H.P. Lovecraft's works are well-known for being suspenseful works of fiction, as well as presenting an unsettling portrayal of the unbelievably ancient and inhuman. For better or worse, there had been attempts to adapt his works for other forms of media.
One of these attempts is Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which is a title that tries to be an adventure game, a survival horror game, a platformer and a first-person shooter all at once. Unfortunately, the end result is a game that is very difficult to thoroughly enjoy for some, if not most players.
Interestingly, the game is actually not directly based on Lovecraft's works of fiction, but rather their derivatives. Specifically, the game is based on elements of the tabletop games concerning the infamous Innsmouth setting. However, the game has little to do with tabletop gameplay (perhaps for the better).
Like almost any other Lovecraft fiction, the story of this game starts with an incident in an otherwise civilized place. The police have responded to a possibly volatile situation in a secluded house in Boston. The protagonist, police detective Jack Walters, has been specifically called up to be the negotiator – much to his detriment, as the game would begin with a flash-forward that shows a very much unhinged Jack.
Anyway, the situation deteriorated quickly, leaving Jack Walters a casualty of the tragedy as well. He would lose years of his life to a period of insanity in which he has no recollection of. Perhaps due to lack of wisdom on his part, he decided to return to a life of investigation after recovering his senses.
As to be expected of a game with gumshoe thriller elements, a mysterious client approached Walters with a case – one that would happen to take him to Innsmouth, and a new yet familiar experience of horror.
Initially, the game's choice of a first-person perspective for the player character seems understandable. The first-person perspective provides immersion into the atmosphere of the game.
However, if the player was expecting movement like that seen in other games with first-person perspectives, namely first-person shooters, he/she would have been surprised. For its time, the game had a player character that is quite slow compared to player characters in other games with first-person cameras.
He can sprint, but only for a woefully short distance, and he will be winded afterwards, becoming even slower. His jump can seem even more pathetic.
Of course, the game has explained this away with the excuse of Walters being very much a mortal. This is understandable, but it does not make the frustration of having a slow player character any less bearable. After all, there are many moments in the game that the player must have Walters running away from danger, and during these, his slowness is difficult to appreciate.
Moreover, there are other factors that make him even slower, and they may even cause him not to move at all. These will be described shortly.
The game goes all the way to emphasize that Jack is a mortal, as the player would find out, much to his/her surprise, or perhaps chagrin.
Early on in the game, there is a scripted event that has Jack suffering an injury, specifically one that occurs close to one of his eyes. The game then informs the player that any injury that Jack suffers affects his physical capabilities, via a flash on one side of the screen that is a less-than-subtle hint that his vision is being affected.
The consequences of minor injuries are at least predictable. However, if left untreated, the consequences only become worse, such as the screen flashing red, even at inopportune times. There are also other visual changes, as will be described later.
These inconveniences are serious enough to consider medical attention for Jack's injuries; medical treatment will be described later.
Serious injuries are considerably more worrisome. These include bone fractures and severe lacerations. These kinds of harm can cause Walters to die immediately, such as a fracture on his skull.
What the game does not inform the player though is that in addition to dying outright, Jack Walters can lose consciousness from the trauma of such injuries. This is depicted in-game as the player's view blacking out soon after he had incurred these injuries. Treating them as quickly as possible will not do much, as Jack would pass out anyway. Unfortunately, if he happens to pass out while enemies are nearby, this is considered as an immediate game-over.
The player can bring up a screen that shows a chart of injuries that the player has sustained, together with the 3D model of Walters with his regular body parts swapped out for ones with obvious wounds on them. The main use of this screen is for the player to quickly apply medical treatment, but the game does not stop when the player accesses the screen.
It continues instead, meaning that the screen is mostly impractical during combat as it would obscure the view of any incoming threat. Moreover, treatment is an in-game cutscene itself, during which enemies can attack Walters and interrupt the healing process. The length of the cutscene is also dependent on his number of injuries, and during this cutscene, he may well pass out if his injuries are severe.
The player can press a button to have Walters apply treatment automatically without the use of the screen. However, he will consume materials without the player's control, which may be undesirable if the player wants to conserve healing materials.
