Few Lovecraft adaptations are as disturbing as Headfirst Productions and Bethesda Softworks‘ first-person horror adventure/shooter Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (PC)
(UK 2005/2006, developer: Headfirst Productions (now defunct), publisher: Bethesda Softworks, platforms: PC, Xbox)
After surviving the attack on a cultists’ home in 1916 and suffering from amnesia, police detective Jack Walters takes up the job of a private investigator and is soon tasked to solve the case of a missing person in the secluded town of Innsmouth where he is slowly losing his grip on reality while discovering a sinister plot that could mean the end of humanity.
Literary horror legacy
While not being completely based on Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow over Innsmouth (which was also used for Shadow of the Comet), the game’s plot and setting are similar: a weird town with even stranger-looking people that hide a dark secret related to the Old Ones. The game additionally borrows elements from The Shadow Out of Time which concerns itself with time and space travel by mind transfer. All the epic mythology and unseen horror are present and correct, evoking a feeling of true dread and paranoia which is reflected in both gameplay and suspenseful storytelling.
Plotting in terror
Innsmouth becomes a believable setting that feels like a character itself, as one explores its surroundings and learns about its history that is connected to an abnormal and very influential family. What starts out as a simple investigation soon turns into an epic story that transcends time and space, mixing subtle horror with gorier sequences. Any fan of Lovecraft’s work will feel right at home, while players with a weak heart condition or who expect more jumpscares as in modern survival horror titles will have a steep learning curve or will stop playing altogether. Those who persevere will experience a plot that might not always make sense and constantly veers towards insane revelations, but which is engaging most of the time. The early 1920ies atmosphere adds to credibility with cars, weapons, building designs and music from that specific American era.
Effective pulp writing
The writing is of a consistently high quality when it comes to various manuscripts, diary entries or newspaper articles which enhance the creepy atmosphere. The only problem is that one can easily miss some important background information if one doesn’t read everything or listen to conversations. Dialogues with Innsmouth inhabitants can feel a bit hammy, and the few characters helping Jack out aren’t particularly memorable, but as Lovecraft’s work is often considered pulp fiction, it all somehow gels together well. Despite lacking memorable character traits, Jack remains a person one can easily relate to, as his motivations to solve the case are clear and his visions and flashbacks to a mental institution make one wonder about his past and fit the nightmarish Lovecraftian ideas.
Jack of all genre trades
The gameplay combines adventure, survival horror, stealth, and shooter elements which mostly work well together and add to variety. However, there isn’t any quicksave option, and as checkpoints are often far away, with only a few manual saves made possible with symbols drawn on the ground or on walls, the difficulty is so high at times that frustration is a constant travel companion. This obviously adds to tension, but as there are many unfair traps, too many enemies, and a few annoying platforming sections, only those with the patience will persevere. Easily missed items or levers in vast environments are annoying as well, which becomes even more problematic if one doesn’t know where to go or what to do. Sometimes a door is only opened after triggering another event, which doesn’t make it any easier to traverse each level. This is too bad, because the interconnected levels are immersive enough and some puzzles require more than the typical find-the-key-to-open-door template, e.g. figuring out a safe code by reading documents or operating machines.
Sanity or insanity plays a big part, not only in plot and character development, but also how it affects gameplay. Amnesia: The Dark Descent popularized the mechanic of one’s vision becoming blurry or one’s heart beating so fast that one loses orientation and ultimately dying after encountering an enemy or witnessing a particularly scary scene in the dark. But Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth already offered this unique survival horror mechanic and ran away with it in even more terrifying directions.
Just as in Deus Ex, the realistic damage model turns each unplanned fall from a height into a broken leg, while being wounded results in blood loss, ultimately leading to death. Using bandages or medkits which are often sparsely found in the open helps to treat these injuries, but it always needs time to administer them. Taking pills for preventing sanity loss might ease the pain for a while, but this option can mean problems later on. So the best way is to evade enemies and take a rest. Carefully moving forward might take longer, but it’s certainly better than bleeding to death or falling into madness.
The punishing difficulty curve becomes even higher when more shooting sections rear their ugly head. While the various weapons add variety and most can easily be found, a few can be missed. So with the sheer number of enemies attacking from all sides in certain levels, fighting for survival becomes a matter of trial and error. Fortunately the enemy A.I. is so stupid that one can exploit it, shooting waves of enemies from a hiding spot before they know how to react. However, there are some on-rails shooting sections that can only be survived by memorizing where they crop up and by a lot of luck.
Level design veers between good, acceptable, and frustrating, which becomes especially clear in the labyrinthine refinery and cave levels where it’s difficult to remember all the paths and a lot of backtracking is required. As enemies have a penchant for respawning and ammo is often limited, the best way is to hide and sneak around them. If the foreboding and creepy atmosphere wasn’t terrifying enough, many scripted events push the player to his/her limits. For example, one particularly tense escape sequence sees Jack run away from Innsmouth folk who try to break into his room and then chase him through various parts of the building, over rooftops and through town, which becomes an exercise in perfect timing and endurance (especially since there is no automatic saving during the chase).
Fear the technology and bugs
Unfortunately the game is full of bugs and has other problems. Climbing ladders and opening doors is frustrating because of clunky controls, but what’s even more aggravating is that some set-pieces are so buggy that one either requires many reloads or even has to fidde around with screen resolutions. So a battle against the giant monster Dagon on a ship can be an endless loop, another fight involving gongs that have to be struck and monsters taken control of facing the same problem. In another case, the time one has to escape while evading falling boulders and jumping over crevices is never sufficient to make it out alive. Corruped savegames or savegame slots that can’t be overwritten due to modern operating systems’ management of file systems also need some technical work arounds.
Corner of your eye horror presentation
Many first-person 3D shooter/adventure games usually don’t age very well over the years, and while Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has outdated textures in backgrounds and character models, the dirty art design look somehow manages to alleviate the problem. Characters are as creepy today as when the game was released, and with an additional sepia effect and some cinematic scripted events, the presentation is even more unreal and disturbing.
Speaking of disturbing, the musical score and especially sound effects are so effective that one is in constant fear of being attacked, either by monsters, townspeople or insanity. A mix of synth and orchestral set-pieces change with situations in which only creepy sound effects are used in the backgrounds, again highlighting the fact that the game knows when to build up suspense and then ending in terror. Voice acting is mostly good, although there are some cases, especially with the main character, in which it’s over-the-top bad. Still, considering its pulpy heritage, it’s nothing too distracting.
A true Lovecraftian horror game
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the few examples that a game stays true to its source material, in this case Lovecraft’s mix of subtle and in-your-face horror, by delivering a suspenseful storyline and an atmosphere that is often so oppressive that one’s heart skips a beat. If only the difficulty wasn’t so high, the adventure/stealth/shooter elements were better handled and many of the bugs and technical problems were addressed, then this would be a timeless classic in survival horror. As it is, it comes highly recommended to fans of Lovecraft’s stories and frightening horror games, but only if they are prepared to experience many frustrating and annoying moments during its 15-hours long journey into madness.
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