Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

Review by Davo
July 2006

Chances are you've heard of a company named Bethesda and a little game they released a few months ago called Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Oblivion is a great game, and it's all Bethesda fans have been talking about. Lost in all the hoopla over Oblivion, however, is the rather quiet release of another game on the Xbox and, more recently, the PC. That other release is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, and it is as outstanding in its own right as Oblivion, although for very different reasons. Dark Corners of the Earth is utterly dissimilar to Oblivion, so you should not come to it looking for an open-ended role-playing experience. It is a survival horror game that keeps the emphasis tightly on survival and horror, the core qualities of the genre that many similar games seem to abandon through a misguided emphasis on nigh-invincible military protagonists.

In Dark Corners of the Earth, you play as a private detective teetering on the edge of sanity. You're weak as a babe, even when armed to the teeth late in the game. Killing abominations from across time and space takes a heavy toll on your sanity throughout the game, resulting in hallucinations, blurred vision, heart attacks and, in the worst of circumstances, suicide. The game is not without flaws—a lot of them. Yet Dark Corners of the Earth has an uncanny ability to overcome those numerous flaws and present a thrilling game in which the whole is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. If not for the rather large number of imperfections that riddle the game, I would have had no problem bestowing a stellar rating on it. I very nearly gave it a top score anyway.

The Outsider

Any serious discussion of horror literature touches on the influence of H.P. Lovecraft at some point. There's no getting around it. Love him or hate him, no writer has exerted as much influence over horror literature. Even Lovecraft's detractors bestow grudging respect upon him. In his overview of the science fiction genre, The Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss lamented Lovecraft's literary histrionics while admitting that the stories retained an "undeniable core of power." (A tip of the hat to one of FFC's forum regulars, Finkbug, for alerting me to Aldiss's quote about Lovecraft.)

Dark Corners of the Earth is especially appealing to anyone who wants a game with excellent storytelling. The game tells the very well-scripted story of Jack Walsh, a private eye recovering from an extreme mental breakdown. Dark Corners of the Earth opens with a cryptic scene of Jack's time inside Lovecraft's infamous Arkham Asylum. Things are looking really bad for Jack. Flash forward six years, and you're in control of Jack after his release from Arkham as he accepts a minor missing person case. The case takes Jack to the seedy town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. A short time after you begin questioning the locals, all hell breaks loose, and your life is in danger throughout the remainder of the game.

Familiarity with Lovecraft is not an essential part of the experience, but it doesn't hurt. If you're a Lovecraft fan, the story closely parallels one of H.P.'s most famous stories: The Shadow over Innsmouth. Additional Lovecraft story influences come from The Shadow out of Time, Dagon, and The Call of Cthulhu, in descending order of importance. The developers have gone one step further with the core Shadow over Innsmouth storyline, however, and cleverly grounded the story in a recognizable pseudo-reality by making an insane-in-his-own-right J. Edgar Hoover one of the primary nonplayer characters in the game. In a game filled with interesting characters, Hoover stands out as exactly as crazy as you think he might have been while still holding it together enough to build the F.B.I. into the monolithic federal police force that it is now. You'll meet him halfway through the game and experience his nastiness until the end.

One of the primary criticisms leveled at the game is the allegedly poor quality of the graphics. This impression has even resulted in print histrionics about ocular damage from playing the game. There's no doubt the graphics are quite a bit behind the best currently available. And yet the graphics have their own unique appeal despite this. The developers have managed to capture the greasy, grimy, grotesque feel of Lovecraft's fictional town of Innsmouth. Everything has a dark, shadowy, sinister feel befitting the tone of the game. Undoubtedly, the graphics have suffered from the five or so years this game languished in development limbo. If Dark Corners of the Earth had been released as planned three or four years ago, we'd have been discussing how good most of the game looked. It's true that some of the graphics are as poor as could be imagined. In fairness, however, those moments of poor quality applied mostly to lesser details. In the general store, for example, fish in a glass case look like flat magic marker drawings. The moon generally looks like a giant Colorform. It isn't important because it is just a minor piece of the background letting you know it is night. The foreground—the buildings, the characters, the towns, the vehicles, the abominations and all the major stuff—looks great. The limited number of character models isn't programming laziness—everyone in Innsmouth is supposed to look the same.

