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SummaryA fantastic game, if not broken to the point of being almost unplayable.
The GoodBefore I started playing Call of Cthulu I had no idea what the big deal was with H.P Lovecraft. I had never read any of his stories or watched any of the poorly made college films based on his source material. Part of the reason I avoided his work was because it was a popular thing for "alternative" teenagers and to a lesser extent, adults, to latch onto. They would look at you with disgust if you didn't know who Lovecraft was, yet they knew little about the mythology beyond reading one of his short stories in between writing bad poetry. There are also those who genuinely love Lovecraft's work and appreciate how instrumental he was in horror becoming mainstream.
Headfirst seemed to come from that second camp. They appreciated his work, resolved to treat it with respect and ended up creating a fine game. They were not pretentious though, the game doesn't rely on you having scrutinized Lovecraft's entire body of work. Call of Cthulu is a license done right, and to see this happen always gives me a warm feeling.
A large portion of Call of Cthulu is based on a pen and paper RPG. You play a private investigator who, after losing some of his life to period of darkness, resolves to take on a missing persons case. He travels to the town of Innsmouth and after some investigating is almost killed by the inhabitants. The rest of Dark Corners of the Earth is centered around his journey to discover what happened to himself and what happened to Innsmouth.
The artistic direction in Dark Corners of the Earth is to be applauded. Innsmouth itself is moody, faces peer out of windows and doors close as Jack walks past. The inhabitants are twisted and loathsome, watching Jack with suspicious eyes as he walks past. It's all definitely scripted, but it adds a degree of depth to the atmosphere that is missing in many survival horror games.
Because in the end, above all else, Dark Corners of the Earth feels like a survival horror game.
The gameplay is a combination of FPS action and stealth elements with a degree of investigative puzzle solving thrown in here and there. Jack relies on fire arms and more silent bladed weapons to fight the various twisted inhabitants of Innsmouth however most of the time it is better to avoid fights whatsoever. If Jack is injured instead of the standard "health kit" items the player must apply certain treatments specific to the injury sustained. For instance if his leg is injured it must be splinted, if it isn't he will hobble and his jumping will be compromised until the injury is taken care of. The gameplay in general is fantastic, Jack controls flawlessly and sneaks and jumps intuitively. Firing weapons relies on a steady hand and in a refreshingly realistic dynamic enemies can be killed with a single well placed knife thrust instead of requiring a barrage of slashes.
The variety of environments is remarkable and Headfirst seems to have mastered the art of backtracking. In many games, backtracking is employed as either a way of extending the length of a game or artificially convoluting puzzles. Backtracking in Dark Corners of the Earth feels natural and how it is employed here relies on you keeping your wits about you and watching for things that could potentially be useful later on. It isn't simply "I need to go back down 8 hallways to use red key on red door" it is more "I walked past a broken valve a little while ago, maybe I can use this valve handle there?"
The environments look good as well, which is a blessing. Each crumbling building sits with moody light being cast on it from a dirty bulb. Most characters look good, some don't, typically they do though. The weapon models contain decent enough detail and environmental effects like heat haze in the refinery and chill air linger around Jack as he explores.
The sanity mechanic introduced in the game transcends the foundation laid by Eternal Darkness as a launch title for the Gamecube. In Eternal Darkness your sanity was drained when enemies were nearby and if your sanity ran out the game would simulate odd things happening to either your character or your television set itself. In Dark Corners of the Earth your sanity doesn't break the fourth wall, it is there to make you want to keep Jack alive. If you don't keep him away from corpses, odd sculptures of things Cthulu can channel the screen will blur and Jacks world will warp and deform. If his sanity drops too low he will take his own life either by beating himself to death or shooting himself.
The BadDark Corners of the Earth shines in its opening moments. The chilling cinematic nature of these, the feeling that you're simply part of something much bigger and grander is lost as you progress through the game and it becomes essentially nothing more than a corridor shooter. There is little technique in how you play beyond repeatedly using trial and error to either tediously log a mental path for yourself or risk jumping out guns blazing to face hordes of respawning enemies.
O.k, say that's a bit of an exaggeration. This game never turns into a twitch shooter, but it also doesn't do a good enough job of keeping its fires stoked to consistently scare and intimidate you.
When you've come to terms with what the game demands of you you begin to realize that you don't get enough healing items to compensate for the vast amount hits you will take from enemies when you are forced to engage in combat. They are insanely overpowered and can take a lot punishment, while you can only take a few hits before being rendered critical. Additionally, if you take too much damage to one particular body part you will find yourself consistently running out of that one item you need to heal it.
The monotony of environments begins to take its toll after a while as well. I don't know whether or not it's simply because I can't stand dank, boring tunnels and generic stone temples but past Innsmouth the environments lack character or anything interesting for that matter. The dynamic, claustrophobic nature of Innsmouth contrasts greatly against generic mansion A and generic industrial building B.
What didn't I like about the game? The engine. The engine is one of the most unrefined and bug riddled ones I have ever encountered. Whether it was dropping frames or stopping the game from advancing there were so many occasions where something potentially game breaking happened that I almost lost count. I got stuck on ladders, stuck behind ladders, stuck in a vent, the ship scene wouldn't end, enemies wouldn't stop respawning when they were supposed to, events wouldn't trigger etc. etc. It wasn't just one or two things, it was just an endless procession of bugs and glitches that ruined any suspension of disbelief that I had built up. I mean, I have never had to start a game from scratch because of a fault left in by the developer but I had to do it twice with Dark Corners of the Earth. Frankly, I'm embarrassed for Bethesda having released such an unfinished game.
The Bottom LineDark Corners of the Earth is a compelling game full of frightening elements that consistently surprise the player. The sanity system is pure genius and the driving, cinematic nature of the opening moments is simply nail biting. The gameplay is solid and the combat is violent and visceral. Having to heal your limbs independently from one another is, at first, a cool concept and the rendering of environments is beyond reproach.
It's a shame then that the game becomes a boring slog during the second half that displays none of the creative flair that the beginning of the game exhibits. The health system becomes a problem when you come up against waves and waves of ridiculously respawning enemies and the sheer glut of game breaking bugs that riddle the package are inexcusable.
While I enjoyed the presentation of the mythology and the gameplay when it worked, Dark Corners of the Earth becomes a tad too mediocre and broken to recommend.