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This week I take a break from video games and swap console for textbook, controller for pen, and screen for imagination. Table top RPG’s, or pen and paper role playing games, have recently felt a resurgence in their popularity due to modern celebration of nerd culture and the success of Stranger Things that featured the genre’s most well known iteration, Dungeons and Dragons. This genre of gaming is the ultimate progenitor to modern day video games, serving as the inspiration for what an interactive gaming experience should be like, and how things like player statistics and damage are designed and calculated. Having been introduced to the world of table top RPG’s first by Dungeons and Dragons, I sought out other versions of the similar formula and came across what many experts consider to be the pinnacle of pen and paper games, the 1920s set Call of Cthulhu

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Prepare to die, and use pens, and paper

This review will be geared a little more to those unfamiliar with the genre and its tropes, so it’s necessary to go over the basics of gameplay first. Without bogging down too much in the game’s intricacies, players are first required to build their own character. There is the usual opportunity for player’s to flesh out their characters background as freely and as thoroughly as they would like, some basic stats are rolled for (like luck, naturally), but most have set values that are able to be personally allocated by the player. Here is where the differences in gameplay between the conventional Dungeons and Dragons starts to show – rather than skills and abilities being pre-determined by the player’s race or class, all players are able to personalise their skillset (things like driving a car, analysing textbooks, spotting hidden objects, conducting week-long anthropological research) however they want. This offers players just that much more control over how they want their character to play, increasing enjoyment a little bit more. Following this, characters are dropped into a pre-written campaign guided by a ‘Keeper’ (‘Dungeon Master’) who takes the role of reading action lines, embodying the denizens of the world, calculating damages, and maintaining an overall sense of flow for the group of players. And thus the game really begins…

Players coming from action-oriented video games, or even Dungeons and Dragons may feel the game to be lacking in substance at first due to Call of Cthulhu‘s strong focus on detective work in comparison to combat encounters. As all player characters in game are human, the nature of the gameplay encourages detective work by piecing clues together, sweet-talking, and utilising non-violent paths to avoid danger altogether. There is combat involved occasionally, but since your character is likely a banker or something who has been roped into all this and armed only with a plank of wood against a village full of bloodthirsty cultists, it is unlikely you will survive anything more than a punch to the face. While this may seem like the game is unfairly difficult (and it’s designed to be if you don’t use your head), it certainly makes the game all that more exhilirating knowing that your character is always on the verge of death – something that enhances the horror experience to be had in game.

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A world lovingly crafted

Call of Cthulhu takes direct inspiration from its namesake, and often simply recreates the narratives of H.P. Lovecraft in its various pre-written campaigns to be played through. The game also takes a 1920s setting, as is the era of H.P. Lovecraft and his tales, and some figures straight from his books (the city of Arkham, loyal cultists, the big boy Cthulhu himself) that truly makes it feel as though each game you play feels like a brand new, and original Lovecraftian work. This game unequivocally understands its origins, and every aspect of its story and gameplay work on Lovecraft’s key themes in his writing; the ordinary against the extraordinary, madness, and hopelessness.

In one of the beginning campaigns played through, the sentiment of the ordinary against the extraordinary was set up fantastically from the get-go. Player characters were thrust from their ordinary backstories and into the extraordinary at the summon of an old benefactor who informs them that he is the only person able to destory an ancient and vengeful genie, before he dies suddenly via an explosion of blood from his mouth. The ghastly occurence immediately besaddles the players with sanity damage (an adjacent gameplay mechanic to health) that continues to take hits as they fall deeper and deeper into the mystery. The most exciting element in a Call of Cthulhu game is the unlikelihood that the player’s will even ‘win’ the campaign. By the time that players reach the spectre they’ve been teased by all game, many characters will have their sanity metres so low that they won’t be able to even face the big bad without going completely mad – a fate equal to death. Those that do survive the ordeal will find their characters in the next campaign burdened with permanent physical and mental scarring, like phobias and anxieties. By even engaging in the game’s design, you are agreeing to play by Lovecraft’s rules, and that is that humans can never hope to win when they are up against all-knowing cosmic deities.

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Make your own little cult!

Usually this is where I’d talk about the elements that enhance the horror’s atmosphere, like graphics, aesthetics, soundtrack, etc. But as this is a pen and paper roleplaying game, it features barely any of those elements. And here is where the cleverest part of the Call of Cthulhu experience comes in – you are completely responsible for those things! While the game’s various textbooks will offer some beautiful illustrations of various beasts and settings, much of the atmosphere is completely dependent on the players involved. The game certainly gives you what you put into it. My first playthrough with friends saw us donning some flapper feathers, beads, suits and ties to drum up the 1920s setting. Think about the lighting situation, will you draw the curtains and light some candles? Or play in the dark with torches? Decorate! Add cobwebs around the house! Put together a playlist to accompany you each step of the way and fill it with some spooky jazz! Also, get animated, it’s a lot more fun when everyone puts on a voice and acts out what they’re doing.

