Review by Syonyx

Reviewed: 03/08/06

Highly immersive and technically innovative, marred only by the occasional lack of fun

Every once in a while, a game comes along that pushes the technical envelope on the current generation of consoles. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth for the Microsoft Xbox is one such game. It is not a terribly popular title, nor is it a flawless game by any means, but it stands out by virtue of the tools it uses to truly immerse the player in the game, through effective feedback and manipulation of all 3 gaming senses. (Naturally, these are sight, sound, and thanks to the invention of the vibrating controller, touch. Until someone creates Smellovision technology, that’s as far as it goes.) I cannot recall another game that does such a fantastic job of conveying terror, vertigo, hallucinations, a real sense of bodily harm, insanity, and even induce nausea in the player.

Much of the game’s success in this regard stems from its source material, namely the Cthulhu mythos first popularized by the writings of H. P. Lovecraft in the early 20th century. More directly, the game is based on the Call of Cthulhu pencil-and-paper RPG. The key element drawn from this material is the use of a protagonist who is pretty much just a regular Joe who events conspire to place in the face of mind-numbing terror. Jack, the main character, has no special powers, is not particularly athletic, has no real expertise with weapons, and is easily injured, bleeds and dies just like the rest of us. So he, and you as the player controlling him, are quite ill-equipped to cope with the awful, ancient horrors that go far beyond any human imagining or experience, leaving you gibbering in fear as insanity takes hold. This is the only possible response to the indescribable, blood-curdling, galaxy-spanning terror that is the hallmark of the Cthulhu mythos entities. To convey this mechanic in video-game format, the boys and girls at Headfirst productions have introduced… the Sanity system!

Throughout the game, your character is exposed to the aforementioned horrors in doses of varying sizes. When faced with such things, Jack may undergo a number of alterations in his perceptions. Auditorily, your hearing may become muffled except for the pounding of your own heart, you may hear voices from people in your past, or you might start paranoically whispering to yourself in fear, saying things like “What am I doing here? I’m going to die! What the hell are those things?” Tactilely, the same pounding of your heart will be conveyed through the controller vibrations. Visually, the screen may grey out, the image can blur whenever you move, and the screen can rock back and forth wildly, genuinely inducing nausea in the viewer. Though not strictly a sanity effect, you will also experience vertigo whenever looking down from a high place, and the sensation is likewise genuine. Most often, more than one of these effects will occur at once, leading to a strong sense of disorientation and panic at times. The sanity system will be activated whenever you are exposed to something otherworldly, are being hunted by enemies, are seriously injured, or in other situations. There are also specific ‘sanity hits’, where you suddenly spot something terrible like a pile of savaged bodies, causing the shot to zoom in suddenly and making your heart rate and other effects shoot right up. These hits can be avoided by not looking too directly at the objects of terror. So unlike virtually every other video game in existence, it is often NOT to your benefit to examine things of interest that you may catch at the edge of your view. Sanity will recover slowly if you find a safe place to rest and wait, but fail to do this and Jack’s terror will eventually take over and he will take his own life! How many other games can you name where suicide is a game mechanic?

The level of horror conveyed by the game is accentuated by the use of twisted, always unexpected cut-scenes or player-controlled cut-away scenes. The worst of these is the frequent transition to an insane asylum, where you always start in a padded room and may or may not be able to go out into a hall where the screams and cackles of other residents echo throughout, and the walls can poor blood as you go move up the corridor towards a slightly indistinct image of swaying tentacles. There are also frequent shots where Jack is suddenly seeing through another’s eyes, not always human. Why he is able to do this is one of the mysteries you must face. This effect is sometimes used to freak you out, but can also be useful by letting you know what’s happening somewhere other that where you’re looking at that moment.

Another immersive feature is the use of first-person view throughout the game, including cut-scenes. Similar to another sci-fi themed adventure game, Breakdown, absolutely everything takes place in first-person, helping the player to sink themself into the role of Jack. And though there is shooting, Call of Cthulhu differs from FPS (first-person shooter) games in that there is also a great deal of unarmed first-person exploration. As a private detective in the 1920’s, you must examine all aspects of your environment and search for clues to the mysteries found within the game, and figure out how and when to use found objects, as well as when to use stealth and when to use force. In fact, you are completely unarmed for the first couple hours of the game, even for a long period when you are being aggressively pursued by hordes of gun-toting enemies. The tension of times like these is intensified by the first-person view. The one failing of this mechanic as it is implemented in Call of Cthulhu, however, is highlighted by the comparison to Breakdown . In the former, you can’t see your feet despite looking down at the very ground you’re stepping on, you can’t see your hands as you climb ladders, and you do not physically see yourself placing objects in place or picking items up. In essence, except for your arm when holding a weapon ready, your body does not seem to exist in the visible realm. Breakdown did a much better job in this regard, as your body was always there in real space as you viewed the world through the hero’s eyes.