Speaking of materials, treating different injuries require different materials. To cite some examples, bandages can alleviate most external lacerations, but splints are needed for fractures. These materials are very limited in supply.
If the player lacks materials for certain injuries, then he/she is out of luck – in the case of severe injuries, or a multitude of minor injuries, Jack is likely to increasingly falter until he passes out or dies.
One of the rarest forms of injuries is poisoning. There are enemies that do employ venom, and for these, the player must use precious rare antidotes, and quickly too, as poison means a quick debilitating death for Walters.
Dark Corners of the Earth can be a terribly unforgiving game.
The designs for the health system, as described earlier, strongly suggest that the player should consider staying out of combat as much as possible because Jack succumbs very easily to his injuries. Yet, the game forces combat on the player anyway in many scenarios. Coupled with the game's limited game-saving system (which will be described later), this can make the game terribly frustrating.
More often than not, the player will have to resort to reloading the game after figuring out where enemies spawn out from and aim at these places to gun them down before they can harm Jack. Resorting to such cheesy solutions can hurt the immersion of the game. This could have been averted if the player is given more means to improvise when plunging into a hairy situation, but there are few, if any, such opportunities.
Anyway, Jack Walters can only ever fight with a weapon in his hand, be it a firearm or a melee weapon. He is quite useless when unarmed, because he cannot even deliver punches of his own.
He is not terrifically skilled with firearms either. He can only reliably shoot from a crouched or standing position, with no option to go prone, which would have been helpful as there are enemies with firearms in the game. He can barely fire on the move.
There is a feature to aim down the sights of a gun. However, this actually fatigues Jack the longer he has to aim, and the more tired he is, the more useless this feature becomes. Fortunately, the fatigue that affects his arms does not affect his legs. However, it will affect his ability to use melee weapons, which will be described shortly.
Many factors affect accuracy. In addition to Jack's posture, his health, sanity and his surroundings also affect his aim, often for the worse. In fact, if one of these factors is not favourable when combat is initiated, the player might as well reload the game as he/she has already lost.
For example, there is a scenario where a storm practically makes any shot over a few yards veer off course, which in turn requires the player to sneak up close to the intended target for a reliable shot. Unfortunately, getting up close to an enemy entails another problem, as will be described later as it concerns the gameplay element of sanity.
It is imperative that the player goes into combat with all guns fully reloaded, as Walters is not proficient at reloading weapons. Even for weapons that use magazines and speed-loaders, Walters is rather slow at reloading them out, even when he is calm, which he is not most of the time.
Speaking of calmness, his current state of sanity and health affects his performance at reloading. If the player can hear him gibbering and/or groaning, the player might as well abort the reload. Otherwise, Jack fumbles and drops his ammunition to the ground, which the player must have him pick up afterwards, which is a pain.
Most fights are not long enough to necessitate reloads while under pressure, but unfortunately, there are a few scenarios where these must happen in order for Jack to survive. It so happens that these scenarios offer very few, if any, hiding places, and reloading happens to be a noisy process that gives his position away.
The weapons that Jack can use are mainly guns, specifically pre-World War II hardware. There is a revolver, an auto-loaded handgun, a bolt-action rifle, a shotgun and finally a submachinegun.
The game does try to make them seem as believable as possible by giving them models that would seem convincing to anyone who is not well-versed in weapons of this era, in addition to omitting any aiming aid like crosshairs, as mentioned earlier. However, they are not very different from so many hit-scan weapons that are found in first-person shooters.
On the other hand, even a seasoned first-person shooter veteran that plays without crosshairs would have trouble with them, due to factors in aiming that have been mentioned earlier. However, there are a couple more factors, which are associated with another element of the game.
Of course, one can argue that the developers had intended for a more "realistic" portrayal of the use of firearms. Indeed, the player would be better off having some trivial knowledge of these weapons, if only to know how many shots that they can carry before requiring reloads.
Despite what has been said earlier about Jack's close-combat prowess, he is capable of making melee attacks with any gun. Yet, this is his attempt at using the gun like a club, and he only does this if its magazine or chamber has been emptied. He only reloads when the player hits the reload button.
A peculiarity with the firearms of this game is that the player can fire a gun even before Jack has properly brought them to bear. This means that the game punishes clumsiness and impatience on the part of the player.
