Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
A truly unique gaming experience... Which might or might not be a good thing.
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Today, however, is the day Jack finally decides to take that difficult step --the one that kicks the chair back.
Game over, your character's dead.
Who ever thought that putting a chair and a rope in the cell of a delusional maniac depressive would be a good idea? Boy, someone's gonna hit the unemployment line before the day's over...
Kind of a short game, isn't it-- Oh, wait, we're rewinding.
OK. It's 6 years ago now --September 6, 1915 to be exact; which means the previous scene was about 90 years ago, review-on-website-wise. Jack Walters, who happens to be a respectable detective working with the police, arrives to a manor of sorts, where the members of some cult are having a healthy firefight with the law enforcement. The leader of the cult demands to speak with Jack, so our hero gets in the manor commando-style. Only he doesn't take a gun with him. Good call there, detective Gandhi.
Anyway, (some other) mistakes are made, the slippery slope, and eventually our man is handed his first taste of otherworldly horrors.
Fast forward and we're back 6 years into the future, minus 10 days. Tell me if all this time-travelling makes you sick, don't go puking on the seats, please. Jack is a freelance detective now, and apparently he's not been in his best shape for the last 6 years. We do know he'll be much worse within a week and a half, though, so I guess it's all relative.
While he's mumbling to himself about his fragmented memories of these 6 years, during which he happened to spend some time in a mental hospital (apparently he goes in there from time to time, then), he receives a call from some guy who wants his services. Our man doesn't like to be interrupted when he's pinning about his lost memories and his season at the madhouse with senseless crap like, you know, work and stuff; so it is with much reluctance that he ultimately reaches into the case files cabinet (A.K.A. the trash bin) and takes the envelope his client sent him God knows how long ago, with money and the stuff needed to kick off the case. Jack is to find the manager of a grocery store at the coastal town of Innsmouth, who's gone M.I.A. The local newspapers and authorities say the guy ran away with all the money, but his boss suspects something else is going on. Like, he probably didn't run away as much as he drove away in one of the company vehicles. Or maybe someone killed him and they're covering the whole deal. They're some pretty grim fellows down at Innsmouth, I can tell you.
This way, the adventure proper starts; the entire first stage being a free adaptation of the short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. For the casual Lovecraft sympathizer (namely, me), it's a damned fine homage, from the very beginning with the travel as the sole passenger of the one bus that stops into town daily, to later that same night, when after a whole day of nosing around making tempers slowly flare, things go haywire and an unarmed Jack is chased through the rooftops and streets of the accursed town by the strange, xenophobic locals. I do know of hardcore Lovecraft fans that have quite a few complaints to make about the way the mythology's been treated, but hey, if you're a hardcore fan of this kind of literature, you can't be all that well up in the head, so who are you to talk.
Anyway, I recommend reading the story before playing the game (Come on, don't be such a lazy ass, it's about 50 pages long, man! And it's like 100 years old already, which means it's available for freely, 100% legal downloading everywhere.) to properly enjoy the joke.
This game has been in the making for no less than 7 years. During the process some stuff was added, some stuff was left out, promises were made that never even began to become a reality, people came in, people went out... The usual story. The one thing that's been a constant throughout the entire tortuous process was the promise of bringing the gamer a unique style of gameplay that would provide an extremely realistic experience. And this, they sure have achieved.
First things first, the technical aspects all hover around average-to-above levels. The graphics themselves look dated, with most of the characters' faces being rather inexpressive and the scenario textures being poor, small-sized and painfully given away especially when tiled --you can see the repeating patterns in any given street or wall too easily, which makes it look much less like a real street and much more like a dull wallpaper.
That said, characters are nicely animated, and they did pack in a bunch of special effects that more than make up for any criticism there could be made graphics-wise. For starters, they're using the most awesome jaggies-inhibiting effect I've ever seen; even if you set the game down at 640x480 with no antialiasing, you'll have to squint to see any jagged edges, and whatever it is they're doing, it has no major impact in the game's performance. It probably has to do with the dimly-lit, misty atmosphere present throughout the whole game, so it wouldn't probably work for, say, a GTA game, but it does work fine for this game, so there's that.
But graphics-wise, the main course is the protagonist's insanity: I'll get into detail further ahead, but for now let's say the visual effects are literally mind-bending, you'll truly feel the shocks the protagonist feels, the tension, the vertigo, and the almost palpable feeling of the sanity loss --reflections, refractions, motion blur; every little trick your video card can do to distort an image is put to work here.
