Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

H.P. Lovecraft and his tales have whispered terrors into the ken of mortal men, of unspeakable things lurking just beneath the surface of our ignorance, inspiring writers and moviemakers…and game designers. Spawning a pen and paper RPG in the form of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu franchise as well as inspiring gaming titles such as Alone in the Dark and Prisoner of Ice, Headfirst Productions hopes to add their own chapter to the mythos by taking players to the Dark Corners of the Earth.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has driven me mad while playing on the Xbox.

Of Madness and Misery

It is the 1920’s and Jack Walters has left the asylum. An ace detective and something of a local hero six years earlier, he had been called out on a rainy night to assist police in dealing with a cult that had holed itself up in a house perched on the bluff. Their leader had apparently wanted to speak to him and only him. Unfortunately for his sanity, something had happened there…something that had sent him to the asylum and had caused six years of his life to simply disappear. He remembers nothing of his time there until his sanity returned. Shreds of what he…was…remain only as fragmented nightmares and visions, nothing that he can piece together as he tries to live a normal life.

Down on his luck after his release, he gets an unexpected call from a businessman hoping to purchase his services in tracking down a young man who was working for his company by the name of Brian Burnham. It seems Brian is at the center of a robbery in the rustic port town of Innsmouth where he was the manager of the store where the robbery took place. Why Brian would rob his own store and simply disappear is what Jack is asked to find out. Hopping on the only bus to Innsmouth, he arrives in the early evening and is soon on his way into the darkness that lies just beneath it. Before it is over, his life…and his mind…will both be tested by the horrors that will be coming for him.

You’re Not Jack Burton

Following the backdrop of the H.P. Lovecraft short story, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, Dark Corners is an action adventure FPS that will take the player deep into the horrors of the Cthulhu mythos as they try and survive the mysteries of 1920’s Innsmouth. A small port town on the coast that has seen better days with the natives none too friendly to outsiders, Innsmouth will be where you will be spending most of your time as you try and find out from the locals where Brian might be…and why everyone is not exactly happy to see you.

There are several things that players will need to keep in mind as they take part in the adventure that follows namely that the main character…unlike in many other FPS designed titles…is just a guy trying to find a missing person. To help create the tension and suspense that a title like this demands, the designers have come up with several tricks to bring the player deeper into the experience and one of them is that you’re not a former soldier with requisite bullet proof skin. One other thing is that there’s no HUD onscreen. No cursor, no health meter, nothing to get between you and the next unspeakable thing from jumping out in front of you on the screen.

Controls are easy enough to handle. If you’ve played an FPS on the Xbox, movement is easily handled with the left thumbstick with the right stick used for looking around. The button commands were easy to use, and the left trigger is used as a sort of ‘focus’ button for aiming weapons more accurately or for readying a knife for a stronger blow…if you survive long enough to get weapons, that is. When you do, the directional pad scrolls through what you’ve got to use. There’s also a shortcut button for healing yourself up if you’ve got the right supplies. As you explore the world of Dark Corners, you can perform an ‘action’ on quite a bit of things from picking up rounds of ammo, closing and locking doors, or examining statues and bookshelves for clues. This last is particularly important as Jack has quite a bit to say about many things in the game, some of them hints as to what he may have to do next. Performing an action on certain items in the game can get him to say something more descriptive while talking to a person more than once might get someone to say something else about your situation. Action items also include other things in the game world such as levers or railings that you have to grip to avoid being washed out into the ocean as waves pound the shore…and you.

Your health is monitored through the inventory screen where you can see everything that you’re carrying such as ammunition, quest items, and whatever else you might pick up. You also have a journal in which Jack keeps track of what’s he’s seen along with evidence gathered and what mythos lore he has discovered. You also have a stopwatch that keeps track of how much gametime you’ve spent. But most importantly, you have a section that keeps track of the healing items you’ve gathered such as bandages and splints along with an ECG showing you Jack’s heart rate. Jack’s health is divided into separate areas such as head, right arm, left arm, etc.., each of which can be affected separately and creating all sorts of different problems for you if you don’t treat damage to them. If he breaks his leg, the screen will stagger as you try and push him forward, his gasping breath wincing underneath the pain. If your arms are hurt, your aimed shots may go wild. If you’re cut and bleeding and ignore the pain, his vision will pale and you won’t have much to worry about later when you die from the loss. And if you’re busy patching yourself up and someone manages to get a lucky shot in, consider the bandages and sutures that you were using at the time lost as you try and scramble away.