Jack can use melee weapons too, such as a crowbar. Killing enemies with them is a chore though, as firearms are a lot more efficient.
The screen that the player brings up to examine Jack Walters' health also happens to be the inventory screen. Stickers at the top of the mess of what appears to be Walters' journal allow the player to switch between the screens.
Walters can only carry reasonably portable items, but he can carry quite a lot of them, oddly enough, on his person. For example, he can carry several different types of ammunition. Of course, there are limits to the amounts, as depicted by the text of their counters turning green, but a person that is versed in ammo management would wonder where he keeps drum and straight magazines on his person when his pockets would be full of loose shotgun shells and rifle clips.
He would be carrying these in addition to limited amounts of medical supplies. This would make the game even less believable. It may even go against the game's attempts at portraying Jack Walters as a mortal.
It is worth noting that while there may be a noticeable limited number of slots in Walters' inventory, there is rarely any scenario where all of the slots are filled up and the player has no more space to stash the next object that Walters picks up.
The game introduces the threats that Walters has to face when he is practically defenceless. These moments are some of the most suspenseful in the game and will be described elsewhere in this review, as they are some of the most memorable parts of the game.
Unfortunately, for better or worse, there are enemies that the player must fight and kill in order for Walters to survive. This becomes apparent the moment that Jack picks up a gun for the first time. Considering the aforementioned designs for the combat and health system in this game, this is not a good prospect.
If there is any consolation, most of the enemies in this game are similarly vulnerable, even the inhuman ones. As long as they look humanoid, they can be hobbled with a shot to the lower limbs, knocked down to the ground with a shotgun blast to the torso or shot in the head for an immediate kill. Even if they do not seemingly die from the first shot, they can still bleed to death.
When fighting against armed enemies, the player is a lot better off looking for opportune moments to land a shot and ducking back behind cover afterwards to wait for the target to keel over. However, enemies may not announce their deaths with loud utterances.
Against enemies that attempt to get close, this is not feasible of course. This is also where the game falters, as Jack is not fast enough to get to chokepoints to funnel these close-combat threats. To compensate, the game introduces a rapid-fire weapon a short while before the first such scenario, yet this can feel like a cheap solution to sceptical players.
Much later in the game, the player has to face very exotic enemies, most of which would only be familiar to fans of Lovecraftian mythos. Unfortunately, for players who are not familiar with it, they would be quite at a loss on how to combat them. For example, there is a certain enemy that uses the wind to fight Jack with, though this would not be immediately clear to a player that is unfamiliar with this creature.
A system that represents the protagonist's state of mind would seemingly be the best element of this game that emphasizes the mortality of the player character.
Jack was just a mere human that lived an otherwise believable life before the events that led to the prologue. Unfortunately, having otherworldly information pressed into his head and having to face inhuman things can take a severe toll on his mental faculties.
Yet, despite the dramatic passage above, the implementation of the system of sanity would not please just everyone. In practice, it injects artificial difficulty into the game.
What would sap away Walters' sanity would be first described, and they are many. Most of them are things that Walters can look at, such as runes that are hurtful to the eyes and grisly scenes. The player can have Walters look away from them, but there are other kinds of sanity-sapping horrors, some of which are not told to the player and have to be learned the hard way.
There are certain kinds of sanity-wrecking objects that act merely on proximity alone. These would not be an issue if the range of their effects is apparent, but this is not always clear.
For example, there are small artefacts with small auras of insanity. They are not usually a nuisance, but sometimes the player may have Walters venturing too close to them and only discovering that they are there when Walters exhibits signs of insanity.
Then, there are looming, large objects that exude a tremendous aura of insanity. These usually stand out from the environment, but their visual distinctions can only be appreciated if the player is playing at the highest graphical settings.
Walters' exhibition of insanity is not a reliable way of knowing if there are sanity-sapping threats close by. It takes a while for Walters to start showing signs of insanity, such as gibbering and shuddering. Therefore, when he starts doing so, he may or may not be close to said threats. This is because the player may have moved him about during the time in between exposing him to them and him showing the signs.
The signs of insanity also lack regular periods of expression. For example, at low levels of insanity, Walters may gibber once in a long while, or he could gibber every few seconds. This irregularity gets even less tolerable when he is more insane.