Since the view is so important, you would want the graphics quality in this game to be top notch. Call of Cthulhu does not disappoint in this regard, the graphics being of sufficient power that the Xbox’s capabilities are used to full effect. The character models are fairly stiff, especially the generic enemy types, but the clothing textures and look of damage effects are excellent, as is the consistent art design that is apparent in the clothes and hairstyles straight out of the 1920’s. Environments are full of rich detail and representative of what you’d find in the real world. There are also some incredible lighting effects, with real-time light sourcing and varying qualities to the illumination from different sources, such as a candle flame versus an outdoor gaslight. Best of all, though, are the disorienting visual effects that arise from the sanity system, making excellent use of the medium to portray the gnawing insanity that slowly creeps up on you throughout the game. Overall the game has a dark, grainy appearance, and this may be a bit of a graphical cheat on the designer’s part, since there are plenty of incredibly beautiful and brightly lit games for the ‘box. But on the other hand, the low light levels are highly appropriate to the games environments and themes, and as one of the loading screens tells us, some games are meant to be played in the dark. Chalk it up to the quest for real-world authenticity once more. My only specific complaint was that the water could have looked much better. As it takes place in and around a port town, water is an important visual and thematic element of the game, and I’ve seen firsthand how incredible water can look on the Xbox (see Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath for the best example). But if this is the only visual feature that falls flat, then we’re not doing too bad.

Combat is one of the more challenging, and frequently frustrating parts of the game. In aiming for realism, you have many disadvantages that are generally absent from video games. For one, you are not a crack shot. Being a private eye, you know the basics of how to use a weapon, such as how to reload. But all aiming must be done manually (i.e. no auto-targeting), and precise aiming, such as for a head shot, takes time and concentration, during which enemies also have time to line up more deadly shots and call in reinforcements. Also, hold your weapon up to aim for too long and your arm will get tired and start to sway. You must mentally keep track of how many shots you’ve used, and how many rounds each weapon holds, and you must press a button to reload, unlike most games where reloading happens automatically once your weapon is empty. This reloading also takes time (you can see Jack’s hands at work performing this task), again during which you are vulnerable to attack.

The game features authentic period weapons (we’re in the 1920’s, remember). You can find a handgun, revolver, shotgun, hunting rifle, and even a tommy gun (think old gangster-style machine guns). These handle fairly realistically. For example, the shotgun fires in a spray and is much more powerful at close range, while the tommy gun is powerful, but you quickly lose control of your aim after a few shots as the recoil proves too much for you to handle. Enemies have access to the same range of weapons as you, and the same characteristics of use apply to them as well. After a few shots, you can watch as the enemy has to manually reload, just as you do. Now, you might think this would give you an easy opportunity to counterattack, but enemies generally will start running around as they’re reloading to make themselves more difficult targets. Essentially, nothing in the game is made unrealistically easy for you.

Overall, enemy A.I. isn’t noteworthy, but the scripts that they operate under frequently make your life difficult. Once engaged, they tend to stay on the move to make it harder to hit them, they will call in reinforcements once you are spotted, and they will follow you through doors and search throughout buildings to find you. When you’re opting for a stealthy approach, the enemies are quite responsive to sound, even just of you walking too quickly, and they seem to have an excellent field of vision, much better than those guards in Metal Gear Solid that could only see in a limited conic field. But fortunately, patrolling enemies follow the standard old fixed route, making it easier to sneak by them, and if you’re spotted, they will give up the search after a while if you find a good hiding spot. Nevertheless, perfect stealth is extremely difficult in most situations, leading to a lot of hot and heavy combat situations. These tend to prove quickly fatal, due to the number of enemies, your inability to sustain much damage and keep fighting effectively, and the lack of easy access to safe zones once a firefight has begun. You will likely find yourself replaying certain sections a couple of dozen times or more before you succeed. Personally, I found such sections to be decidedly not fun, and I enjoy a good challenge. It all stems again to the goal of realism, where Jack is just a regular guy who naturally can’t get shot full of bullets and just keep on running through waves of enemies.

