"When protagonist Jack Walters enters the town of Innsmouth and starts poking around, you’re not constantly diving through sleek menus and you’re not looking at things from a distance. You see it all through his protagonist’s eyes, without the meters and numbers so often a hallmark of the genre. When the villagers grunt, growl and say to leave them alone, they’re staring you right in the face. You are Jack Walters."
Early in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth comes a moment that captures all that is right and all that is wrong about the game. Forced by fate to stay overnight in the fishing village of Innsmouth, you pay for lodgings at the inn and head upstairs to your quarters. The night is quiet, but for the zombie-like rumblings of those few who stay awake, wandering the streets as if in a trance. A candle burns on the nightstand near the bed. Spectral luminescence casts wavering shadows across the floor and into the room beyond. You can see a bureau and some boarded windows.
The innkeeper tells you to be quiet, to let the other guests get some rest. No one much cares for a disturbance in this town, he says. It’s obvious he wishes you weren’t here at all, but his thoughts on the subject aren’t really your concern. You’re a private detective, hired to unearth the whereabouts of a missing store clerk. Besides, the bus out of town doesn’t leave until morning.
Once you’re left alone, you pace the room. There are bolts on the door. You slide them shut. They’ll gain you precious seconds if some of the townsfolk try to kill you in your sleep. You wouldn’t put it past them.
With everything secured as much as possible, you drift off to restless sleep. It’s not long before you wake, though. Something is wrong. Someone is toying with the lock. The candles to your right have burned lower. They flicker in a slight draft that whispers at you through the cracks in the boarded window. The villagers start banging loudly on the door.
You leap from your bed and stumble into the adjacent room. Someone outside shouts that you’re trying to escape! You look about frantically. There’s so little time. Wood splinters. The villagers swarm the previous room. You shut the door on them, slip the lock shut, and look behind you. A bureau stands along one wall. Scratch marks line the boards at its base. Someone meant to hide something. A few strides bring you to its side. You push and the furnishing slides aside to reveal a doorway into yet another room. Your heart is thumping. Did that take too long?
You can’t afford to panic. The sounds of pursuit drive you through one room after another, shutting doors, sliding locks, moving furniture. You crawl through a window, out onto a rickety balcony. People are moving in the streets below. Another ledge waits just ahead. You leap to it, then head into another hallway.
Someone heard you. Windows shatter to either side and glass flies in piercing shards, punctuating the staccato of distant gunfire. You drop to your knees and scramble along the empty corridor. As you reach the end, your hunters burst through the doorway behind you. You rise to your feet and keep running, caught in the spell of a great game.
Wait a minute, though. Haven’t other games forced you to flee from maniacal villagers? Sure. You need look no further than Resident Evil 4. Shattering glass is hardly new, either, and this isn’t even the first time someone has jumped between buildings. What makes this particular rerun so cool? Just one thing: you live it.
When protagonist Jack Walters enters the town of Innsmouth and starts poking around, you’re not constantly diving through sleek menus and you’re not looking at things from a distance. You see it all through his protagonist’s eyes, without the meters and numbers so often a hallmark of the genre. When the villagers grunt, growl and say to leave them alone, they’re staring you right in the face. You are Jack Walters. His morbid sense of humor becomes your own. His fear when he looks through a storehouse window and sees a corpse hanging from some rope is yours. When he unleashes an unspeakable evil and watches the dire consequences unfold, you share a role in the transgression. It’s often simple to forget that this is ‘just a game.’
Unfortunately, things sometimes falter. When you’re escaping from the inn and the barbaric villagers are tracking you, it’s too easy to accidentally open the door and grant your pursuers admittance to your current shelter, something you’d obviously not want to do if you were truly in the situation. It works both ways, too. When you find yourself running from the police and seeking shelter in the jailhouse, someone might find you. Don’t worry, though. Just run to the bathroom and duck by the toilet. Even if someone comes in and sees you, the worst they’ll do is fire a shot (at point blank range) that misses, then wander away while asking each other where you might be.
Other distractions are built right into the game, though they’re obviously meant to have the opposite effect. If Jack stumbles across particularly gruesome or horrifying moments—and there are plenty—he’ll shudder and the screen will blur slightly. He’ll start to hear voices and moving too quickly makes everything turn hazy. His heart rate will increase and the controller may vibrate. To counter this effect, you must shoot him up with morphine or just stay where you are for a moment. The problem with this is obvious, and it interferes with the overall experience. Let’s say you’re crawling along the skeletal beams that make up the rafters of a burning building. Below, men are searching with flashlights, trying to locate and slaughter you. Watching them turns your vision hazy, so you must frequently pause to diminish the effect while everyone around you remains oblivious. Is this realistic? Not particularly.
Then there are the puzzles. Some of them make perfect sense. Others are just too contrived. This issue sometimes manifests itself to unintentionally humorous effect. When you’re crawling around in the sewers, you’ll find it littered with rats killed by the liquid’s acidic nature. They’re all around you, and they stand out as especially pinkish against the dingy textures walls and grates. So you pick one up and stuff it into your pocket. There are still other rodent corpses, though, and now you’re suddenly averse to grabbing any of them. “One rat is enough for anyone,” you say. In a game that so often gives you complete reign over your narrow circumstances, such deviations from that formula are particularly disappointing.
Still, it should be obvious that many of my complaints are mere nitpicking. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is an admirable effort that succeeds in so many ways that it’s incredible. I never thought I’d find myself so drawn into a game that doesn’t even give you an actual weapon until you’re a third of the way through it. I never thought I could actually enjoy stealth sequences. That happened here, too. Perhaps it’s the story and the way it keeps punching you in the emotional gut every time you make it to the next area. That’s why some people will play. Others will play for the tension. There are some pretty good scares here, worthy of a Silent Hill game. Those aren’t the reasons I play, though. I play because slipping deep into the Lovecraft mythos and forgetting that I’m only playing a game is so much damn fun. Try it sometime.
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 06, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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