Speaking of when he is more insane, the consequences of the brink of madness are particularly bothersome and even cause positive feedback.
His vision blurs and shakes, making it difficult to perform platforming and shooting when his composure matters most. The game attempts to give the player a chance by giving Jack short moments of stability, but these occur at random.
Enemies and even non-hostile NPCs look more hideous than they should, which in turn only saps his sanity further. This is especially a problem in combat, as his vision may worsen at very inopportune times.
Worst, if he happens to have a firearm out during periods of severe insanity, he may attempt to shoot himself with the gun. The only warning that the player gets is him pulling back the gun towards the camera, which bobs a bit. When this happens, the player only has a couple of seconds to force him to holster or reload the gun.
Fortunately, it is rare that he would try to do this in the middle of a fight, but he may well do so if the player has him retreating to some safer spot to reload.
Even if the player takes precautions to prevent Jack from harming himself as his sanity drains, a game-over can also be brought about by having him lose his sanity completely. This is practically another "health meter" that the player has to worry about.
There are a few ways for him to regain sanity. The first is to simply stay away from things that are causing him to lose sanity, after which he would recover over time. The other is to attempt to destroy what is causing him to lose sanity, namely inhuman monsters. This is easier said than done when he is being driven insane from having to fight them. The third way is to heal his injuries, which does help him regain some sanity.
When coupled with Jack's physical fragility, this system of sanity can be very difficult to deal with during fights.
NON-COMBAT SEQUENCES OVERVIEW:
The game is best when it does not force combat sequences on the player, but the non-combat sequences also come with their own problems. This is a shame, as they are the more memorable moments of the game.
There are scenarios where Walters is unarmed and can only run away from whatever is trying to kill him. These moments would have been positively exciting, if not for Jack Walters' clumsiness. He is not very nimble, but the player has to have him jumping over obstacles and sprinting to get away.
What the game does not inform the player about is that in addition to running away, Jack must do things to stall the progress of his pursuer. Failing to do otherwise means that the pursuer is likely to catch up and it would be game-over very quickly.
For first-time players, it may be difficult to make the observation that there are objects in the environment that Jack can interact with to stall his pursuers, especially when the game puts up such an unsettling ambience.
When the player does realize this though, he/she may appreciate the designs that went into them. Locking doors to stall enemies that would otherwise bust through them is a logical decision that is easy to understand, to cite an example.
In just about every escapade sequence, Jack has to perform first-person platforming. Unfortunately, there is an annoyance that is brought about by Jack's fear of heights. More often than not, Jack has to jump from a precarious perch to another one, with the risk of a fatal fall. His fear of heights happens to manifest visually in the form of the screen blurring.
It so happens that this blurring occurs when he looks down, even a little. Of course, it can be argued that this is a believable debilitation, considering Jack's personal condition. Yet, the player must have him do this in order to gauge the distance of the jump, which makes this game design counter-productive.
Furthermore, the player must have Jack in top health during these escapades, which is not easy considering that he can be injured by hazards and threats that appear during them. Any injury to his legs or his head guarantees a game-over if it could not be healed in time.
There are times when the player cannot have Jack run away, but instead hide from enemies. Incidentally, hiding and sneaking around enemies is an alternative to combat in a scant few scenarios, usually where there is little light to help enemies spot Jack.
Sneaking is not just a matter of staying out of sight of enemies. They can hear, and Jack is not a person that is particularly skilled at staying quiet. Moving at any speed other than a crawl makes noise that enemies can hear.
As for staying out of sight, there are certain places where Jack can hide in without being noticed, even if enemies are looking at his direction. These include the spaces behind wooden staircases. However, sentient enemies are smart enough to check these places if they are already aware of Jack's trespass, so the player must have Jack move.
To help the player know which spots are reliable hiding places, the game partially greys out the edges of the screen. This is a convenient indicator.
It is worth noting here that firearms do happen to penetrate thin pieces of cover, so the player may not want to have Jack caught behind objects that he could not quickly maneuver around if he has been spotted.
