Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Bethesda Softworks/Headfirst Productions
Xbox
Rated M
$40

In games, books, and movies, there’s no mood more difficult to sustain than horror. It’s not about the BOO! moments — those are cheap and easy. The real soul-shaking variety has to build slowly, with little irregularities (scratches on a doorway, a sound in a darkened hallway, a bloodstain on the floor) piling up to the point where sanity bails and you can’t hold the scream in any longer. In the literary world, nobody understood that progression better than H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose visions of reality were so tormented he created an entire mythos to try to unravel them. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, a first-person horror game based on Lovecraft’s darkly twisted universe, comes closer to nailing creepy than I would have expected. After all, this is a game that’s been stuck in development hell for a whopping six years. Things begin in the early 1900s, with crack detective Jack Walters discovering some truly disturbing goings-on in a house occupied by creepy cult members. Flash forward six years, and we find Jack, a shell-shocked amnesiac with only dim memories of that fateful long-ago night, being drawn back into a mystery that involves him in ways he could never have imagined. The game exhumes elements from several genres, stitching them together into a zombie whose seams only occasionally show. Ostensibly, this is a straight-up adventure-puzzler, where you’re moving and clicking on objects to collect information. But there are also shooter sequences, nail-biting chase sequences, and stealth missions. (Some of these are executed far more gracefully than others.) The look here is grim and 8mm-reel grainy, reminiscent of games like Nocturne and Resident Evil 4. Your character’s health and sanity meters are tracked on a separate screen, lessening that game-y feel. Still, you had better pay attention to them — if your sanity meter hits zero, you’ll be planting a bullet in your own tortured brain. If only the mood were as consistent as the visuals. In the game’s first mission, Walters discovers a basement crowded with gore-spattered corpses, and his sanity meter, quite naturally, drops through the floor; his heart and breath are running like wildfire, and the controller’s pulsing so strongly it all but leaps from your hands. Move him a few feet away, however, and everything’s back to normal. Worse, when he encounters something equally spooky in the next room, there’s no reaction at all. The voice-acting also undercuts the horror vibe. Walter’s detective-dull deadpan never wavers an iota, whether he’s informing you a door is bolted shut or is about to encounter a beastie straight out of Lovecraft’s seventh circle of weird. Missed touches like these aren’t as damaging as the level-load screens that yank you rudely out of the story, but they could have really closed the deal. Eventually, our hard-boiled dick ends up in Innsmouth (where else?), where the shadow of the cryptic Order of Dagon has poisoned every inch of the seaside fishing village and sets its sights on him. It’s here that things get truly weird, and…. Nope. You’ll have to let that scream out for yourself.

The last time Cthulhu called Aaron R. Conklin, he declined to accept the charges. Conklin writes about games regularly for the City Paper.