March 26th, 2012
This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. Important: If you are thinking of playing this game on the PC (as opposed to on X-Box), please see my caveat at the end of the review.
In 2003 I began to hear rumors of a forthcoming video game based on Call of Cthulhu. My interest was piqued but my hopes were not high. I assumed that the game would be a routine first-person shooter, with the thinnest veneer of Lovecraft slapped on so as to justify the license. After all (thought I), how could a video game approximate the experience of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game?
That question soon became moot. In early 2004 I became a father, and my career as a gamer came to an end–at least for a spell.
I was, however, reminded of the game last month, as I continued research for the H. P. Lovefest. And I discovered, to my surprise, that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was not only released, but released to mostly positive reviews. Even more encouraging to me, though, were some of the negative comments made by gamers on Amazon and Metacritic. They accused the game of being overly linear; they lamented the long and unskippable cut-scenes used to provide voluminous expository information; and they railed against the ridiculously high difficulty level.
A frustratingly lethal game with a focus on narrative and a proclivity toward railroading players? This sounds like a better adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than I’d expected!
And so, for the sake of the H. P Lovefest, I downloaded a copy of the game from Steam and played it all the way through. Oh, the things I do for you.
My fears that the game would be heavy on first-person shooting and light on Lovecraft were allayed immediately. Dark Corners opens in 1909 with the protagonist, Private Detective Jack Walters, venturing into the homestead of a strange religion called the Fellowship of the Yith. As Walters explores the house, searching for clues as to the purpose of the cult, he discovers paintings of the Great Old Ones upon the walls, finds the Pnakotic Manuscripts on an altar, and stumbles across some horrible Yithian technology in the basement. And, significantly, he does all this unarmed. Even from the get-go, the focus of the game is on investigation, stealth, and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
The main story, set six years after the prologue, keeps you in the role of Jack Walters, and deprives you of weapons for at least the first quarter of the game. Which is not to say that you lack opposition–far from it. After you travel to Innsmouth (yes, that Innsmouth) you are beset by enemies on all sides, and must survive by skulking in the shadows when possible, running like hell when necessary, and patching up your wounds with first aid kits when you can find a moment’s reprieve. The flight-not-fight tenor of the game is so emphasized that, even after you acquire a gun, you’ll tend to use it as a last resort rather than as a first.
The story of Dark Corners is impressive, on par in detail and faithfulness to Lovecraft with the best of the Call of Cthulhu scenarios. And it even incorporates CoC’s most interesting mechanism, the sanity attribute. When Walters encounters horrors, key aspects of the game change to reflect his mental distress: the video becomes blurry, or wavers in and out of focus; the audio warps and wafts; and the controls become unreliable. Too much terror in too short a time frame and Walters may well go insane–with deadly consequences.
The devotion of the Dark Corners writers to the source material–both Lovecraft’s stories (The Shadow Over Innsmouth foremost among them) and the CoC RPG–is immensely gratifying, and shines in every chapter. I actually played the game through twice: once on the regular level of difficulty, and a second time on the easiest level, so as to enjoy the story without being murdered every forty seconds.
And you will be. Murdered, that is. Often. Even I, a fan of the notoriously fatal role-playing game, found myself exasperated at times by the lethality of the game. There is, for instance, an scene about a third of the way though, in which you must escape from the Innsmouthian locals, that is inexcusably unforgiving. I am also going to side with many of the game’s critics in declaring the save points in the game to be way too few and far between. I understand the philosophical unpinning of this decision on the part of the game designers–preventing players from saving at will makes the game all the more scary–but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel like defenestrating my laptop on more than one occasion.
All that said, I enjoyed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth as much as any game I have played recently, a list that includes the both the Halflife and the Portal series. As a Lovecraft aficionado I am obviously biased, but even so it does not surprise me that the game was included in this compendium of Best Games of All Time.
Dark Corners is as close of a Call of Cthulhu campaign as you’re going to get without five other people and some ten-sided dice, and it’s a loving tribute to the master of dread.
Huge Caveat for PC Gamers: Dark Corners was originally developed for the XBox and, as I understand it, the PC port was performed hastily, in the last days before Headfirst Productions went belly-up. As a result, the PC version has some bugs. Some are small and ignorable; others are large and obnoxious. One however, near the end of the story, literally renders the game unfinishable.
The bug doesn’t occur on all systems, but it occurred on mine and, I suspect, on most modern systems. It takes place on the ship, when you are asked to fire a cannon at Devil’s Reef. The reef is supposed to show blue lights to indicate your targets, but the bug prevents them from appearing, making this mini-game all but impossible to complete.
Here is the solution:
- Get to the point where you are supposed to shell Devil’s Reef, which takes place in the “A Dangerous Journey” chapter. Look through the viewfinder and, if the blue lights aren’t obvious, exit the game.
- Download this zip file.
- Unzip the file and copy the “A Dangerous Voyage 5-28-2011 6.11.26 PM” folder into “C:\Users\[yourusername]\Documents\Bethesda\Call of Cthulhu”
- Relaunch Dark Corners, choose “Load Game”, and select the “A Dangerous Voyage – 05/28/2011″ save slot.
A bug of this magnitude is clearly unacceptable, and I therefore cannot recommend the PC edition of this game (even though that’s what I played). But reviews of the XBox version make no mention of this glitch; that version is presumably unaffected by this and several other errors.