The parts of the game where there are no enemies are perhaps the most enjoyable ones, if only because these are used to build up the tension to more worrisome moments. These work a lot like adventure games, meaning that the player needs to have Jack manipulate objects in order to progress. There are also bits on the backstory that Jack can read, though some of these actually reduce his sanity when he reads them.
Unfortunately, Jack Walters' monologues, which are uttered whenever he examines objects or remarks on a scene, can detract from the immersion of the game. This can be seen at the very start, when he makes eerily calm observations even when there is a gun-fight occurring around him.
As mentioned earlier, the player would not be running out of space in the inventory for important story objects. If the player can pick it up and it appears in the player's inventory, it probably has significance for a puzzle that occurs later.
There are difficulty settings for this game, which is already difficult enough by default.
Some of the settings determine the usual factors, such as the amount of damage that Jack can take and the amount of damage that enemies can take. However, due to the system of health that has been mentioned earlier, these differences are inconsequential. The player may well play at the easiest setting, but Jack can still die from a single shot. Similarly, a shot to a sensitive place always kills an enemy, regardless of the setting.
The difficulty settings do seem to affect the skill of armed enemies though. At the highest setting, armed enemies are crackshots, assuming that they can see most of Jack Walters' model.
The settings also happen to determine the hearing of enemies, specifically their ability to hear soft noises over different ranges. However, regardless of the setting, they will always be able to hear loud noises.
That the game did not have a more convenient saving system when it was ported over to the computer platform can be a disappointment to those who had been waiting for it.
As with the console version of the game, saving can only be performed through interacting with the game's take on save-points. These are called "Elder Signs", pagan icons that may be familiar to fans of Lovecraft's works. (Interestingly, they resemble the artwork that an associate of Lovecraft had imagined, and not that which Lovecraft himself envisioned, if he had at all.)
These signs are scribed mainly onto walls. They can be interacted with not only to save the game, but also restore Jack's sanity (though not his health). Enemies also happen to avoid the areas in which an Elder Sign is located, the reason for which is only revealed later.
An overlooked but ultimately forgettable element of the game is a system of "Mythos points". As the player plays the game and has Jack looking into every nook and cranny – even if this would blast his mind – the player earns points that goes to unlocking content that can be viewed through the main menu of the game. These are mostly artwork and concept designs, a reward that some players may be all too familiar with.
A REMARK ON STORY DEVELOPMENT:
It has to be mentioned here that if the player is looking for build-ups of tension and the unravelling of dark mysteries, he/she can find it in the earlier part of the game. The rest of the game does not have this, and instead has an experience that starkly contrasts with the suspense shown earlier.
In fact, the latter half of the game feels more suitable in a typical story of mortals struggling against dark forces. The entertainment from discovering that evil is afoot is not there.
The game also happens to culminate with one of the most frustrating running and jumping sequence to be had in video games. This may be a spoiler, but it has to be said here that in addition to looking where Jack is placing his feet, the player must also look up to watch out for things that fall in seemingly random manners.
The game also has an epilogue that can be considered as a "deus ex machina" that exploits Lovecraftian fiction to fill certain holes in the plot. To players who are not even familiar with the fiction, they would be quite boggled as to what has happened.
Dark Corners of the Earth for the computer platform had many bugs, despite a year after its debut on the Xbox platform. The computer version arrived with its own issues, likely brought about by oversights in the porting process.
Some of these bugs cause crashes during in-game cutscenes and some others corrupt game-saves, to cite examples of game-breaking bugs. These were eventually fixed via patches or even some third-party means.
Yet, some others were not fixed at all. These chiefly affect the A.I.-scripting for enemies, which may sometimes forget what they were supposed to be doing. For example, during certain chase sequences, the pursuers may forget that they are supposed to enter the next room to chase after the player character. Instead, they may revert to their default A.I. scripts and run around looking for cover instead.
Most games with horror themes typically use their sounds to create a worrisome ambiance. Dark Corners of the Earth would not disappoint. The sound effects that are associated with insanity and otherworldly objects are particularly notable.
However, sound also does matter in the gameplay of Dark Corners of the Earth.
Most enemies make noise when they move, either through their footsteps or their utterances. This lets the player know that they are there.
