Cyanide's Call of Cthulhu is an adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu *tabletop roleplaying game*
When I first took an appointment to see Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu at E3, it was mostly because a Lovecraft game where you play as a detective made me think of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, a Frogwares game so terrible that it went all the way around the other side and turned into a game experience I actually really enjoyed. I was vaguely expecting another strange-as-hell Lovecraft pastiche from Cyanide, but their interpretation of Call of Cthulhu is actually a licensed game based on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game.
Which is: wow. This game strikes me as extremely something I would have absolutely lost my shit about in college, when I lived in a house with like sixteen other tabletop nerds who were constantly playing the CoC game. It’s a tabletop system that’s been around for 36 years. It has a lot of fans! People like it a lot! It also has its own kind of vibe that is somewhat separate from traditional Lovecraft stuff. It canonizes a type of character that didn’t really exactly exist in this exact form in Lovecraft’s actual stories— an “investigator”— and turns the world of Lovecraft into a world where adventurous dames and hardboiled detectives are constantly accidentally running into shoggoths while trying to solve actual mysteries.
Which might be one of the reasons why the Cyanide rep began his presentation by telling us, "as in every Lovecraft novel, it always begins with what seems to be a normal case.” Does this man think that Lovecraft wrote detective novels?? I asked myself. Possibly! I am not sure! His game definitely stars a detective man— a private eye from Boston named Pierce. The story takes place in the 20s in a place named “Darkwater Island.” Pierce is here to investigate a mansion fire. "People lost their life in, according to the police, an accident,” the Cyanide rep told us. Actually, though, it was definitely creepy horror shit that caused it, and Pierce is here to prove it.
The game carries over character abilities and other fundamentals from the CoC tabletop game. Pierce approaches the mansion and interacts with hotspots in the yard to get clues; we can later deploy these clues to win the trust of NPCs or to ‘solve mysteries’ posed to us by the game. After using a clue to win the trust of a belligerent old groundskeeper (we are in an abandoned mansion so OF COURSE there is still a spooky elderly axe-wielding groundskeeper living here), we enter the mansion and begin to hunt for more clues.
This is where Call of Cthulhu begins to resemble recent first-person horror games like Amnesia and the rash of PT-alikes that are currently having their day on Steam. Pierce wanders around elaborate pitch-dark environments with a guttering lamp, stumbling upon abandoned crap and bloodsmears and traces of past tragedies. Unlike many other first-person horror games popular today, however, Pierce is scouting around because he wants to deploy his RPG ABILITIES!! on this spooky horror environment. There is no glowy-object detective vision in this game; you have to get pretty close to stuff to see if it’s a hotspot, and the range at which you can see clues is affected by the kind of light source you’re using.
When Pierce finds something to interact with, he performs ability checks that may give him more information about the world or more clues he could use in an investigation. The abilities are largely taken from the tabletop game, and they fall into three domains. There are social skills like Small Talk, Persuasion, and Intimidation; Knowledge skills, like the ability to do a forensic examination; and Profession skills like Psychology (yes, psychology), Spot Hidden for detective-finding-stuff situations, etc.
We watched Pierce do a Psychology check on a painting. He failed it, but the Cyanide rep giving us the presentation explained that Pierce could have used Psychology to somehow analyze the painting more efficiently and learn a dark secret from it.
At this point the Cyanide rep began to sort of performatively act out Pierce’s thoughts, which was about 50% super-annoying and 50% the one of the most amazing things I have ever heard at an E3 presentation in the whole six years I’ve been coming here. I wasn’t able to write it down fast enough to share it with you here, but rest assured: there’s a dude out here on the show floor doing running internal monologues of his videogame's main character’s thoughts and feelings. Hats off to this hero.
Anyway— back to the game. When Pierce finds the site of the fire that killed the mansion-dwellers so long ago, he starts to dig up more clues. There’s a shoe under a table; a clock frozen at a specific time; a burned silhouette of a child (!!!) printed on the floor. There’s a burn mark in the shape of a hand on the door. "A man's prints,” Pierce confidently declares. (?????????)
There’s also a lamp under the couch. The developers explained to us that there was a blood mark near the lamp, which meant that it had been thrown, which meant that the CASE WAS NOW CRACKED WIDE OPEN, but I honestly could not see the blood mark on all the spotty dark blood-looking ashy fire stuff that was all over the ground anyway, and I had no idea whether I would have reached this conclusion or known anything about the dark import of thrown lamps if I were playing the game alone with myself.
Then they pulled up an investigation screen, where the UI told us to pick two of the clues we’d found as the two “leads” for this minigame section. Picking the clock and the lamp automatically generated a new explanation for the deaths for us. It seems like this kind of clue-hunting, lead-picking kind of minigame is going to form a major part of the meat of the game.
Cyanide then skipped forward to a scene from later in the game. Pierce is in a spooky museum; he finds a spooky painting; a spooky cutscene played were a really gross freaking necromorph-looking beast crawled out of the painting and started hunting us. Now, this is the shit I expect from first-person horror games! You can even hide in closets! Experiences like this will affect your sanity gauge (which is not a UI element like it is in Amnesia— apparently it’s less important and also more story-driven). The alien monster then made a lot of really creepy gloop-glop noises and impaled us, ending the demo.
I was honestly quite pleased by most of what I saw of Call of Cthulhu, except for the clue analysis portion, which did seem a bit shit to me; I have no idea how I would have found the experience if I’d been actually playing it myself instead of watching it on a screen, though. The game currently has no release date, or even launch window; I’ll definitely be paying attention to it in the future, though. The traditional Call of Cthulhu tabletop system seems like a really damn excellent element to combine with modern first-person horror exploration games. If Cyanide can pull it off, there are definitely a lot of people I know who would like this kind of thing!