Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is the Lovecraftian game that many believed would never see the light of day. Despite its development beginning back in 1999, it wasn’t until 2005 that it was finally released, with much turmoil and delays along the way. Loosely based off the short story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Dark Corners of the Earth was to be the first in a trilogy. Sadly, poor sales kept that from happening.
Was this ever worthy to become a series? Let’s find out.
The year is 1915. Police Detective Jack Walters has been asked to investigate a cultist mansion. Next thing he knows, it’s 1921 and he’s in a mental asylum, with no memory of the last 6 years. After being released 6 months later, he becomes a P.I and in an attempt to get on with his life, he takes a job to find a missing person in the town of Innsmouth. As events spiral out of control and the town’s inhabitants turn violent, Jack will find that this case actually shares a connection with his own past.
While I wouldn’t describe this as being particularly scary, it does have a very dark and gruesome atmosphere that is very effective. You never truly feel like you can trust anyone, especially yourself. The first third of the game is a slow burn as you carry out your investigation in the unwelcoming town of Innsmouth. You’ll hear people talking about you behind your back, see strange creatures jumping across windows and if your lucky, you may even catch some hooded figures up above that seem to be watching your every move. The tension builds until it explodes, resulting in a game of Cat and Mouse in which Jack must still carry out his investigation whilst the town thirsts for his blood.
The story is great, at least for the first half of the game. After a while however, things takes a strange turn. Around about the time you pick up your first gun (more on that in the gameplay section), it stops being a tense horror/stealth game and becomes a mindless action shooter instead. Your investigation seems to abruptly end and you are suddenly recruited by the FBI (by J. Edgar Hoover of all people) and asked to assist them on a series of raids in and around the town of Innsmouth. After a raid on a Marsh Refinery, you head off with the army to raid some mansion, it’s rather strange and not befitting to the great opening act.
Things eventually simmer down towards the end, but it never manages to recapture the brilliant beginning. Add to that a rather disappointing ending which was clearly meant to be supported by a sequel and you have a game of two halves; the first one great, the second not so.
The gameplay is also a strange bag. To begin with you have no weapons and no means of fighting anyone. Not that you need to, as the first couple of hours are simply an investigation as you sneak around the town trying to find clues. It’s almost like a level from Thief as you try to complete your objective, sure there’s only really one way to do things, but it’s still fun nonetheless.
Even when the action starts, things are kept tense. When the “Fishermen” attack, you frantically run for your life; locking doors behind you and blocking exits to make your escape. Once this section is over it turns into a stealth game. The way the game effortlessly transitions from one gameplay mechanic to another is very impressive. Puzzles are also fun yet challenging, forcing you to actually read the pieces of information you find lying around in order to proceed.
All that changes however once you pick up your first gun. At first it’s exciting to finally be able to fight back against the town, but very soon you’ll start noticing he game’s flaws. The enemy AI is atrocious, they have the aim of Stormtroopers and they’ll laughably forget you were ever there if you simply hide for a few seconds (sometimes in plain sight).
The gun mechanics themselves work fine, a reticle would be nice but they still work. The problem is that the game wasn’t made to be a linear shooter, yet that’s exactly what it becomes. There are still puzzles to solve and keys to find, but you’ll have to shoot your way there. This isn’t to say that there is no place for guns in this game. In-fact there is a level near the end set on a Navy ship in which you are attacked by a whole heap of “Dark Ones” which actually works really well, behaving a bit like Left 4 Dead as you frantically try to avoid these fast moving monsters and thin their numbers.
The game will try to convince you that stealth is still the best way to proceed (Jack will actually say it out loud during the final level) but that’s quite frankly bullshit. In order to solve the puzzles that need solving, you need to walk about freely, that means shooting any fool that gets in your way. The game does have some tense moments later, like when you are kept in a prison cell (instead of just being killed) and have to sneak out without weapons, but the majority of the second half is a little mind numbing.
There is one mechanic that I’ve barely touched upon yet, your sanity meter. Similar to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, should you gaze upon the spooky and evil things of the world for too long then Jack will start to feel a little dizzy and may even just die on the spot. I appreciate what they were attempting but this simply doesn’t work well at all. In A:TDD you were hiding from the monsters, but in Call of Cthulhu, you are actively engaging with them, sometimes even fighting massive boss battles. Having to also contend with wobbly knees is just frustrating.
Just like with the story, there is half a great game here. Just a shame that it soon devolves into a mindless action fest.
The Lion’s share of the presentation is fine though unremarkable. The music does it’s job, there are plenty of effects to keep the spooks up and the graphics go for a realistic look. One thing I would like to mention however is the design of Innmouth’s inhabitants. They all look and sound like horrible monsters yet are still supposedly human (or some fish hybrid). The way they hold shotguns is also hilarious, as their massive hands seem to barely be able to hold them properly. Perhaps that is why they have such terrible aim.
I should also mention that I experienced two game breaking glitches during my time with it. One on the aforementioned Navy ship which I fixed with an unofficial patch and another during the final boss battle which wouldn’t let me flip some switches, meaning I had to watch the final cutscene on YouTube. The console versions seem to fair better but the PC version definitely has issues. Exercise caution if you wish to buy.
The first few hours of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth are good, even great. Though for whatever reason it soon decides to lessen the tension and up the action. If the middle third were removed and the ending improved, then this could have been a real cult classic (pun intended) but as it stands, it’s half a great game with a weak ending.
The Final Word: The promise delivered by a brilliant and intense opening act is ultimately brought down by the mindless action of the rest of the game.