The sound is split in half: On the one hand we have a soundtrack that -while not particularly memorable- does a perfect job to support the atmosphere (especially during the most stressful scenes) and believable sound effects, both the real ones (like the gunshots) and the unreal ones (like the monsters' grunting); and on the other hand we have the most painfully amateurish voice acting I've heard in years. We'll deal with that in time.
So, let's get into what makes this game so unique; which is, well, its uniqueness. The game is played from a first-person perspective, but it's FAR from your average shooter. Jack has to do a lot of sneaking, but it isn't a proper stealth game either; the game won't tell how visible or not Jack is, there are no noise level indicators, no cameras showing enemy positions... you're left to your own devices to judge which shadow is the darkest one, whether or not you're making too much noise, and so on, which is, well, just like it would be were you try to sneak on someone in the real world.
By the way, in the 100% pure stealth missions the AI is surprisingly good, and as long as you use your best real life discretion in order to sneak by, the enemies will perform greatly. Their field of view is expertly calculated, and you need to be very good at hiding to fool them. The mere fact that you're standing in the shadows doesn't make you invisible, Sam Fischer.
Anyway, we were saying there are no indicators. In fact, there's no "Heads Up Display" on screen at all, no superimposed text, nothing that stands between your character's eyes and your own. Every single thing presented on screen is strictly related to the story in motion, the way Jack sees it. Whenever you need to read the documents you pick up, manage your items, or check Jack's health status in detail (as well as heal his injuries) you go to a separated inventory screen while the action is paused. The HUD-less interface works so amazingly well it makes you wonder how come we ever got convinced that we needed to see a health bar or a bullet-count on screen at all times.
The management of the character's health is one of the things that stand out the most. Jack receives localized damage, which is not only visually represented in a schematic of his body in the inventory screen, but can also be felt during gameplay. Take a wound on your arm, and your aiming will be impaired, take a wound to the head and bloodstains will hamper your vision (This is, if you survive such wound --a head shot can be as deadly to you as it is to your enemies), take wounds to the legs and you'll feel Jack's pain as he limps and moans in pain.
The injuries you can take are of different types, and health kits provide different types of treatment for each one of them; which makes for some light strategizing, since you have to be careful with the management of your supplies, of which you can carry a limited number. For example, a heavy bleeding wound is quickly taken care of with sutures, but then these are way too scarce. You could choose to just wait until the injury turns to light bleeding and treat it with (widely available) bandages, but then you'd be walking around injuried until that happened, with the risk of being weaker and, depending on where the wound is located, having different abilities impaired.
Also, while healing an injury makes it disappear instantly in a very videogamey fashion, the healing process does take up to a few seconds depending on its complexity, so it can only be done once Jack is in a relatively calmed spot. In case of an emergency, the inventory also has morphine shots that give Jack a little speed boost and help numbing the pain, but then his vision will be blurred, with the obvious consequences to his aiming capability; not to mention that repeatedly abusing the drug might end up being fatal. You know, stay in school and all that.
Like I said before, this game is not a shooter. Our man is simply too clumsy to ever make it into Quake's cast, but the odd thing is, his awkwardness at handling weapons doesn't feel like the product of a faulty game engine, but rather the carefully planned effect of a very capable one. Like it's supposed to be this way. Unlike every other game where you handle weapons, in DCotE you actually get the feeling of the thing having weight, like you would probably feel when using a real weapon. There's no crosshair on screen, so you can either take your chances with a blind shot from the default position or use the "aim" button, which puts the weapon right in front of your eyes, so you aim with the weapon's own sights, as it's supposed to be done. It's harder than it sounds, but it's also quite rewarding once you get the trick, it's like you're actually learning how to shoot properly.
It's a good thing Jack Thompson probably won't ever hear of this game, or you can already imagine the lawsuits that phrase alone could spawn...
By now you're probably wondering whether so much reality in a videogame won't end up being a bad thing, like, won't such a complicated healing system turn firefights into an infuriating experience?
Well, here's the thing. It does get annoying a lot of times. In fact, to be honest, there are quite a few spots where it gets videogameishly annoying (more on this in a minute); but for the most part, the whole system works. I was annoyed several times, but I couldn't help but admitting that it would've been just how things actually would have played out in reality, so it was only fair. Like it isn't the developers' fault, but rather reality's fault for it not being more like a regular videogame.
For example, I'm walking on a thin wooden beam, a couple stories high. Below me, several rabid folks are on the lookout, so at all times I'm risking being spotted and promptly shot down. In a very videogamey fashion, I look down to monitor their behavior, and whoOooOOOoa!, the whole world starts spinning around me!! So walking forward suddenly becomes a pain in the neck for some seconds, as it turns really hard to tell what's forward and what's what.