Jack is not a superhero. In fact, players used to having their heroes a bit more on the tough side might find themselves somewhat surprised (or frustrated) with having to play someone so ordinary when party gets started. Medical kits containing the supplies you need to stay alive don’t grow on trees and if you’re not careful, you could find yourself bleeding to death from cuts with no way to sew yourself back up. Jack is ‘hero’ enough to set bones with splints in the field, but he’s no Solid Snake. He’s still incredibly mortal and that helps to create some of the tension…and more than a few of the frustrations…that the world of Headfirst’s Dark Corners will throw at you.

You won’t have to worry about bleeding to death in having to treat that compound fracture at the beginning of Dark Corners, though. At least for awhile. In fact, when you start your investigation, the only thing that you’ve got is your wits. Apparently, Jack suspects nothing at all when he gets to Innsmouth. He’s so confident that this is just going to be a routine job, that he doesn’t even pack a heater when he heads out. You’ll collect a lot of ammo before you even see a weapon. Even when things start to kick up a notch, the only thing you can do is run…run and hope that you don’t get killed or go completely insane. Is it effective? Yes and no. For a private investigator, taking nothing to defend yourself with didn’t make much sense. But does it get you nervous when a mob is chasing you down with shotguns? You bet it does.

Saves are handled via “Elder Signs” that are found scattered throughout certain points in the game. The title also autosaves your progress between each section, although you cannot directly load an ‘autosave’, only continue from one from the main menu. Certain Elder Signs have stars drawn around them meaning that the area that they are found in can also be considered a ‘safe’ zone from the creatures that lurk about. This last is very important because not only do you have to keep an eye on Jack’s health, you’ll also have to make sure that he doesn’t start talking to himself.

All In Your Head

Drawing from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu PnP material, the mental system of Dark Corners will be a lot more important for you to manage than his health for most of the game. While many titles treat the ‘monsters’ in the dark as something to be shot, blown up, or written off after they jump out to surprise the player, the monsters in Chaosium’s Cthulhu franchise create the kind of fear that can quite literally scare Jack to death. It treats it as something more along the lines of a brutal sickness that can eventually erode and destroy your mind as you start hearing voices, voices that might tell you to take that gun you’re aiming and just end it all to escape the madness around you. The creatures and horrors of the Cthulhu mythos are simply too terrible for humankind to ever contemplate and try to make sense of. To even see any of these terrors in the primordial flesh is more than enough to drive most men mad with fright at something that simply should not be as their beliefs fail to make sense of what is before their eyes. In this way, the title can also be likened to an RPG where you are playing the role of Jack Walters, riding in his head and experiencing the world of Dark Corners through his eyes in a much more literal sense.

As Jack continues his investigations, he’ll see quite a bit that will challenge his notions of what is real and what isn’t along with his own personal feelings for what he finds. The sight of a corpse might not bother him much. The sight of a corpse as part of a mass suicide may make his vision blurry as he becomes dizzy from the horror of what he is seeing, his breathing quickening and his pulse racing the longer he is in the same room with the body. It’s an effective mechanic that pulls the player deeper into Jack’s world. It can also be an annoying crutch later on in the game but more on that later.

Keeping an eye out for things that Jack might not appreciate is something that you’ll have to be mindful of as you explore Dark Corners as this will also affect Jack’s performance in the world. Looking down from a great height may induce feelings of vertigo in him with his vision distorting and blurring as he feels dizzy. You might not make that jump because his nerves may slow him down, or shoot as accurately as you think when you can’t see what you’re shooting at because of his fright. In the worst cases, pulling out a gun to shoot that thing that’s oozing itself after him might be the worst thing that you can do.

