of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Review by Davo
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
flawsa 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.
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
foregroundthe buildings, the characters, the towns, the vehicles,
the abominations and all the major stufflooks great. The limited
number of character models isn't programming lazinesseveryone
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 youif you can see it and figure out how to initiate
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
hingespretty 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 gameit 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 excitingit'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
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
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
Release Date: October 2005 (Xbox); March 2006 (PC)
Four Fat Chicks Links
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)
Desktop resolution of 800×600 at 16-bit color depth minimum
2.0 GB free hard drive space for installation
Where to Find It
Links provided for informational purposes only.
FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into
by any party(ies).