An ugly, deplorable yet fascinating game.
Which is a shame because for the first hour or so, Call of Cthulhu is actually really good. The story spotlights Jack Walters, a private eye with a checkered past who gets hired to track down a missing warehouse manager in the little town of Innsmouth. One uncomplimentary bus ride later you're acquainted with the locals, a sordid bunch of hermits with a gurgling lisp that almost make you feel their spit when they tell you to mind your own "bushinessh". Something's afoot in Innsmouth, something that stretches far beyond the disappearance of a store clerk. Time to don the deerstalker cap and investigate!
The game's opening act is where the oppressive atmosphere truly shines. With the natives seemingly ready to go for your throat as soon as you turn your back to them, you're left feeling uneasy and unwelcome just walking around so you genuinely fear retribution when you give them a reason to be angry, like by sneaking through police-patrolled perimeters and breaking into closed off buildings. You don't need to be a trespasser to feel unnerved though: peering into an ordinary-looking house to see the owner having hanged herself or the fact that none of the cops seem too phased about a bloody murder in an alley, acting like it's just par for the Innsmouth course, drive up the tension considerably.
But developer Headfirst didn't know just how well the implied horror works for this game and once the story really kicks off, the tension is fragmented, leaving your journey hamstrung by sneaks and shoot-outs. A tightly-scripted chase through your hotel is the apex, the part where any sense of dread no longer comes from the harrowing situation you're in, but rather from the sluggish gameplay.
Granted, it incorporates a few novel ideas to distinguish itself from other first-person games; there's a good sense of immersion in that you see Jack's hands with almost every action, there are no crosshairs (or any heads-up display for that matter) so that ironsights become a necessity when taking aim and you have a medkit filled with gauzes and threads to treat different kinds of gameplay-impacting wounds on the fly: a hampered leg will slow you down while head trauma will cause the screen to stutter. Tending to deep gashes becomes vital since you can bleed to death and the save points, though generally graciously placed, can be few and far between at times.
Not just your physical health needs salving, your mental state suffers too under vertigo, paranoia and simply seeing monsters. Its effects are a little underplayed though, it never goes beyond a distortion effect to make the screen all gooey, a few scripted hallucinations and voiced panic attacks saying things like "he's in my head!" but not actually hearing 'him' say anything.
Even when the game floors the action-pedal, it takes a while before you're able to partake in the combat. For the first hour-and-a-half or so, you get no means to defend yourself with only to be given a crowbar, a pistol and a shotgun within the same five minutes, almost as if the game suddenly remembered that fighting enemies is the first bullet-point on the back of the case. Not that I minded finally being able to rid areas of enemies instead of enduring more plodding early-millennium stealth sections, or dodging the crippling gunfire during the many platforming portions.
The gunplay itself handles like it should: reloading and changing weapons goes fairly slow but the payoff is that the weapons feel powerful. This is a double-edged sword of course; the enemies can damage you greatly with one shot as well, but their accuracy leaves them missing enough times to know you have a fighting chance even in the thickest of battles as long as you're not reckless.
Perhaps most admirable is that Call of Cthulhu never loses sight of what makes an adventure game tick: the puzzles. You'll be exploring much of the linear environments figuring out how to open that gate or progress through that steam vent, if not because the game isn't abundantly clear on what you have to do next, then definitely because of its contradicting sense of logic. For example, when an officer on a naval trawler you hitched a ride on tells you to "take cover" when tidal waves crash into the ship, what he really means is "grab the railing and hold on", something you discover through enough trial and error since actually taking cover gets you killed. Or when Jack himself says that a certain vegetation on a wall "doesn't look safe", what he really means is "if I spray some weedkiller on it, I might be able to climb it." Or how about the fact that the game expects you to know that taking control of one of the creatures gives you high-jumping abilities which you need to complete a puzzle, despite not once having seen these buggers jump? Don't get me wrong, it's refreshing to see a first-person game devote so much of its time to puzzling, but the unfavourable execution means you often search yourself silly for a solution that's right in front of you.
It's not just the puzzles that will get you stuck, unfortunately. The shoddy porting job from Xbox to PC snuck some vicious bugs into the code, some of which break the game to the point of not being able to continue. In one level you're supposed to ride a suspended ore bucket from one part of a refinery to another and despite piecing together the generators and activating them, the bucket track never started, forcing me to replay a significant portion of that level. A few moments later you're on the aforementioned trawler speeding towards an island that's protected by dark magic. The aim is to use the ship's cannon to shoot down the "blue lights", supposedly being the priests casting the island's protective weather-barrier. Sucks then that those lights never actually appeared in my game. A quick look on Google showed that this is a common graphical glitch with only two known solutions: get by with descriptions and Youtube-videos to see at what coordinates you have to aim the boat's cannon and fire blindly, or download someone else's save file.
The game's definitely not a stunner either. Environments and character models are rudimentary despite some good monster design, bad lip synching undermines good facial expressions, muddy textures and tile sets are repeated visibly, and the colour scheme is based around sleazy-bar-brown and gunmetal-grey. There are some standout parts like an underwater shrine and a richly-detailed manor but overall the art direction is nihilistic. It's simply put an ugly game. An obnoxious grain filter and a bad frame rate really don't help matters, and apparently no one told the developers that stretching the visuals out does not equate good widescreen support.
Voice acting too leaves a lot to be desired; Jack narrates in an emotionless, almost comical gumshoe voice one moment, then freaks out under his breath the very next. Other characters waver between admirable jobs and hammed-up casual deliveries. I greatly enjoy the way the enemies talk, though. Their saliva-drenched mumblings and flanged growls sound like a bad idea on paper but in reality it's effectively creepy. Soundtrack is very subdued, with only a few fanfare blowouts to accompany set pieces. Sound effects try their best to get under your skin but rarely do.
I can draw a lot of comparisons between the main character and the game itself, both trying to tackle something bigger than they could handle, both having lost themselves in the process. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth spent too much time on the kneading table with a lack of direction, leaving many great possibilities cannibalized by stupid design decisions and flat-out incompetence. An eight for the potential, a minus three for the execution.