Fortunately, by going somewhere that is reasonably safe and laying low for a bit in a safe spot, especially one marked by an Elder Sign surrounded by a star symbol, Jack can slowly recover from his shock and return to the land of the sane. As you explore, you may also find yourself tilting that FPS view away from certain things at the edge of the screen or pointed forward as you carefully walk across a thin rafter a story or two above the ground. You also have a morphine shot that can steady your nerves if you’re in combat and need a calm hand to aim that rifle you’ve picked up. Keep in mind, though, that morphine can also prove to be just as dangerous if you decide to keep hitting the needle.

This makes Dark Corners an interesting experience, again one where you are playing the role of a character rather than experiencing the world and reacting to it as you would yourself. While a title such as Eternal Darkness had also played the insanity card before, affecting the state and effectiveness of the character as their sanity began to collapse, Dark Corners has taken it a step further through an excellent play between visual, audio, and even tactile cues. If you have vibration for your Xbox controller on, you’ll feel Jack’s heartbeat quicken and slow down during these moments along with hearing his breathing and the world warping on your screen. The screen will also fade to white with blood loss or fright, splatter with blood when your bones shatter, or blur horribly as Jack’s blood starts running cold.

This works for the most part. Unfortunately, as I had mentioned before, it can also act as a crutch especially later in the game as it can tend to slow the pacing down dramatically while you step away and hide somewhere to get Jack’s head back together. Some of the effects can be unusually exaggerated with no clear cause, leading to more time spent alone leading you to run away frustrated as Jack’s mind begins breaking down. While it can be immersive, sometimes it forced a sort of disconnect instead of experiencing it as part of the story.

Black Blood of the Earth

Headfirst has done a stellar job in creating the town of Innsmouth and the other locales that Jack will find himself in, creating a sense of menace and dread in most of the dark places that you’ll venture into. The visual cues for Jack’s sanity bring across the kind of mental desperation that he feels at the things he is witness to. There’s a lot of eye candy found everywhere else, creating a convincing slice of the 1920’s. The creatures and the people of Dark Corners shuffle and slide about and the in-game cinematics do an excellent job in providing insights to the story. The cinematics also use a variety of interesting effects that range from the simple such as seeing your hand reach out for help to the dramatically demented as the world starts to grow fuzzy as you’re given ‘shock treatment’ for being difficult to deal with. There’s even a slight film patina overlay as the in-game cinema goes into ‘widescreen’ mode with the black bars, creating the impression that you’re both watching and taking part in a classic horror film. The voice acting works to bring these scenes to life with good performances from everyone. Although some lines get a lot of repetition, the voice work was still very well done.

The rest of the sound work and effects also do an excellent job in creating an effectively dark and sinister world, or a deceptively safe one depending on where you are. Wind blows through the cold winter air, the ocean’s fury smashes against the stones of the coast, thunder roars in the skies, doors creak, and the shuffle of feet can be heard just on the other side of a wall as someone comes. The music is also well done, some of the pieces reminiscent of old horror films with organ work creeping along with the other notes.

The world of Dark Corners is also just as dangerous as what is living and sliming its way above and below it. There are a lot of environmental hazards in the game, most of which can kill you before you know what happened. Acid will eat your skin, breaking floorboards will drop you to the next floor, steam will boil you alive, and an angry ocean can reach over and pull you under before you know it as you try and make your way across a cliff in the middle of a storm. A lot of the puzzles in the game are also dependent on the environment, or in your ability to make use of it. You can move bookcases to block doorways or close and lock doors behind you as you try and slow down your pursuers, or hang onto grips for dear life as the ship you are on bucks up and over titanic waves threatening to throw you about. The puzzles in Dark Corners are exceptionally well integrated into the environments around you, as much a part of the background as the textures themselves.

But some of the deadliest things that Jack will go up against will be from the living, all of whom come in all shapes and sizes. Literally. Jack isn’t without help, though. He can sneak about, moving slower but doing a better job of keeping out of sight and quietly padding your way past the patrols. Even when sneaking, however, he’s not entirely hidden and keeping to what shadows there are and out of sight are still the best stealth tools in his arsenal.