I could choose to make the whole walk looking up to avoid the vertigo, but I wouldn't see where I'm stepping, with predictable results. So, the secret is to try and walk calmly, staring straight ahead at all times, not looking down no matter what happens, and pray that noone below thinks about looking up.
In a regular videogame, you wouldn't ever expect having to be so careful in such a situation, but doesn't it sound just like you would act in real life?
There are dozens of small details that enhance the immersion, like when every time you use an item or interact with the scenery, you actually see Jack's hands at work (In fact, his hands were supposed to show up even when you opened a door or picked up an item, but that was left out as it came out quite buggy); but hands down, the most outstanding feature of the game is the aforementioned sanity system.
We know Jack Walters is a regular at the local mental hospital, and he's about to be confronted face to face with stuff that's supposed to be buried deep beneath the oceans for ever, so his sanity is at stake at all times. The more he comes in contact with disturbing imagery, be it a human corpse or a Lovecraftian monster, his pulse will accelerate and his perception of the world will be distorted in one of many possible ways. For every time the game makes you jump off your seat with a scary image or sound, you get to see Jack suffering the same experience, tenfold. Sometimes he'll even need to take cover in a safe spot to catch his breath and wait for the scenery to stop dancing around in a nausea-inducing fashion. It's the first time, as far as I know, that a horror videogame character reacts to the situation he's living like a real human being would.
The more exposed to disturbing imagery Jack is, the closer to a massive sanity failure, which means game over.
Keeping Jack sane is kind of tricky, especially since certain character dies because of him, and from that point on he's permanently haunted by ghostly visions fed by his own guilt, and they can show up anywhere. These visions -as almost every disturbing events, actually- can be avoided in order to minimize the overall sanity loss, but the scary scenes are the exact same reason why we play horror games, so sanity be damned, I went to get as many as I could. Poor Jack.
In this regard, there's a huge amount of delicious scary moments. Sometimes they're your typical "Boo!" device, placed in plain sight, like when you open a door and get a shockingly effective shot at the half-decomposed corpse of a hanging woman; but the truly memorable ones are more subtly placed, and they're sort of a sadistic reward to your curiosity --you can actually miss many of them if you just rush through the levels.
At a given point, I was walking down the street and passed by a house with street-level basement windows. I crouched to peek inside, and the exact moment I did it, I just managed to see a door slamming shut. It was as simple as it was great. The incredibly precise timing they got there is commendable.
Often during the game, the perspective will switch for a couple of seconds from Jack's eyes to something else's eyes, something that comes rushing through halls, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and even crawling on walls and ceilings, always seemingly just seconds away from Jack. So, I was walking up this flight of stairs and I saw a window. Suddenly, I switched to the eyes of something that came leaping on the rooftops, and I noticed it was (which is to say, I was) watching into the very window at the end of the stairs that I (Jack) was about to reach! So when I regain control of Jack, I rush upstairs, I turn to the window, and I manage to get a glimpse of... something. It was definitely there, but it managed to jump out of my sight too fast, before I could tell what the hell it was. It was amazing. I've read descriptions of such carefully timed almost-close-encounters in horror stories and such, but I can't remember having seen them this well crafted. Certainly not in videogames.
WOW!! With all that, this has to be, like, the best game ever! Right?
Well, not quite.
First, as I said, the graphics look definitely dated. While all the technical tricks I've mentioned do make up for them to a certain extent, and what we do have is enough to craft an effective horror atmosphere, some things are just wrong; like the fact the textures seem to use only 16-bit color. You might not tell for the most part, but if you look at the sky in outdoors Innsmouth, you can't help but noticing something's definitely not right up there. It's ugly, and there's no way around it.
Then we have the sound. More specifically, the voice acting. It's terrible. Actually, it's beyond terrible. "Terrible" could be applied to Silent Hill. This is atrocious.
Jack Walters is kind of average, which is not exactly a good thing for a guy we'll be hearing throughout the entire game, but hey, it could've been worse. Then we start the game and we approach the manor with the cultists, and we meet the first few NPCs --OH DEAR GOD!!! --OK, that guy is pressing his nose between his index finger and thumb while reading his lines.
How could this slip into the final game? I haven't made even 5 minutes into the game, this is the part where you present your product! People might uninstall the whole thing just because of the massive hit to the game's overall impression that such an awful acting means.
