Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
This is the first article-type-thing in a possible series about flawed but daring video games. FBDs are some of my favorite games, usually second only to flawless and daring games (such as Pikmin). While a few of them manage to become hits (No More Heroes, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), most of them go pretty largely ignored. That’s certainly the case for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (DCOTE from here on out); outside of the official forums, I haven’t spoken to a single person who has heard of it, let alone played it [until I posted this article on G+ -MB].
DCOTE is a first-person survival horror game based on the Cthulhu Mythos, and while it’s not the only one out there, I’m pretty sure it’s the only one endorsed by Chaosium to use the CoC brand (the game itself also borrows heavily from the Escape from Innsmouth module, or so I’m given to understand). It was published by Bethesda, but developed by Headfirst, who unfortunately collapsed almost immediately after publication (they continued to make the PC port even though they couldn’t pay themselves for the work). It’s available for the xbox and PC, but get the xbox version; the PC version is buggier, and the xbox controller contributes very well to the experience.
One of the first things you’ll notice about this game is that there is no HUD, and as far as I know, they beat the first-person world to that (Mirror’s Edge and that space zombie game do it too now). Everything about the state of your character is communicated through other cues – danger through increased heart rate, loss of health through fading vision, available ammo through… uh… nothing, actually. You have to count your shots, which here is awesome. I can count on one hand the number of things that are scarier than being charged by a Deep One and pulling the trigger only to hear your rifle go click, and several of those things are also in this game.
The game starts with a simple, non-hazardous investigation. Your character, Jack, is a policeman investigating the aftermath of a Yith cult. This sequence serves not only to introduce the controls and several bits of foreshadowing, but also two of the central mechanics of the game. One: Jack’s an investigator, so click on everything that looks halfway interesting to hear Jack’s thoughts on it (which is crucial for many puzzles later on). Two: sanity loss.
Oh man. Here’s the basics of it: when you look directly at horrifying crap, your SAN takes a hit. Like everything else, this isn’t indicated by numbers. Instead, Jack starts flipping out to some degree. It starts with accelerated heartbeat and breathing, then moves on into head-swimming panic (with blurred vision) and Jack talking to himself and maybe hearing some voices. The panic gets worse by degrees until you reach a total game-ending breakdown (if he’s armed, Jack will shoot himself at this point, so that’s fun). You’ll calm down over time if you can stay away from freaky shit, and killing enemies also keeps the breakdown at bay (at certain points, the game pretty much becomes a matter of shooting Deep Ones faster than they can drive you crazy, not to mention kill you).
And let me get back to that heartbeat for a second. You know that controllers vibrate these days, right? Just checking, since it’s entirely possible that you forgot, given how pointless and unimaginative most implementations of the feature are. In this case, though, HOLY CRAP. The controller vibrates from one side to the other in a very convincing ba-bump that matches the heartbeat sounds coming out of the speakers. Not only do you hear Jack’s racing heart, but you feel it too. This combination leads very quickly to your own heart locking step with Jack’s.
In case it’s not clear, the overall effect of the sanity mechanic is that when Jack starts freaking out, odds are pretty good that you do too. This is the central challenge of the game, to which shooting and puzzle-solving are secondary: keeping your damn calm.
The next best thing is the shooting, but before I get to that let’s talk about all the times you won’t be shooting anything. There are three extended sequences of danger during which you are unarmed and must sneak and run like hell in order to survive. You don’t even get a gun until at least thirty minutes into the game, and probably much longer given the difficulty of surviving that first setpiece unarmed. The developers even deliberately omitted any sort of punching mechanic, because it would send the wrong message: that you can succeed by punching out the hybrids pursuing you, which you can’t. You’re supposed to run. Some critics decried the lack of punching, but it’s simply game design.
So, yeah, shooting. There isn’t much that I hate more than a shooty game that fails to make me feel like I’m not just a collision box running around firing vectors at other collision boxes (offenders include Quake, Unreal, Killzone, and Medal of Honor). DCOTE succeeds remarkably in this regard, and has overall the most realistic shooting I’ve ever seen in one of these games, which is pretty important because this game’s key word is immersion. Let’s start with the fact that the gun fires in the actual direction it’s pointing when you pull the trigger. Which means, when you draw a gun, if you panic and fire before Jack has leveled the gun, you shoot the floor. Good job there, buddy. When people get shot, they feel it – of course, they feel it less than you, since even in a best-case scenario they’re no more than half human. The guns kick, the reloading animations are true-to-life (which is too bad for you in the case of the Springfield rifle especially), and the shotgun even has an almost realistic spread.