And once he starts collecting an arsenal of weapons with which to defend himself, the tables start to turn ever so slightly. Combat in the title takes some getting used to, though. There’s no cursor to help you aim and damage from a gunshot in the game will sap what healing supplies you’ve got on you. It’s usually wise to try and avoid as much of it as you can, or take most foes out from a distance. Especially if there’s a large group just waiting to jump in to help. The monsters that come after you aren’t the smartest batch of creatures from the depths of antiquity, but they can certainly kill you if you’re not careful. And not all of these monsters will fall to a well placed shot, either, forcing you to look to the environment for vital clues on what you need to do to survive the nightmare.

All of this helps to support the horror story that arcs throughout the adventure. As Jack continues to discover more of the secrets that lay just beneath Innsmouth, the story starts to take on a more sinister and darker tone the closer he gets to the truth. The pacing of the horror elements was very well done, with just the right sense of dread and sinister paranoia that the title strives to create in the early chapters. Quotes from Lovecraft’s works grace the loading screens between each section and the literature found in the game adds a lot of flavor to the world of Dark Corners. From the distrustful locals that hiss and slur at each other to avoid you along with others that create just enough twists to keep you guessing at who is on your side and who might not be, to the strange clues that you find in Innsmouth hinting that not everything is as it seems, it’s a great story and Cthulhu fans should find a lot to like here, especially fans of Chaosium’s own PnP game, along with a satisfyingly ‘Lovecraftian’ ending. But while it’s told well, several issues conspire in secret to make Dark Corners less of an experience and more of an exercise.

Flaws in the Pattern

In the 1920’s, not everyone must have enjoyed milk as much as we do today because Jack Walters’ bones are as delicate as paper mache. For instance, while I don’t expect anyone to survive a jump from three stories, I don’t expect a grown man’s bones to break after jumping down or lowering themself through a hole to a floor a short hop of only a few feet below. If Jack’s height is any indication, it’s insanely easy to break both his legs from a fall from more than five feet. Even after surviving a fall from the top of a two story ladder in an in-game cinema with nary a scratch, his bones and his skin turn into paper mache after that point. I wouldn’t be making as much of an issue of this if it weren’t for the fact that there are a more than a few situations scattered throughout the game that ask you to do a little jumping and falling, bleeding what precious little healing items you may have at the time.

As delicate as Jack is, to make things more interesting, he’ll soon find himself in the middle of a combat warzone. At the beginning of the game, you can select from two difficulty levels: Boy Scout or Private Detective. Boy Scout emphasizes the story by limiting the number of enemy encounters that will get in your way in the game. Private Detective is the normal default. This is something to keep in mind when you start off. If you’re all about the story, you might want to start the title up at Boy Scout. If you want to experience the default, be prepared for quite a bit of combat to be mixed in with the adventure.

The pacing for the first half of the game, while slow, really starts to pick up once you’re on the run and fighting to stay alive. But the experience of the creeping horror that underlies the game is soon replaced with an action free for all. At this point, Jack’s mental state cues tended to feel as if they were getting in the way in most of the situations that I found myself fighting in, forcing me to sometimes break away and hide until Jack calms down before heading back in. At first, it was something that helped to enhance the experience and drive home the point that Jack is seeing some things that he really shouldn’t as he plays the investigator but it wasn’t as convincing as it had been before. Especially now that Jack really isn’t doing a whole lot of investigating. Unlike the survival horror of Resident Evil which made it clear that action was going to be a large part of it along with the horror, Dark Corners starts out as an investigation into the paranormal with some action adventure elements and soon deluges you with heavy combat later on. These aren’t one or two isolated encounters, either. You might find yourself up against several critters at once. Adventure gamers expecting this to be something along the lines of Indigo Prophecy or Alone in the Dark may wince at being forced to be an armchair soldier.