If you really couldn't escape from having to cast the producer's talentless nephew, at least push him back into some obscure, worthless character in the second half of the game, but don't make him the very first person the protagonist speaks to!
The voice cast seems to be comprised of some 4 people, for no less than 8 relevant characters, and dozens of extras. So, like the one above, you have an endless line of failed attempts at faking voices. It's the most painful cast I had to endure in recent memory.
There's a particular "Don't let him get away!" voice track that every third bad guy would play, that made my skin crawl in horror; not because it sounded particularly threatening, mind you, but because it made me ponder on the fact that someone actually got paid money for such a lame-ass line delivery. I mean, most of the cast of the Legacy of Kain games is probably unemployed now, couldn't they get at least a few of them? Was this cast so much cheaper?
Well, it does sound like it was.
Next, he have plot-related screw ups. One of the worst ones is Jack's personality, or rather, lack there of: He's constantly changing, it's really hard for anyone to identify with him. Usually he's this self-centered, reasonably smart guy, but every now and then he becomes a snotty prick you would smack right in the middle of the nose, and the change often happens right in the middle of a conversation, just like that.
There's a point at which he's looking for this woman, and he breaks in a house and, what do you know, he finds a woman who looks quite scared, and seems to be hiding. So, does he take the cue and realize here's his girl and tries to calm her down? --Nah, why would he? Let's better get all cocky and yell at her about how she's breaking into private property (excuse me?) and be the prick of the year to one of the three people in the entire town that doesn't seem to be ready to stab him in the back the moment he turns around.
His soulless, artificial voice acting doesn't make things any better, going to the extent of completely ruining a couple of otherwise intense scenes.
The storytelling is plagued by inconsistencies and plain stupidities that, while not terribly bad on their own, tend to undermine the big picture little by little. Like the names they gave to the levels/chapters; whoever it was that suggested the impossibly lame "Attack of the Fishmen", should've been fired at once.
Then again, it probably was that damned producer's nephew again. Damn his guts.
While it is true that some really picky Lovecraft fans complained about things that noone else would possibly notice, mythos-wise there are some details of the plot that can't be forgiven. One of the bigger ones being that, halfway into the game, you kill Dagon.
YOU. KILL. DAGON.
In case you're not familiar with the name, Dagon's one of the Old Ones, the unholy creatures around whom the entire Lovecraft mythology turn. Their groupies and hanger-ons like to refer to them with chants like: "That is not dead which eternally lies. After strange aeons hence, even death may die". That's a pretty daring motto to have, for a creature that takes 5 hits in the face to kill. Sure, those are torpedo hits, but still, the U.S. Army spent way more firepower in Bin Laden, and they never even found the guy.
All that said, however, the really important thing to criticize is the gameplay. While it is quite original and enjoyable once you get comfortable with it, and it's the very thing that makes the entire game stand out, it's also plagued by problems for which there's no excuse.
Jack can't run. He can walk, walk even slower while sneaking, and crawl while crouching. And that's it. That wouldn't be that much of an issue, if it wasn't for a few stages in which there's no other choice than to get away from some massive threat --the kind of threat you wouldn't leisurely stroll from, as much as you would sprint the hell away from.
In fact, there's been complaints in the official forums about the last stage of the game, where Jack escapes from a crumbling building, since a lot of people are getting stuck, unable to complete the final portion of the game because Jack's default speed prevents them from beating the stage's timer. And it is known to be a a problem with the speed, because you can alter the walking speed by hacking into the main .exe file, and any value above the default one solves the problem automagically.
Oddly enough, a little fiddling into said file reveals a variable called RunningSpeed, which defaults to a noticeably higher value than WalkingSpeed. Yet, as I've just said, there's no "run" key in the game. What the hell's that about?
The AI, while great in the stealth missions, is terrible in combat. Enemies rarely go for cover, they won't take any advantage of their numerical superiority, an they'll always fall for the most silly and obvious forms of ambush you can pull out. Many times you can actually bump into an enemy and he'll simply stand still with a blank expression and maybe fire a shot every two seconds while you fill him full of lead.
If you followed the game hype during the early years, you might remember Andrew Brazier speaking about the physics engine: «Our advanced real-time physics will be an essential part of the gameplay and atmosphere creation. [...] In terms of gameplay, this has far-reaching implications as it means there will be a number of ways to solve any particular puzzle.» That was January 2000, and that did sound like a promising feature back then. Today, 6 years later, the version 3.0 of the stunning Havok physics engine is out there, which made things look even more promising since, in the worst possible case, the DCotE team could still go an license it. There was no way they could not fulfill their promise.
