in the game, respawn enemies.  This means that you are trying to overcome a bug issue while more enemies respawn behind you.  It only adds to the frustration.  After several hours of this, I finally made it on to the bucket. 

I  made my way into the depths of the refinery, without save points or health packs, and faced a boss.  The sanity ‘sticking’ effects described above crept up on me and stopped me from completing a lengthy section without save points for several days.  Again, my sanity was tested.  I pressed on…it took me another 5 hours to complete the refinery. 

As the story progressed, I encountered even more fantastic creatures.  Unfortunately, I also encountered several more bugs.  Some minor, some major.  During one later boss battle, I routinely fell through the scenery and died.  Given that I can easily repeat this bug every time, and due to the fact that it occurs behind a rock you are supposed to use to hide, you’d think that Headfirst would have caught this one.  Again my sanity was tested.

“Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evidently pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings, but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”

I knew I had to complete this game – I wanted to know what happens to Jack, and I knew this review couldn’t be complete without knowing his fate.  I pressed on and knocked out the last few levels of the game.   While the game has been linear and carried you throughout using books or explanations in Jack’s Journal, the ending will make almost no sense to someone who doesn’t read Lovecraft.  My wife looked at me and asked “Wha…?  What just happened??”  While you don’t have to be a Lovecraft fan to enjoy the game, you’ll have to be a Lovecraft fan to understand the ending. 

Jack’s venture into madness, as I mentioned above, is a linear one.  You’ll rely heavily on stealth, jump timing, and minor puzzle solving to complete the game.  If it weren’t for the incredible immersive environments, this would be a below average 1st person survival horror game. This game is hard to review as a result – so much is right, but the things that are wrong are very wrong.  I’m completely torn.

With the bugs I encountered, the amount of time it took me to get around them, and the incredible frustration with some of the timed platformer elements of this game, there was a look of shock and surprise on my face when I completed it with a 90% Mythos rating.   At the end of the game, you get a score based on the items you find, the books you read, the number of times you saved, and the time it took you to beat the game.  Beating the game once unlocks a higher difficulty level.  Beating it again unlocks a difficulty level even more severe.  Rumors from Headfirst suggest there is something special in store for the person who completes the game and gets 100% Mythos rating.  To accomplish this task you can only save a handful of times, and you must complete the game in 3 hours.  The game takes roughly 15 – 20 hours to beat the first time through, but as you can see, if you know where everything is, the replay value can be a scant 3 hours.  The default difficulty was insane enough; I don’t need to have a stroke by playing it on a higher level.

Put plainly, I have zero desire to play this game again.  The puzzles will hold no challenge for me on a second run through, leaving only the bugs and the frustrating jumping puzzles.  I won’t descend into that madness again.

“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.”

With a game in development this long, you have to wonder what happened.  On one hand there is a fantastic immersive horror title that captures the environment perfectly.  On the other hand, you have a game that is filled with bugs and leads you with both hands tied through the whole game. Sometimes mythos is laid at your feet, thus removing any of the slow buildup that Lovecraft’s writing is famous for.  (e.g. the copy of “Unausprechlichen Kulten” just hanging out on a desk) Other times it is hinted at, but never explained. (e.g. the woman hanging in her shop)  Some things stick to the novels completely, such as The Deep Ones, other things are such a departure that it borders on ridiculous. (You fight several Old Ones throughout the game, something Lovecraft was explicit that human kind could never do.)

This has been one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write.  There is so much to like here, and yet there is so much to outright hate.  The oft-delayed PC version is still waiting in the wings, and could fix many of the issues I’ve mentioned above, but there will be no patches for the Xbox.  Some folks did not encounter the bugs that I did, and their experience was far more positive.  Your mileage may vary, tread with caution.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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