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Game Reviews

‘Call of Cthulhu’ Review: Fun, But Crafted Without Love

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How often do you experience a video game with glaring flaws that you still enjoy, even if those flaws remain constant throughout the experience? In today’s digital world full of instant feedback and big opinions, can a game truly just be ‘fine’ anymore? Call of Cthulhu is most definitely full of flaws, but coming to the end credits knowing I’d had a perfectly fine time with it felt like I’d rediscovered an alien concept.

Today’s gaming sphere has devolved into one that can’t call a 6 a 6. Seeing that score on a AAA game means either give it the widest of berths, or attack the reviewer for murdering your favourite series. Spoiler alert: Call of Cthulhu is a 6, and I’m going to explain why that’s absolutely fine.

French developer Cyanide are probably best known, provided you’re not a fan of the Tour De France games, for the Blood Bowl series. A studio’s maiden venture into the survival horror genre is a concept familiar to publisher Focus Home Interactive, which released Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr earlier this year. It’s a venture that, much like Vampyr, does things differently-yet-sloppily. However, it marks another promising step forward for a genre trying to freshen things up during a barren period confounded by publisher disillusion.

Cthulhu actually presents as more of a detective game with a horror setting than a true survival horror. It doesn’t have a real combat system and P.I. protagonist Edward Pierce will very rarely be in actual peril. That said, a slow-burner covered by a shroud of misery, madness and the macabre fits pretty well for an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation.

Enter Madness

Pierce’s journey to the edge of insanity revolves around the mysterious deaths of Darkwater Island’s well-to-do Hawkins family. Pierce finds himself digging deeper into the case when a client presents him with a batshit insane painting that casts doubt on the “accidental” cause of the fire.

Nope, not CCTV footage – actual animations by real human beings

During the opening segment, several things immediately highlight most of the game’s strengths and weaknesses. The immersive tone and aesthetics of 1920s noir shatter once the characters actually open their mouths and talk to each other.

Character models in Call of Cthulhu look absolutely hideous. Lip syncing is a visual cacophony of flailing skin flaps and teeth that clip through mouths, not even coming close to mirroring the dialogue. Model gesticulations are on a Resident Evil 1 level of bad. Repeated renditions of “I’m a Little Teapot” are enhanced with fingers and necks that bend far beyond the level of human physical attainment. It’s actually pretty hilarious, but hilarity is undoubtedly not the ideal tone for a Lovecraftian horror story.

Prepare to see the same characters ad nauseum because they’re all pretty much identical. At first, it was hilarious that every single generic NPC in the game resembled the protagonist with different facial hair. It quickly became so brazen that it seemed as though it was happening on purpose just to mess with the player. So jarring was it that when Pierce kept seeing images of his own visage in random ominous paintings without reacting to them, I expected all would be explained later. Alas, it never was.

If the developers designed the game this way, that’s brilliant . Everyone on the island simply exists a skewed version of the protagonist’s consciousness and may or may not even be real. However, since it never gets addressed, the natural conclusion is that the developer just made about three shitty character models and pasted them everywhere.

Call of Cthulhu review

Seriously, EVERYONE looks like this.

Everywhere you look, it seems like corners have been cut. Cutscenes are jerky and inexplicably at a much lower sound level than the dialogue of the main game. Perhaps the developers meant to force players to turn up their volume during these cutscenes. The jarring, deafening shift back into the in-game dialogue causes one to jump out of their skin. A novel form of jump-scare but likely unintentional.

Of that in-game dialogue, voice lines of secondary NPCs repeat on an endless loop without even a pause for breath. This means you’ll hear the same diatribe restart at least once before you can even walk out of earshot. A shame, as this noise clashes against the impressive vocal performances for some of the more major characters.

One might suspect that people in the game look so dreadful because the budget went to set design and environments, which all look rather decent. Moody lighting augments the murky and morose tone that the flappy-lipped, owl-necked humans try so hard to spoil.

In spite of the disparity between cutscene and in-game dialogue, the game’s music sounds fantastic. Haunting tracks don’t outstay their welcome and get used sparingly to great effect. They allow the growing sounds of Pierce’s madness to take centre-stage alongside a bevy of environmental spookiness. Creaking floorboards and eerie noises bedevil your every move throughout the Hawkins mansion.

Play it as it Lies

Despite all of its failings, Call of Cthulhu succeeds at having some pretty damn fun mechanics. The unique spin of a horror detective title offers some genuinely refreshing gameplay. The game gets so close to being consistently good that it really does elevate the whole experience into a more than acceptable way to spend 12 hours.

The core gameplay loop consists of going through a linear narrative while searching for clues and solving puzzles. There’s something satisfying about scanning the eerie environments without any real interruption from a gameplay standpoint.

A unique feature of the investigative gameplay is Pierce’s ability to reconstruct a scene and piece together what may have happened. It does a fairly good job of fleshing out some of the more important story beats. What makes these segments more immersive is their incorporation of the game’s biggest draw – its RPG elements.

Call of Cthulhu review

Maybe the key to capturing Cthulhu in paintings is completely rubber fingers

You begin the game by spending Character Points (CP) to upgrade Pierce’s skills and choose the kind of playstyle you want. These skills include: Strength, Investigation, Psychology, Eloquence, Medicine and Occultism. The latter two can only upgrade via CP at the start of the game, meaning you’ll need to find items in the world to upgrade them further. The skills affect various aspects of the game, ranging from how you interact with people, routes you can take, and how you can assess the environment and the aforementioned reconstructions.

Find yourself lacking in medicine, and you’ll have trouble discerning what discarded medication could have meant for its former owner. Stock up on Psychology and Pierce can better decipher what went through the minds of the people he investigates.

The system doesn’t explain itself and some skills can occasionally seem a bit arbitrary (looking at you, Strength). However, skill mechanics get implemented often and diversely enough that spending CP feels like satisfying progression.

Call of Cthulhu review

Never mind the call of Cthulhu, this woman seems more concerned about the hypnotic movements of her dress

Any horror game worth its salt obviously couldn’t live with itself if it just let the player potter about looking at books while it made scary noises. To that end, Cthulhu forces the player into some pretty heavy-handed stealth segments.

Naturally, failure in any of these segments results in an instant game over. Almost all of them, despite their initial tension-raising potential, end up causing frustration over anything else. The stealth sections are thankfully rare occurrences and the only major black mark on the game’s copybook.

Will You Take the Plunge?

Call of Cthulhu offers a total change of pace from anything else out this holiday season. The price tag, for now, might be a sticking point for some people. Players can still get mileage out of different builds and playthoughs, which result in wholly different experiences and endings. Engaging too much with the occult can fully deplete Pierce’s sanity meter, and seeing what happens in that scenario definitely warrants a second time around. For the fans of H.P. Lovecraft: you could do a lot worse than Call of Cthulhu.

Don’t go in expecting anything other than a slow-paced RPG-lite horror game focused more on mystery and madness than action and jump scares. Call of Cthulhu is a pretty bad video game, but it still manages to be enjoyable in spite of its really, really obvious shortcomings.

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes ranting about the latest gaming news in his weekly column.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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