However, neither the physics engine nor any of that gameplay goodness it was supposed to bring are anywhere to be found in the final game.
First, not only interaction with the world is hovering dangerously near zero, but whatever gimmicky physics-related problem-solving device there is, gets used only in the particular stage it is introduced, and never again. Once you learned using a given ability, your only chance at leveraging your experience in it, is a second playthrough. After that particular level is done with, you can just as well forget what you learned, for all it matters.
For example, while being chased in the hotel down at Innsmouth, Jack can (he actually has to) push furniture around to block doors behind him, thus slowing down his foes. However, that's the only stage in which he's gonna do that. He can't push a single thing during the rest of the game, just like that. Go realism.
On the other hand, along with the physics engine, gone are the promised multiple ways to solve problems. And, to quote my friend Andrew up there, this has far-reaching implications. You see, DCotE plays a little like a shooter and a little like a stealth game, but the overall feeling is that of an adventure game, where you need to figure the right way to beat each challenge. And this is a very bad thing.
You can find alternate ways to solve a given situation, but whenever you stray from the predefined path it becomes painfully obvious. You might succeed (though chances are you won't), but you get the feeling that you're not doing things the proper way, you either missed or screwed up something, and ended up having to do things this other way, which simply doesn't feel right. Rather than taking an alternate path, it feels like you're exploiting a design flaw.
Thus, much in the same way adventure games are meant for smart people, but only if they are smart in the exact way the developers were smart when planning the puzzles, DCotE is realistic, but only for the exact reality the developers had in mind when designing it. A game with so much emphasis on its realism should have had a much more open-ended gameplay. It was mandatory. Having to solve the game on rails as it is, sends all the realism down the drain.
Adding insult to injury, you can't quicksave. I did speak against the overuse of quicksave in the past, and I stand by that, but some games just beg for this feature.
DCotE not only plays like an adventure where you have to solve problems in the exact way the developers meant it, it plays like a really awful adventure where most solutions can only be found by trial an error. In an adventure game, this would translate into a dull exercise in pixel-hunting or use-everything-with-everything. In a game with this much action, it translates in repeatedly dying until you figure out the way to go.
Needless to say, if this happens 10 minutes away from the nearest savepoint, it gets downright infuriating.
One final annoyance has to be the fact that, despite all the realism these people have going on here, us players couldn't escape from having to endure, once again, a number of bad cliches, including but not limited to -ready those rotten tomatoes, people- jumping puzzles.
Can it be possible?
Dear game developers: JUMPING PUZZLES DON'T WORK IN FIRST PERSON PERSPECTIVE GAMES. WE ALL HATE IT WHEN YOU DO THIS, WE'VE SAID IT ABOUT A GAZILLION TIMES IN THE LAST 7 YEARS, AND IN FACT YOU NEVER EVEN SHOULD'VE NEEDED TO BE TOLD SO IN THE FIRST PLACE!! IT'S F'ING COMMON SENSE, GODDAMNIT!!!!
And when a game that revels in its uniqueness pulls them out, it's twice as bad.
The Bottom Line
So, what do we do with this one?
To be quite honest, I'm still no sure whether I love or I hate this game.
DCotE is one of the most vividly realistic experiences to ever exist in the form of a videogame. Applied to a horror game, this translates in a recipe for awesome, in any language. Some other games might or might not do a better job to make you jump off your seat with their "Boo!" techniques, but I don't think there's a game that captures and transmits the true feeling of tension, shock, vertigo, pure, genuine fear, and the dreadful sense of being slowly descending into madness like this one. You do feel every little thing your character experiences as if it was happening to you, and your character does experience the things he's put through, unlike most horror games' protagonists that simply see them pass by.
The game features plenty of sneaking and shooting, both things we've done countless times in the past, but it manages to do them in an oddly realistic way that makes them feel like a total novelty. This amounts to equally high levels of enjoyment and frustration, so make what you will of that.
On the other hand, the game can get impossibly annoying at times because of a number of bad decisions, bad storytelling and acting, inopportune resorting to awful videogame cliches, and -worst of all- the most painful form of linearity, in which not only you can't stray from the path intended to solve each situation, but you actually have to randomly guess what the developers had in mind in each case, which is usually much harder than it sounds, since while at it you can get killed too many times, being forced to replay some stages until you learn to honestly hate them.
All that said, the first thing I did once I finished the game was starting over again.
That was about a week ago and, even though it still gets annoying at times, I'm enjoying it like a degenerate maniac. Maybe even more so than the first time through.