The injury mechanic is another highly innovative and realistic aspect of the gameplay. There is no health meter or other contrived number-based health system to be found here. Rather, injuries occur in a unique interactive way, and your body’s response to these injuries is what could be expected for a normal human. Damage is specific to body parts: head, torso, left and right arms and legs, and can consist of lacerations, abrasions, and bone fractures. The way that these occur is context-dependent. Take a shotgun shot across the chest and you’ll have widespread shallow wounds. Fall too far and you’ll end up with two fractured legs. The effects of these injuries can be felt through the sensory interaction that the game provides, too. For example, a fractured leg leads to a limp that you can feel through the controller every time that leg takes a step, makes it impossible to run, creates visual limping, and makes an awful sound of crunching bone with every step. Take an injury to your right arm and you’ll have a hell of a time trying to aim your gun. In addition, any injury will produce gradual (or sometimes not-so-gradual) blood loss, which if untreated will lead to a graying out of your vision, slowed reactions to your controller inputs and eventually complete slowdown of all sensory input immediately before death. The healing system is similarly injury-specific, using splints, bandages and sutures for different types of injuries. And naturally, applying these remedies takes time, making them nearly impossible to use in active combat.

In-game music is minimal, generally limited to special sequences where a little extra atmosphere is called for. This aspect of video games is held back in favor of sound effects, which are absolutely necessary to fully immerse the player into Jack’s experiences. From the sounds of your own breathing and pounding heart, the clip-clop of your own or enemies heavy footfalls, to the rush of the sea breeze passing through alleyways or caverns, to the crash and roar of the nearby ocean, the sounds around you are a key element of the game, and the wise player will pay close attention to them. The advantages of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound are used to maximal effect to this end, so if you’re not playing with such a setup, you’re really missing out.

Overall, the game provides a highly immersive, challenging experience, but one that is sometimes too challenging. Some sections of the game are perhaps a little too difficult, and this notably reduces the fun factor at times. The default difficulty level, ‘Private Investigator’, can make for a surprisingly hard time and might scare away some casual players or younger audiences. Of course, there is always the easier ‘Boy Scout’ mode, so this shouldn’t prevent anyone from completing the game if they’re intrigued by the story or source material. And for the hardcore gamer who thrives on such challenge there is much more to be found here. (If you’re not sure if you’re in this group or not, ask yourself, did I finish Ninja Gaiden on the hardest mode? If so, then you’re in.) Once you complete the game on the standard difficulty, you open up another one, ‘Hardened Detective’, and if you manage to complete that mode with an ‘A’ ranking, you get the harder still ‘Mythos Specialist’ mode to play with. So for the dedicated and masochistic player, there’s a lot of challenge to be found here.

Of course, once you’ve completed the game once you know the puzzles and methods to advance quickly, so another play-through doesn’t require too much of a time commitment. After you know what you’re doing, you can complete the game in one sitting during a rainy afternoon. For the first time through, however, count on about 10 hours to finish, plus all of the times you have to replay difficult sections when you die repeatedly. This may seem short by some people’s standards, but I find that it’s just right for this type of adventure game. After all, you are being hit by all manner of threats to your sanity, how much longer would you want to endure it?

Besides the sometimes un-fun difficulty level, which may or may not be a deterrent to you depending on your tastes, my only other major complaint is the accessibility of the story to the gamer unfamiliar with the Cthulhu-based material that the story is drawn from. Though not knowing what you’re coming up against would actually make the game even scarier, some plot points remain a mystery afterwards, especially the very ending of the game, if you haven’t read up on it beforehand. This takes a little of the fun away again, and sinks the game a little further into the ‘niche’ category, keeping more potential players away. Of course, for the pre-existing fan of all that is Cthulhu, this only increases the appeal of the game, but a game with such a high level of technical achievement deserves a wider audience.

To sum up, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a highly innovative and immersive first-person adventure, and is a unique offering due to its devotion to realistic experiences (albeit with a dark fantasy twist) which are conveyed to the player through sound, sight and touch. You can actually feel the pain and horror that the main character undergoes, even to the point of producing dizziness and nausea. The game makes excellent use of the Xbox’s technical capabilities to this end. Both stealth and combat are challenging and highly stressful, but sometimes this goes too far and takes away from the fun that you should feel while playing (I’m assuming here that you find blood-curdling terror fun, of course). It is highly faithful to the Call of Cthulhu pencil-and-paper RPG system that it is based on, but again perhaps a little too much so, as the uninitiated player will not comprehend some of the events at the end of the game. Nevertheless, even if this last problem applies to you, the game is still a surprisingly deep experience that will leave you yearning for a sequel, and while waiting for that to arrive, the ever-increasing difficulty levels and relatively short re-play time can keep you entertained for some time. Any fan of survival horror games or gothic horror fantasy, or just anyone who wants to see kind of unique game experience the Xbox can produce, ought to pick up a copy and give it a try. Just pray that your sanity will remain intact once you do.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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