Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a very unique and highly atmospheric horror game based on the novels by H.P. Lovecraft from developer Headfirst Productions which has, unfortunately, filed for bankruptcy shortly after the game's release. The development stage was long and arduous--it started back in the late 90's--but Headfirst managed to deliver a game that stays true to its source material and makes for an engaging gaming experience. It's hard to define and categorize Dark Corners of the Earth due to its ambition of meshing different game styles into a single cohesive package. While certain elements feel more fleshed out than others, Headfirst is triumphant in their intent - most of the time.
Most of the game takes place in 1920's Massachusetts. The player is put into the role of Jack Walters, a private investigator who can't recollect the last six years of his life after suffering a mental breakdown. After suddenly getting better, Jack takes on a missing persons case and sets off to a small, uninviting coastal town of Innsmouth. Jack quickly realizes that there is something quite odd about the little town and its inhabitants who are extremely unwelcoming to outsiders. Investigating around the town yields poor results, but the townfolk deem Jack a threat. He then finds himself on a horrific ride of not only preserving his physical, but also mental well-being.
One of the unique aspects of Call of Cthulhu is the possibility of your character going insane if exposed to disturbing images for a longer period of time. Crawling through piles of rotting corpses with flies buzzing around, where you can almost smell the stench will cause Jack's mental health deteriorate with real gameplay consequences such as blurry vision and slowing down of reflexes. It is also very unnerving hearing Jack muttering to himself in panic "I should never have come here", or "I can hear him calling me". The game plays from a first-person perspective and features no HUD whatsoever (no health bars, ammo counts, aiming reticules...) making the whole experience all the more immersive and downright frightening.
In terms of gameplay, Call of Cthulhu provides a surprising amount of variety - first-person puzzle solving, stealth segments, shooting, even some Half-Life-esque platforming - sometimes mixing all those elements up. For the most part, puzzles are very well designed and consist of more than your average pull-lever-to-reveal-secret-exit fare, you really need to examine your clues carefully to figure it all out. Stealth segments are extremely basic and boil down to crawling very slowly and avoid being seen. More work could've gone into this aspect of the game because sometimes you'll get spotted while shrouded in complete darkness while other times being able to sneak right past underneath your enemies noses. The shooting part is fairly solid, Headfirst definitely went for realism. Running and gunning will get you nowhere, taking a stealthy approach proved to be a lot more effective - while crouching and holding aim at the same time, of course. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth isn't really a game in which you go on a killing spree (although you do get a fair amount of opportunities for a payback), but rather a game in which you just want to get the hell away from your prosecutors trying to keep yourself in one piece - which actually makes a lot more sense.
Unfortunately, Call of Cthulhu has its share of issues - random glitches and a terrible save system being the most notable examples. The glitches range from the usual like enemies or yourself being stuck in walls and game freezing, to some really serious ones. Halfway through the game, I encountered a nasty glitch where a character died while another character failed to recognize that fact causing the inability to progress through the game, and with a little help from the heavily-flawed save system made me replay almost two whole levels. You can only save your game in certain pre-determined locations and the game also occasionally auto-saves, but the placement of those save spots is sometimes mind-boggling. Some of the levels are rather big and open-ended which is by no means a bad thing in and of itself, but sometimes the game doesn't do a good job of making clear what you're supposed to be doing and where you're supposed to be heading causing you to lose a lot of time wandering aimlessly. Between the game's difficulty, the save system, and the glitches, Call of Cthulhu too many times manages to replace tension with frustration.
Another issue would be the game's inconsistency. Earlier in the game Jack finds himself clawing his way through heaps of dead bodies, but just several moments later when another character informs Jack of reported human sacrifices, he dismisses them as nothing more than rumors. Also, when examining an object Jack's voice sometimes changes from terrified whispering to perfectly normal in a heartbeat, effectively breaking the immersion. These are really minor gripes, but should be mentioned due to the game's heavy reliance on storytelling and atmosphere.
The graphics look good with a surprising amount of detail in some areas, but borders being outdated in others. The textures are bland and blurry, the characters look good, but most of the animations are stiff. There's nothing in Call of Cthulhu that particularly stands out graphically, but the visuals are still more than adequate and portray the early 1900's setting very accurately. The sound department is noticeably better, the voicework is top-notch and the music really helps to build up an atmosphere in which the tension is virtually palpable.
Headfirst obviously took a few gambles with this game, but ultimately succeeded in delivering a gaming experience like no other. Despite its shortcomings, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth provides a very engaging and horrifying adventure backed by an extremely varied mix of gameplay elements, a chilling atmosphere, and a unique setting - making it an easy recommendation.