A Trip Down Lovecraft Lane
Ryu_San wrote this review on .
~H.P. Lovecraft, in "The Call of Cthulhu"
The depth of the human imagination might seem endless to us, but humanity seems feeble when grasping concepts that go beyond its existence, beyond that which makes itself apparent. No matter what most scientists might tell you, even science has limitations. We are small; a mere spec of dust in the grand scheme of the World, our existence equivalent to that of a microbe when put into perspective with the vast great unknown that surrounds us… so how could we ever aspire to understand it? To control it? To surpass it? Lovecraft was aware of these great truths; his tales of alien civilizations, strange cults and the shaping of humanity's history are all defined by the insignificance and meaninglessness of Man's place face the infinite, unknown Universe. His characters, when faced with the grand truths of the Universe, go on to become clinically insane, as true knowledge becomes so horrifying to them that they feel it would be best to shun it. Ignorance would be bliss face the horrors they come to know, and still, they try to grasp them, in a folly's quest for true knowledge. Lovecraft's cynicism towards science and human knowledge is pervasive in his tales, thus molding dark, brooding worlds where no light can be shed about its ancient, occult secrets, and where mankind faces indescribable horrors, powerless to defend itself against them. If anything else, "Dark Corners of The Earth" is an accomplishment because it manages to replicate, on a certain level, the strange, menacing world of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian lore is priceless, and one can only imagine why it hasn't been translated more often into new media formats. There are a few videogames based on his works, from "Alone in the Dark" (the original, quite obviously) to "Eternal Darkness", not forgetting "Shadow of the Comet" (which I never had the pleasure to play), all of which are classic games that are still revered as of today. "Dark Corners of the Earth" follows in that tradition; developed by a small, British company, Headfirst Productions, it was meant to be the first of many horror themed action adventure games to use the Cthulhu mythos as influence. Sadly, due to poor results, they were canned, and never got to complete the other games. It's a tough medium, especially for small developers with little resources, constantly forced to compete with big leaguers. It doesn't help that gamers and journalists are quick to rant about small technical flaws which are common in low budget productions, and frequently despise any game that isn't meant to be "fun" through and through. And it's a shame really, because despite all its glaring technical and design flaws, there's a great work hiding beneath "Dark Corners of The Earth".
A dark New England port town named Innsmouth: that is where you enter Lovecraft's nightmarish realms. It's a rainy, foggy night, the sky is brooding, the sound of the wind and the waves can be heard from afar, the old 19th century industrial revolution buildings loom high in every street, their sepia-toned bricks barely lit by small street lamps: it's an oppressive, menacing scenario. You play a detective looking out for a missing young man; as you arrive in town, you instantly know that something is fundamentally wrong with it. The citizens that roam the streets are ugly and grotesque, their features distorted, their skin pale and grayish, their eyes emotionless and sickening. To investigate, you take on the role of Jack Walters in first person view, questioning the strange citizens of the town and searching for clues in hopes of finding out the truth about what's really happening. At that point the game feels like a masterpiece, faithfully depicting the dark ambiance of Lovecraft's Universe, the air so thick and heavy that you know you are entering a "Dark Corner of the Earth". The moody adventure pieces are carefully punctuated with precious (yet sparse) action sequences, that help keep up pace and establish a sense of imminent danger. You might have to sneak by a guard, or escape the attack of the menacing villagers, running through winding, old corridors, nervously shutting doors behind you, jumping through balconies, and hiding in the shadows as your pursuers pass by. The use of the first person perspective provides these action sequences a real sense of panic and stress, and also allows the adventure portions of the game (the dialogues and puzzle solving), to feel more personal and lively than in traditional point and click games. However, as the game progresses, the first person perspective goes from a blessing to a curse.
At some point, the game starts giving you weapons. At first they are small and powerless, but with time they start to ramp up, until they become traditional first person shooter weapons (there's even a lightning rifle near the end). The game dynamics change as these weapons are introduced, the adventure elements are toned down: dialogues disappear, puzzles become rarer and exploration gives way to shooting sequences and boss fights. It never fully becomes a shooter, because the game still relies on stealth, exploration and the odd puzzle, but it gets too close to a FPS for my taste. As it does so, the game loses heart: the environments become bland and uninteresting, levels' sizes are increased only to make the game longer, the story crawls to a halt. All the while, Headfirst limitations surface and become more obvious, making the game a real pain: there are showstopper bugs, faulty AI's, clunky shooting mechanics, trial and error sequences with poorly placed savepoints, etc. All of these problems unnecessarily destroy the experience of the brilliant first act of the game, offering as a replacement a derivative horror themed FPS that constantly forces you to repeat shooting sequences ad-infinitum due to a bad check-pointing system.
Fortunately, the overall experience has a lot of small details that will stick with you. There's a thoughtful plot to discover (despite the odd voice work) that not only is faithful to its references as it quotes profusely the works of one of the greatest 20th century writers. There are also a number of really powerful set pieces, such as the epic survival struggle aboard a ship attacked by sea monsters, or the eerie nightmares of the main character, in which you're thrust into the Arkham Asylum (with a black and white grainy filter), to witness strange hallucinations that will surely send chills down your spine. Still, these are details that don't change the fact that by the end of the game, the magic of Lovecraft's Universe has given way to the "magic" of videogamish nonsense. And despite all efforts at making such an interesting world a commercial venture, the game tanked… there's a certain irony to the affair. However, there's still a wondrous first act to discover here, one that transcends genre trappings and can feed on H.P. Lovecraft to produce brilliant moody environments and a twisted tale of the occult. So if you're capable of suffering a poor game to experience Lovecraft's world, then "Dark Corners of the Earth" is a brilliant game you should definitely play. But if you're not, then you can always buy his books, and if "Dark Corners of the Earth" can at least achieve that sprout of interest in its universe, it'll be a success.