Innovate for Me

Much of the prerelease discussion of Dark Corners of the Earth focused on the design decision to present the game without any heads-up display (HUD). As it turns out, this does much to enhance the sense of immersion you'll experience while playing the game. The game world is seen through Jack Walsh's eyes. There are no icons of any kind on the screen. There's no reticule when you're aiming a gun. There are no indicators to help you track ammunition, health or sanity. If you want to shoot something, you'll have to raise your handgun or shoulder your rifle and aim down the length of the barrel to draw a bead on your target. How do you know when you're out of bullets? When the firing pin falls with a sickening click in the middle of a difficult fight and you realize you forgot to keep track of how many bullets you had left. If you're losing your sanity, you'll generally know it by the weird hallucinations you're experiencing (more on this later). When health is low, the screen turns red around the edges and your character has trouble moving, seeing and aiming. Also, there are some wicked sound effects thrown in to deepen the immersion. When you inevitably break a leg, you'll hear a painful cracking noise with each slow step you take.

Pausing the game brings up a subscreen that provides access to information normally conveyed through an HUD. A picture of Jack will show you what kind of wounds he has, where they're located and what kind of medical attention he requires. If he has a broken leg, you'll see a bone sticking out of his shin. You heal Jack through the use of a first-aid box that contains bandages, splints, stitches and other medical supplies. Medication is in short supply, so you'll have to manage your reserve carefully. Also, if you have a broken leg and you're out of splints, you'll be limping around slowly, most likely with fast-moving enemies in pursuit.

The decision to create a game without any HUD at all brings up an interesting question. Is the lack of an HUD a good thing? As much as I loved it, I think this is really a more subjective experience than you might think. I don't really mind HUDs that are well-designed and minimalist. The HUD used in the Metroid: Prime games, for example, is represented as a series of digital readouts projected on the inside of the main character's visor. It's an elegant solution incorporated sensibly into the internal logic of the game and its storyline. It makes sense. At the same time, I have to admit that I appreciate a screen free of all visual clutter and other distractions. I've played more than a few games ruined by an HUD that took up half the play field. I suspect that the missing HUD would be a bit more problematic in a really fast-paced shooter. Dark Corners of the Earth requires far more stealth and thinking than gun-blazing action. A frantic shooter might necessitate at least some kind of HUD so you can keep track of ammunition and health as you fend off dozens of enemies while racing through the environment. In Dark Corners of the Earth, you can frequently run past enemies or hide so you can regroup. Keeping track of ammunition and health isn't a constant concern the way it would be in a shooter with a much faster pace. Even with the slower pace, I died a dozen or so unnecessary deaths because I didn't have that little visual reminder of my health and ammunition in the upper left corner of the screen. Bottom line? I truly enjoyed the lack of any onscreen icons interfering with my immersion in the game world.

Early in Dark Corners of the Earth, you'll begin experiencing strange hallucinations of an alien race and their bizarre world. These hallucinations are critical to the story, but more importantly they're part and parcel of the other element of the game that received much prerelease attention: sanity effects. In many Lovecraft stories, the protagonist will find his sanity slipping away as he encounters monstrosities from across space and time. Of course, if you've read enough Lovecraft, you know that the majority of these stories begin with the protagonist already half-crazy as he relates the tale of his descent into madness. In fine Lovecraftian fashion, Dark Corners of the Earth remains true to this tradition. You begin the game completely insane and learn what drove you mad as you play through to the end.

