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Aside from releasing a new trailer for Call of Cthulhu during the recent E3, Focus Home Interactive and Cyanide have shown a hands-off demo to a number of outlets, and now we can read their thoughts on it.
Let's be real: I love injecting RPG systems into everything I can. Give me a shoe that gathers XP for stepping well and has a skill tree for extraneous step flourishes, like toe strength and heel impact. But I don’t quite understand how the skill points and XP will distribute throughout Call of Cthulhu. It’s not like you can grind out investigations, so there must be a finite amount of XP in the game, and a finite number of skill points as a result.
Can my investigation skill be so low that I literally can’t complete the game? If my character is incapable of socializing at all, will I get a special brand of fail state? Honestly, I hope so. If the skill points and RPG systems are just a flourish for a semi-linear narrative game, I’ll feel cheated. I want to be forced to role-play, to think like a depressive detective with perpetual five o’clock shadow and a weak ticker. Don’t we all?
Based on the 1981 pen-and-paper RPG by Chaosium, the people at Cyanide are styling Call of Cthulhu as an RPG-Investigation game. Now what that means is a bit complicated, but fans of the original will be familiar with the focus on story over combat. Monsters are few and far between, but pieces of their influence can be found if you look hard enough and know what to look for. Just be careful, as the secrets you uncover might cost you your sanity.
To translate this into gameplay terms, you play as Private Detective Edward Pierce. As with every Lovecraft story, Edward’s seemingly mundane assignment reveals itself clue by clue to be a terrifying tale of otherworldly horror. At your disposal are nine different investigative skills, broken down into three different brackets based on schools of knowledge. You have your conversational skills, your detective skills, and your higher learning like medicine and the arcane arts.
You’ll improve these skills by leveling, gaining experience by finding clues and overcoming the game’s challenges. Correctly navigate your way through a conversation with a groundskeeper, and you’ll be granted access to the mansion and an experience boost. Fail, and you’ll have to find another way in. The dev team stated that there are several ways to solve each puzzle, so you will never be blocked off from finishing because you didn’t put enough points into forensics. But forbidden knowledge comes at a price, meaning you might have to spend your sanity to progress.
How can he discover the truth? Call of Cthulhu offers a heavy focus on investigation gameplay which will yield great benefits for uncovering what went on here (as well as aid with other mysteries on Darkwater Island). Players basically explore an environment, taking note of items around them, and interact at times to reveal even more clues. As you gather information, you’ll eventually be able to enter a deduction state. When completed successfully, you’ll learn more about what’s going on – and hopefully become increasingly intrigued.
Another huge component is interacting with the locals. They’re not all particularly happy to see you. Dialogue choices determine whether the other characters will tolerate you, work with you or simply want you dead. Sometimes environmental interactions earlier on will also open up new potential dialogue options. There’s also the matter of Pierce’s skillset. His skills are based on the official rulebook and focus on social, knowledge and profession trees. Social skills can definitely aid when talking to the odd cast of characters.
There’s also the matter of sanity. Call of Cthulhu is obviously more than a mystery detective game. It also delves into otherworldly, monstrous aspects.This is terrible for poor Pierce’s mental fortitude. While discovering more about these dark machinations may lead him closer to the truth, they also wear away at his sanity. As this gauge lowers you should expect to see things become even more twisted. It’s a fun concept that has been used in previous Cthulhu games, but definitely fits right in here.
Pierce's profession was on full display during our hands-off demo. You'll want to take your time and observe your surroundings, both because it will add to your understanding of the story, and because it will provide you valuable information that can be used in various situations. Pierce was able to avoid a potentially dangerous groundskeeper thanks to some useful knowledge about the deceased family and a few brash dialogue options. Players are rewarded experience points based on their findings and can use them to upgrade Pierce's deductive abilities just like the tabletop game. Maybe you should enhance your occult knowledge to keep you abreast on the devilish Old Ones, or maybe another point in "smooth talker" will let you bypass citizens standing in your way. Every NPC will have an opinion on Pierce based on your actions, and several can help in your investigation should you befriend them.
Our previewers shifted us forward a bit to a more "action heavy" section that, thankfully, didn't betray the classic roleplaying game in any way that should concern fans. We found Pierce in an art gallery surrounded by ominous paintings (of course), and eventually a not-very-nice creature came crawling out of the twisted nether with a hunger for private investigators. Call of Cthulhu doesn't feature any kind of combat, so you'll have to rely on your knowledge and investigative skills to overcome such obstacles. Our demo drivers assured us that you'll have multiple ways of getting through a situation, though I'm slightly nervous that things might prove a bit frustrating if you end up dying over and over again at the same point. Pierce also has to watch out for his sanity and any phobias that might end up killing him before some creature has the chance. In our demo, Pierce took refuge from the creature in a closet, but his claustrophobia could result in a fatal heart attack should he spend too much time cowering in such a small place. You won't be able to regenerate lost sanity, either, so it's a precious resource that must be managed carefully.
Throughout Call of Cthulhu, Pierce will encounter increasingly disturbing situations, some of which will give him new phobias. Each new phobia will give the players a new wrinkle to the gameplay; for example, his claustrophobia means he can’t stay in an enclosed space for too long. The longer Pierce is exposed to one of his phobias, the higher his heart rate will get, until he’ll eventually suffer a heart attack and die instantly. As such, hiding around too long isn’t a good idea, and while closets may offer brief shelter, staying in them too long could be even deadlier than facing the beast. So the moment it passes, the producer flings Pierce out of the closet, sprints to the painting, and jabs the dagger right into it in hopes of slaying the beast.
Instead, the dagger flies out of Pierce’s hands on impact, and the eldritch creature pounces on him. It opens a massive mouth, bites down, and the demo ends.
While the demo was clearly very early on (the facial animation may as well be straight out of Oblivion at this point), it was certainly impressive. It’s clear that Cyanide Studio has a strong grasp on the central tenants of what makes the Cthulhu mythos work so well—namely, dread. “There is no happy ending in this game,” the lead designer stressed when asked about how the player’s choices will effect the outcome. There are four endings to the 20-hour game, and none of them are good, all of which seem to channel Lovecraft’s nihilistic and pessimistic viewpoints. And if they’re anywhere near as interesting as the demo was, I’m expecting that Call of Cthulhu will end up a damn good game.
As you progress you will be faced with the beasts of your nightmares, and they are too powerful for your puny human body. Instead of engaging you will have to use your ability to understand your surrounding to hide and escape, making use of stealth, as well as more creative ways. In the demo, a painting of the beast was stabbed with a ceremonial dagger. These should make for some terrifying and tense moments similar to Outlast, in which we are reduced to a childlike state of fear, and screaming. Maybe a lot of screaming. It’s different to steer away from combat when playing a hybrid RPG, but seeing how the RPG elements boost your mental abilities, it’s a change that can be very welcome. Watching the game unfold, I got a strong sense of other similarly mental focused games like Amnesia and that was enough to keep me invested in what I was witnessing. This was made even more intense by the character’s innate claustrophobia which made hiding in a close space like a closet a heart racing affair that could ultimately result in a heart attack, causing a death.
There will also be a number of NPCs to interact with and engaging in dialogue with them will be another investigative element to the game. Whether you choose to intimidate or persuade will all have ramifications down the road and will unlock new options in later conversations. This all serves to help you progress even further, such as gaining access to a new area. However, even if you fail, you will be able to explore alternative paths to progress your aims.