Cthulhu calls FBT. New number, who dis?
We’re Pierce, the classic gumshoe. Drink problem, check. Ex-soldier struggling in post-war peacetime, check. Messy office with a ceiling fan, check. But instead of a femme-fatale knocking on his frosted glass door, we get her dad; he wants us to travel to Darkwater Island (not at all ominous), to uncover the truth of his daughter and her family’s strange death. The only clue is the daughter’s bizarre and horrifying artwork…
Right from the get-go it’s clear Pierce is up to his neck in murky water – and he’s not alone in there; a great early scene sees him wading through water and a tentacle grabs him, only to be revealed as seaweed – who hasn’t felt seaweed and immediately assumed sea monster! This time though, there is one.
Given Lovecraft’s original novella is almost a hundred years old and one of the most heavily derived works in horror, it’s no surprise that CoC feels familiar; a remote island, secretive locals, gothic mansion, a surly groundskeeper, an asylum, cloak-wearing worshippers, suspect deaths; we meet superstitious fisherman, read about a huge, mysterious catch that fed the entire island, and meet a harbour-master who claims an aged photo of him with a peg-leg is actually his father... But it’s not the literary influences that make this feel familiar, it’s the gaming clichés.
CoC looks solid but it has a whiff of budget about it – there’s a lot of replication and few locations, and the detail is very last-gen, as are the NPCs, who do that generic gesticulating and vague lip-sync. The auto-save only triggers at key points, so you can’t risk quitting until a cut-scene - if you do, or you die, it’s back to the start and clues, hidden items and even skills are reset. You’re invested in ensuring Pierce is prepared for the Great Old One but feel constrained by the game’s fairly basic world and interactions.
Still, for the first few hours this is fantastic stuff. The dread builds, the locations are creepy and it’s clear that there’s something terrifying under Darkwater, like a tentacled IT and it’s been waiting for you; Pierce’s grip starts to loosen as he sees worshippers in Cephalopod masks and watches Davy Jones (the one with the Locker, not the one from the Monkees) gut someone – who then reappears healthy and ‘hazy’ about what happened; is it all in Pierce’s mind? He even starts seeing himself in the paintings alongside the horrible creatures. And, the things in the paintings don’t stay there.
An early ‘boss fight’ sees ‘The Shambler’ escape a painting and start hunting Pierce. It’s like a mini Alien Isolation – he even hides in closets. It reappears later in a mind-cracking level where you alternate using two lamps, one to light a route and pass barriers blocking the way of the other lamp, which lets you open doors, so each impacts the path of the other. And, of course, the Shambler is also wandering the halls. Which are in a hospital. At night. And one lamp has to be refilled, so the further you go, the less oil you have to find your way back …
When he’s not being harassed by demonic watercolours, Pierce tries to be a detective about it all. While he quickly accepts all is not natural in Darkwater, he does concentrate on clues and even has a detective mode, where he’ll CSI a crime; some of his detecting is Sherlockian, some more Sci-Fi where he figures out huge plot points from a knocked over candle. The more clues you pick up, and occult books you find, the more he risks his sanity but is able to direct his questioning and make sense of it all. Like any of it makes sense.
Pierce is subjected to all sorts of horrors – hallucinations, altered realities, grizzly deaths; he even gains control of NPCs (one of which battles Shambler again) as well as gets lost in his own frantic mind; we face so many twists, turns, reappearances and other worlds we might as well be playing Inception the Video Game. But, as the player, we can see through all the smoke and mirrors so you’re often waiting for the increasingly unhinged Pierce to catch up. And while you’re waiting, you notice the world isn’t the only thing that’s disjointed.
It’s got some fairly major dialogue choices, and often you’ll only get one question in before the scene ends, which adds tension since you never know what’s relevant and where it leads; poor Pierce, he’s got his wavering sanity and my ‘should not have skipped that cutscene’ skills. But then you start to notice events aren’t really reflecting your choices, and other narrative jolts don’t go anywhere. Sometimes I learnt about the impact of a moment in a loading screen text. A lot happens within cut-scenes, and the work you’re putting in feels irrelevant. I get “you have changed your destiny” or warnings about how reading Occult books affected his sanity, and wonder if I’ve sent Pierce down a dark path, but after a few hours you realise Darkwater is just a Dead-end.
Pierce has a lighter and an oil lamp he can use to ferret around, but it’s not like we’re wandering through a rotting mansion where using a lamp exposes you or you need to inspect everything. Instead, you see an icon for lamp, light it and look! A clue. I’m not reliant on my detective skills or my ability to hold a lamp, I’m searching for cut-scene triggers. I’m not saying I want it to be like LA Noire where he’d pick up anything not nailed down, but none of it really matters, we’re just going through the paces.
A couple of moral choices you’re forced to make have no actual impact unless you’re an Achievement hunter, and by the end, no matter what you witnessed, said or state of mind you left Pierce in, the final choice is left up to you like a gothic Mass Effect 3. There are four possible endings, and both the endings I experienced were incredibly rushed and disappointing; one was a rage-quitting “the f* was that?”, while the ‘cannon’ ending isn’t much better. Like The Wicker Man, Pierce’s fate was sealed the moment he set foot on the island but instead of that reveal where everything we did was predetermined or fate, it's just a linear story pretending we're impacting the outcome then rug-pulling us. What were all those choices about anyway? Not like Pierce was ever going to make calamari out of Cthulhu.
Still, CoC does create some real fear and unease at times, and the deranged hallucinations are top work, and it’s great being in an old-fashioned horror story; it’s also faithful to Lovecraft, and perhaps some of its missteps comes down to the fact that Lovecraft is impossible to adapt as a video game. Lovecraft works on the page because your imagination takes over, but in a game we're in control, and discovering all our efforts are for naught is annoying especially when the reveal doesn’t really explore our part in it. Read the book.