Your madness is portrayed in the form of sanity effects, triggered by different conditions. You're most likely to experience them when you're walking on a narrow, high beam, standing close to a temple dedicated to ancient abominations, or suffering severe physical damage. The sanity effects may be visual, as when the screen warps and curves as if viewed through a vortex. The effects may be aural, as when you hear Jack's teeth chattering while he mutters and giggles nonsense and gibberish to himself. And the effects may affect gameplay. At one point, my controller started working in reverse, only to return to normal after a few seconds. None of this will be new to anyone who has played Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem on the Gamecube. The sanity effects aren't as original as the developers would have you believe, but they are well-designed and expertly executed. In fact, I hit a glitch in the game at one point that I was convinced (for 10 minutes) was actually a sanity effect. I wandered into a sewer and could not walk up a flight of stairs. I suddenly found myself walking through a wall and looking up through the floor at a ghost who was being tormented by a disembodied voice. It was creepy and scary as hell. The collision detection went haywire, and I was able to walk through walls. I kept wandering deeper and deeper into an area without graphics. I could turn around and see the graphics way behind me in the distance. Since I couldn't get this effect to stop (and most sanity effects reverse themselves after a short time) without resetting the game, I assume it was a glitch. But who knows?

The Unusual Suspects

The enemies you'll fight in Dark Corners of the Earth are a small but interesting menagerie of abominations straight out of Lovecraft's stories. You'll encounter Deep Ones, Shoggoths and even Dagon himself (itself?). If you're a Lovecraft fan, you'll likely be delighted that the developers captured the look and feel of these creatures perfectly. If you're not a Lovecraft fan, don't worry. They're all big, ugly monsters straight out of a nightmare. Deep Ones look a lot like the monster in Universal Studios' classic movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature itself was rumored to be inspired by Lovecraft's Deep Ones. Shoggoths are huge shambling masses of fleshy tentacles and eyeballs. Dagon is a bit like a fishier version of Godzilla.

Adventure gamers looking for a crossover title may find much to love in this game. You don't really have to be all that skilled with first-person shooters because this game is more about sneaking, investigating and searching than shooting, killing and marauding. You'll spend much of your time piecing together clues to open safes, locate witnesses and uncover mysteries. Just keep in mind that you will still have to spend a fair amount of time in first-person shootouts.

Worth mentioning is the way the game incorporates clues about what to do next into the environment. The best example comes when you're under attack late in the game while riding on a naval vessel. A series of tidal waves begin striking the vessel. There's only one way to survive being swept overboard and the answer is right there beside you—if you can see it and figure out how to initiate it.

Sound effects and voice acting are outstanding. The voice actors deliver their lines with aplomb and flair. Especially noteworthy is the way the denizens of Innsmouth present more guttural sounding voices as the story progresses. Sound effects really add to the atmosphere. Footsteps, rushing water, creaky floorboards, squeaking hinges—pretty much every classic horror sound is here and used to heighten the tension. My favorite sound effect was, by far, the rhythmic chanting filling a dilapidated mansion. It cranked up the creep factor to 11 and gave me just a hint of gooseflesh. There is a small amount of music in the game that is mostly nonintrusive but used to good effect.

Control is very good with the Xbox controller. Button placement is fairly intuitive. I can't comment on how this will translate to a keyboard, but it is possible you'll find a gamepad more appropriate when playing on a PC because of the game's console roots.

You'll spend a decent amount of time working through the game. I stopped keeping track of my play time at about 12 hours, but I would estimate that I played for more than 20 hours.

The List of Complaints

The biggest strike against this game isn't the glitches that require you to reload or the inappropriate third-person platform elements in this, a first-person game—it is the damnable save points. They're spaced too far apart, located in hidden portions of the levels and sometimes incredulously resistant to working at all. The amount of game time between save points can frequently approach 30 minutes or longer. It really sucks to lose 30 minutes of game time because you can't find the next save point and your access to the previous one is blocked by enemies, locked doors or your own inability to remember where the hell it is. You can return to a prior save point sometimes, but you won't know which ones those are until you find yourself stuck with no way to backtrack. Save points are shaped like pentagrams or a specific hieroglyph painted in white on walls. You walk up to the save point, hit the appropriate controller button or PC key, and save in one of 10 slots (on the Xbox, anyway). Getting some of the save points to even work is ridiculously laborious. I had to stay parallel to a wall to get one to work. I had to crouch to get another to work. Another required a 45-degree view. You could spend a couple of minutes dancing around a save point trying to find just the right position to get it to work. Sometimes you'll return to a save slot that you think you know how to operate, only to find it resistant to your efforts. Also, if you're not managing your saves carefully, you could easily paint yourself into a corner and have to restart the game. Make sure you don't fill your save slots with moments when you're low on ammunition and health (which is most of the game).