Fortunately…or unfortunately…the inhabitants of Innsmouth and in the dark corners of the game aren’t exactly the smartest bunch, as mentioned earlier. The AI can be pretty savvy, spotting you and calling others to help it search you out and it will go through doors to chase you down although some of this felt pretty scripted. But there were instances where it would completely ignore me, even when something looking for me would bump into me while I was sneaking. There were rare instances where it wound just stand in place while I hammered away with a survival knife, staring at me and telling me to stop and surrender. Other times, it would stare at me directly from across an alleyway while I was hidden in shadow and yell out for me to surrender. The title also tends to use respawns in certain areas, even behind you in an area you know you had cleared out, although this wasn’t as often as it turned out to be later on.

Save placement was also a mixed bag. Some saves were placed in decent locations…such as at the end of a challenging section or two. Other saves weren’t as well placed, requiring you to run a gauntlet of challenges before you even found one. This last was particularly annoying since, if you failed at a certain point, you’d have to repeat the entire run all over again. That sometimes meant waiting to sneak by patrols again, sneaking from one hallway to the next, making careful jumps so as not to get more compound fractures, etc.. While Dark Corners is not solely guilty of doing this, it can still be somewhat annoying.

There was also the loss of direction in some parts of the game as to what you may have to follow up on. Jack’s journal, while it does a great job of keeping up with what he’s found out so far, doesn’t do a very good job in keeping track of what he might have to do next. There are also one or two instances where it isn’t clear what you might have to do to survive, leading to several unexpected deaths when you just ‘don’t get’ what someone is trying to tell you. Remember that some of the things in the game can be held onto to ride out certain dangers.

There were also several technical issues such as with the the aforementioned AI. There were also some collision issues. One involved trying to get into a mine cart. This thing hangs on a ceiling track and technically, all I have to do once I get it running is to step into the gondola. I could do that before I turned it on. But after I turned on the power, I found myself ‘blocked’ from trying to get into it. I wasted almost hour trying to get into the stupid thing, until I hit the ‘sweet’ spot and finally clambered aboard. Restarting the Xbox and restoring from an earlier save didn’t help clear out the problem, either.

Another instance was in waiting to climb down a rope ladder. Jack had one of his ‘waking dreams’ and when he came out of it, I couldn’t move. The only thing I could think of was that one of the characters behind me waiting to climb the rope down had somehow spawned where I was standing so we were ‘stuck’. My only recourse was to reload. Oh, and if you get tired of having to hear speech and cinema all over again, just hit the ‘back’ button to skip most of that.

The sound also tended to skip and sound choppy in especially busy scenes. What’s even more annoying is the constant seeking the game makes the hard drive go through while you play the game. When you first restart the title, it preloads itself onto the drive and then continually streams almost everything from it as you play. The result was a constant seek noise accompanying me throughout the game. Other games that I’ve played weren’t as obnoxious about streaming the drive as this one was. It might just be my Xbox in particular, but I wanted to say something about this in case someone gets the same thing and are wondering if this was typical or not.

As for replay value, there’s not much in here to warrant another playthrough. An additional difficulty level unlocks itself after you finish it along with a score and rating for how well you did based on variables such as how quickly you solved the adventure and how many saves you’ve made. Otherwise, that’s pretty much it. If you start a new game, you keep much of the lore that you’ve already found out at this point as a sort of bonus.

“It Will Come Out No More!”

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth allows you to experience Jack Walter’s fragmenting sanity as he delves into the dark nightmare swimming in the inky black around him. It also delivers several annoying flaws that make this investigation affect the player in much the same way. The atmospheric visuals, horror elements, and the intriguing story are saddled by several glitches and gameplay annoyances, the suspense and the tension generated by keeping Jack alive soon giving way to a frustratingly annoying habit of having to bandage him up every time he falls from heights of more than five feet or engages in mortal combat with half a town.

Beneath the murk, however, lies an experience that would-be paranormal investigators and fans of Chaosium’s Cthulhu shouldn’t miss out on, bringing a chilling adventure to the table thanks to the skillful delivery of its story elements, the inventive puzzles, and excellent production values. There are quite a few genuinely creepy moments in the game that should be worth the trip to Innsmouth. Just remember not to stay overnight.

– World 1-1

One response to “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

  1. Pingback: Game Reviews - Action and Adventure « World 1-1·

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