Chief of these are the threats that certain very hostile persons make as they pursue Jack Walters. These enemies make remarks that give away what they are doing. For example, they remark aloud when they have spotted Jack, which informs the player that he/she may want to have Jack move to a safer spot. They will even make remarks when they hear Jack reloading his weapon.
Environmental hazards often announce their presence with noises, such as unstable wooden floors creaking to inform the player that they are not safe to walk on. It is important to listen to these cues, as Jack himself would not make these observations.
Some places also have odd noises that the player would realize are not part of the ambient sounds. These are aural indicators that otherworldly things are close by, and they tend to be sanity-sapping.
Firearms would sound a bit weak if one is used to more modern firearms. However, there is the excuse that they are based on weapons that were created around the turn of the twentieth century. The only exception here is the shotgun, which is certainly loud, especially when they are used in caves.
One of the uneven designs of the game happens to be the voice-overs for the characters. This is apparent right from the start of the game, when the voice for Jack Walters, Milton Lawrence, starts talking. In fact, Milton Lawrence's performance is all over the place.
Lawrence delivers satisfactory narration for Walters' travails throughout the game, but he delivers bland lines when Jack is conversing with other characters, even in urgent times. His monologues are also similarly dull, as elaborated earlier.
These bland lines in turn contrast greatly with his much more spirited utterances when he is either injured or going insane.
Then, there are the denizens of Innsmouth, one of whom is the poster-person for the game. It can be difficult to consider how Jack Walters is not already alarmingly suspicious of them when they deliver lines like they are gargling water. They try their best to sound menacing, but they may also sound goofy at the same time.
There is better voice-acting, but these belong to characters that have much less screen-time than Jack and the Innsmouth folks.
Being a port of a game that originated on the Xbox, Dark Corners of the Earth for the computer platform is hardly a pretty game. The developers have tried to update the textures to be of higher resolution, but there was little that they could do for the number of polygons for models in the game. This deficiency is apparent right from the start, when the player is given close-ups of Walters' face.
The player would also notice that many of the Innsmouth folks share the same animation set. Of course, there is a story-based argument in support of this, but it would still be difficult to deflect the accusation that the developers had been lazy, especially when the game has been in development for a long time.
For better or worse, the game chooses to make use of changes in Jack's sight to compensate for the absence of any on-screen visual indicators for his health and ammo supplies. As Jack becomes more injured, his vision blurs and loses colour. If his leg is injured, the camera bobs even more when he moves.
These visual changes are not convenient when the player is trying to have him fight off enemies. Of course, one can argue that these effects are intended to discourage the player from engaging in combat in the first place, but as mentioned earlier, there are scenarios where combat is imposed on the player.
The game resorts to a lot of fog to cut off view distances. This is perhaps understandable considering the game's darksome settings though.
In-game cutscenes often have the camera being taken over to give the player an immersive experience of playing as Jack Walters. Most of the camera movement is believable, such as the player being able to see parts of Jack's model, especially his hands, as he moves his view around.
However, these believable animations make for stark contrast with the first-person perspective, which is as rigid as any player that has experience with first-person shooters would remember. At the very least, the player can see Jack's model, such as his feet when the player is looking down at the floor.
Most of the environments in the early parts of the game, namely Innsmouth itself, are dark and dank, which contribute to the oppressiveness of the game's atmosphere. These soon give way to other scenes, such as a stark contrast between industrial works and places for occult worship. Later parts of the game have locales that are more colourful, though these are of the bizarrely alien sorts instead of the brightly cheery ones.
Indeed, the places seen in the game are more memorably outstanding than the rest of its visual designs.
Observant players may notice the many ideas that went into and could have been in Dark Corners of the Earth, more so if they have been following the development of the game. Unfortunately, their inclusion and their limitations can be difficult to appreciate, as the game has many rough edges.
The worst of these is its attempts at combining an unforgiving health system and a sanity system with first-person combat, minus any visual aid found in first-person shooters. Then, there is the first-person running and jumping gameplay, which is even clumsier.
Fans of the game could argue that the game's tremendous difficulty is one of its plus-points, but the game could have been more fun if there were solid alternatives to its unwieldy combat and platforming. It could have been more fun if it focused on gameplay that is oriented around detective work, which could have made for better homage to Lovecraft's works.