There’s no aiming reticle either, and the normal stance has a huge amount of waver (especially while moving), so if you want to be accurate at all, you need to pull the left trigger to make Jack hold the gun in a proper shooting position so you can use the iron sights. The further you depress the left trigger, the tighter (and slower) the aiming becomes. However, maintain this position too long and Jack’s arms get tired, leaving you wavering all over the place again (and let’s not forget that it’s probable Jack is freaking out throughout this process). And may Cthulhu have mercy on your soul if one of your arms is broken.
You heard me. Damage is location-based, with death caused by sufficient damage to the head or torso, or by sufficient blood loss should you fail to treat your wounds in time. If an arm gets broken, you can kiss your ability to shoot straight goodbye. And you will never, ever forget the sickening sensation that comes with trying to run with a broken leg. You deal with this by using appropriate items – splints for broken legs, bandages to stop your wounds from bleeding, sutures to close serious wounds. Applying these takes time, though, and that’s where it gets tricky. In a pinch, you can shoot up some morphine, which is instantaneous and allows you to ignore all your wounds long enough to get to safety, in exchange for some serious perceptual impairment that’s bound to put a damper on your reaction times.
Something has to be said about the setpieces, too, because they’re pretty damn good. Especially the first one if you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s stories, because you realize that you’re basically reenacting The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and that it’s leading up to the hotel escape scene (which, as far as I can remember, matches the story exactly). Then it turns out that it’s only the first step to getting out if Innsmouth, which is a rather harrowing affair culminating with you in the bed of a truck with hybrids shooting at you from all directions. If you’re feeling gutsy, it’s possible to kill them all, but it’s much easier and just as valid to duck and hide, shooting only at the fishy bastards who can actually hit you. That’s the kind of game this is. I’d tell you about some of the other great setpieces, but, y’know, spoilers.
The game also boasts some modest replay value by scoring you when you complete it. The score is based on factors like time, number of saves, accuracy, overall sanity loss, how many times you use the morphine, and how many people you save from being shredded by Deep Ones in a particular scene. If you achieve a grade of A, you get treated to an alternate ending that reveals some extra details about stuff. But if you’re like me, then “D?! I made a D after all that? That’s it, I’ll show this game” is incentive enough.
I’m not forgetting about the flaws here, though. First off, the controls for everything but shooting are pretty bad. Sneaking and sprinting, both of which you’ll be doing a lot of, are pretty hard to control, and you’ll often end up moving too fast when you want to sneak, or trying to take off running only to find that you’re crouched down. One of the most important actions that you’ll need to do repeatedly throughout the game – sliding barrel bolts on doors – is extremely difficult to get the hang of. And don’t even get me started about the jumping. These issues combined with the use of save points make for an extremely frustrating experience at times.
The healing system is poorly implemented in a way that just makes it a gimmick. There’s not much of a threat of running out of materials, and you never really have to make a choice between splinting your arm or your leg, so the only meaningful thing here is the time it takes to apply the stuff – meaning that it’s functionally the same as the healing system found in Halo and dozens of other games since. Perhaps a better way would be to require you to improvise first aid materials from your surroundings rather than running around with an ambulance in your pocket, but that of course would require additional time that the developers didn’t have, and might also have been a little too Die Hard in tone for a Cthulhu game.
The game is also quite buggy by console standards (and the PC port is even worse). I mentioned save points, right? Yeah. Save points + bugs = fuuuuuck.
I would say something about dated graphics at this point, except I’m not a total asshat. I play Dwarf Fortress, dude; count all the fucks I give.
Overall, yes, this is a game that will occasionally make you want to punch your TV and rage-quit, but it’s also one of the most daring and immersive survival-horror games ever. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of it, but I’m also pretty sure there is no valid reason whatsoever that you should not play it. Besides, I want to talk about how scary it was running from the [SPOILER] and how cool it was to shoot [SPOILER] with a cannon and how rewarding it was when you found the [SPOILER] and started frying enemies with it. So get on it, people. Sheesh.