Here's a semi-rhetorical question to ponder. Why, oh why, do developers insist on filling first-person games with third-person platform elements? Jumping from one sliver of rock to another without the ability to see your body isn't tense and exciting—it's idiotic. There are a few moments, especially at the end of the game, when you will curse your inability to switch to a third-person mode as you are forced to navigate narrow rocks and ledges in hurricane-force winds.

Did I forget to mention the game's many glitches? I did not, but let me bring them up again. The game is plagued with admittedly minor glitches in everything from the graphics to the sound to the AI. At one point, I was standing right behind a Deep One, and it had no idea I was there. When it turned to the left or right, I was able to turn in the same direction and avoid detection. It was comical, really. Too bad I didn't have the in-game ability to use my fingers to make "rabbit-ears" over the hapless creature's head.

Why Most of the Complaints on the List Don't Matter

With the exception of the hateful save system, none of the negatives described above do much to detract from the overall quality this game exudes. Putting words to why the negatives don't seem to matter much is a little tricky because it's more of an impression of quality than any directly qualitative characteristic. The game just feels good. Much of it is due, of course, to the many positive characteristics described above, but that doesn't quite cover it. It's more of a visceral quality. It's a sense that the designers nailed Lovecraft's universe so effectively that Dark Corners of the Earth transcends its negatives. Of course, this raises an interesting question. If you've never read Lovecraft, will you experience that feeling of visceral quality? I think you will, and here's why. Remember that "undeniable core of power" that I mentioned at the beginning? It's still here, in game form. Innsmouth is a crazed and frightening place. Insane cultists, creepy basements, diseased locals, blasphemous churches and inhuman languages are just the tip of the iceberg. There's no escape from the overall atmosphere of horror that permeates the game.

Some fans have been howling on various forums that Dark Corners of the Earth does not capture the essence of Lovecraft because there are moments in the game when Jack is able to mow down enemies with typical FPS ease. Maybe I played a different game, but I didn't experience too many of these moments. I spent most of my time sniping enemies from hiding places and running like hell. Admittedly, there are a few times when the game leans more toward FPS than stealth. It's true that the creatures in Lovecraft's stories generally don't succumb to gunfire. In Lovecraft's stories, Deep Ones are about as susceptible to gunfire as humans are to spitballs. But this well-intentioned criticism ignores the fact that this is a game, not a Lovecraft story. The game tries to draw a reasonable balance between paying homage to Lovecraft and presenting an excellent stealthy shooter. In my opinion, it mostly succeeds. Besides, blasting Deep Ones is quite refreshing after spending most of the game running from them.

A Labor of Love

I really wanted to give this game a Gold Star rating, but fair is fair. Because of the flaws in Dark Corners of the Earth, it would not be fair to give the game a stellar rating based on my personal feelings rather than a balanced examination of its positives and negatives. On the other hand, as I've already said once in this review, the overall quality of the game far outweighs every one of its shortcomings. In my humble opinion, this game represents a labor of love from people who wanted to pay homage to Lovecraft. This is perhaps most evident in a rumor circulating the web that a lone member of the development team burned the midnight oil all by his lonesome to complete the PC version long after the Xbox release. How can you not respect a game made with that kind of love? Dark Corners of the Earth is an excellent game, and I highly recommend it. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Headfirst
Publisher: Bethesda
Release Date: October 2005 (Xbox); March 2006 (PC)

Available for: Windows Xbox

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System Requirements

Windows XP/2000
256 MB RAM for XP/2000
Pentium III 800MHz or better
16X CD-ROM drive
DirectX 9.0 3D compliant video card with 128MB RAM
Sound card (100% DirectX 8.1 compatible)
Mouse
Desktop resolution of 800×600 at 16-bit color depth minimum
2.0 GB free hard drive space for installation

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