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‘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

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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