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‘Call of Cthulhu’: A Beguiling Take on Cosmic Horror

Games based on the novels of visionary bigot HP Lovecraft are hardly novel at this point; after all, one need only look at the slurping orifices and writhing tendrils of the masterful ‘Bloodborne” to know that the spirit of the father of cosmic horror is well and truly thriving in the current era. Still, while Hidetaka Miyazaki’s take on the classic Cthulhu Mythos allowed players to go toe-to-toe with the Old Ones armed with nothing but a viscously-serrated cleaver, for his part, one could argue that Lovecraft himself viewed the struggle against such eldritch forces as a foregone conclusion, leading to assured madness and, eventually, a grisly death.

That’s the sort of authentic Lovecraftian experience that French developer Cyanide hopes to bring to their adaptation of Chaosium’s classic tabletop RPG “Call of Cthulhu,” a pseudo-RPG that combines the dark intrigue of the Mythos with the tactical skill-first build-system of the pen-and-paper system that inspired it.

With their “Call of Cthulhu,” Cyanide chose to focus on the iconic investigative elements of the Chaosium RPG rather than its slow, ponderous combat, which nearly always results in serious injury for all but the hardiest of player characters. You step into the patent-leather loafers of private detective Edward Pierce, who is trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious fire at a opulent manor located on the fictional Darkwater Island, and in the process encounters forces outside of his realm of comprehension.

Throughout his investigation, Pierce will gather a diverse variety of skills that the player can choose to advance at will, sometimes by reading magazines or textbooks. For example, if our frumpy detective needs to operate a strange device, he can try to use his understanding of basic engineering to work out its mechanism – otherwise, he might use a crowbar to pry it free, or simply look around the room to try to solve the riddle that hides its true purpose.

While this simple system might seem like a heterodox take on “leveling up,” it reflects the worldview of the tabletop game that inspired it, which eschewed the traditional “classes” of contemporary competition like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to focus on a more holistic measure of a character’s proficiencies. Unlike its source material, however, the game mechanics stop short of actual fisticuffs or gunslinging.

This might seem controversial in the realm of RPG video games – and after all, who doesn’t like a bit of hack and slashing – but, from Cyanide’s perspective, it just follows. Going after ancient alien beings with a shotgun isn’t exactly in the spirit of Lovecraft’s work; instead of fighting the impossible monsters that haunt his dreams, Pierce simply wants to escape them, which shifts the power balance away from the player to a dramatic extent.

Instead, Cyanide encourages you to use your knowledge of the creatures to set up distractions, or simply avoid them altogether. You can’t even escape into a traditional “game over” – instead, if Pierce finds himself trapped by a monster, he must use his wits to escape, though he might suffer permanent consequences as a result.

Though sources peg the worldwide release date of “Call of Cthulhu” as within the 2018 fiscal year, details on the game remain relatively scarce, even in the context of an E3 demonstration. Still, if Cyanide manages to capture the deeply hopeless spirit of the tabletop game in the bonds of computer code, it’s fair to say that we might have a cult classic on our hands, just like the previous “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.” And while it’s certainly true that the boundless pessimism of cosmic horror isn’t for everyone, the ranks of truly interesting detection-focused games remains sadly bare. Let’s hope that “Call of Cthulhu” manages to fill out that shelf just a little more – if it doesn’t topple itself in the process.

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