Critical hit!

For all the positives of Call of Cthulhu, the only things that I can ding it for is its slight inaccessibility (though that is certainly a trait of table top RPG’s) due to the density of its rules for unfamiliar beginners. I’d also say that it may become plodding at times if you’re looking for an action-oriented experience, but that comes down to personal taste. But, as long as you have three to four friends, and one of them is willing to take on the workload of learning the game, and you’re keen to test your survival skills and not your tactical skills, then you’re in for an exhilirating and chilling time. I give Call of Cthulhu five out of five Cthulhus.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Davis

    April 18, 2020 at 5:23 am

    I really want to play a game of Call of Cthulhu. I never have and that is incredibly scary to me.

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Gaming

The Sinking City Review: Sunken Lovecraftian Lore

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The Sinking City is an open world third-person shooter developed by Ukranian developer, Frogwares, and published by Nacon. In this game, you play as a private investigator who has come to the city of Oakmont. In this half-submerged city you hope to find the cause of your maddening dreams and the mass disappearances plaguing the city.

Inspired by several H.P. Lovecraft stories, The Sinking City is a love letter to Lovecraftian lore. However, it takes the time to condone problematic themes in Lovecraft’s writings which is always appreciated. It has a massive open world that lets you explore the haunting world of a city driven partially mad. The neighborhoods are painstakingly designed and the found objects tell an enrapturing story. Riding a motor boat through flooded streets was mesmerizing. I also am fond of the novel detective mechanics. Even if they are a little basic, they are still interesting and tell a good story. 

A screenshot of gameplay from The Sinking City, showcasing a great character model.

I cannot stress enough that I wanted to love The Sinking City. The premise and the atmosphere were everything I wanted from a Lovecraftian horror game. But, the game just fell flat. Frustratingly enough, most of the issues with the game are simple quality of life improvements. I had consistent bugs, performance issues, and visual hiccups that prevented the game from coming into its own. The enthralling environments were tarnished by enemies appearing and disappearing and character animations not functioning properly. While the character models were exquisite, the dialogue was comically tacky, once again ruining the mood. I also wasn’t a fan of the combat, which felt undercooked in its difficulty and stealth mechanics. The Sinking City feels like the alpha release of what could be an amazing game. But in its current state I found it to be semi-unplayable.

That being said, the game has an amazing mod community on Steam. They have created community content to fix a lot of the issues I have with the base game, so I recommend checking that out if you already own the game. I have also heard that the game has better performance on consoles instead of on PC, where I played it. So that may be another avenue for enjoying The Sinking City.

Another unfortunate reason I can’t recommend the game at the moment, is current legal battles against Nacon the publisher. Nacon has been accused by several of its developers, including Frogwares, of pirating their game and uploading it illegally to Steam. The legal battles have yet to be resolved, however, it is unfortunate that these accusations have happened twice now by two independent developers.

Maybe one day we’ll have a good Lovecraftian horror game. But, it is not yet that day. 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

However, in honor of Frogwares please consider donating to a Ukrainian Relief Fund as they actively fight on the front lines to keep their country safe. Additionally, consider supporting their new game Sherlock Holmes: the Awakened.

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Gaming

Röki Review: Family & Scandinavian Folklore

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Röki is an adventure puzzle game developed by Polygon Treehouse and published by United Label and CI Games. In the game, you play as Tove, a young girl on a hunt to save her kidnapped brother. She must engage with creatures from Scandinavian folklore as well as her own guilt surrounding the death of her mother in order to save her brother from a grim fate.

This is a game with an immense amount of heart. From the art to the story to the sound design, you can feel the soul and care that went into Röki. And for the most part, it pays off. I invested emotionally into all of the characters as I played. I was also enraptured by the depth of the story and character interactions as the game progressed. The gameplay is similar to that of a point-and-click adventure game, where you collect items and drag them onto environmental objects to solve puzzles. The items and environments were intricate and satisfying to engage with the majority of the time. Especially in the first third of the game, I delighted at uncovering little secrets and talking with the inhabitants of the forest. When the game was rewarding, it really felt rewarding.

A screenshot of gameplay from Röki.

Despite its enchanting nature, the middle third of the game was a definite low point. As a game that took me about 10 hours to play through, about 3 of those hours were exhausting. The puzzles were especially tedious, requiring a significant amount of backtracking and/or convoluted solutions. Instead of feeling rewarded for solving the puzzles, I just felt thankful I could move on. The biggest issue wasn’t the solutions or placement of items, it was the annoyance that I knew exactly what I needed to do but had to spend at least fifteen minutes stuck in unskippable animations to complete it.

Röki is a gorgeous adventure game that immerses you in Scandinavian folklore through a combination of story and puzzles. However, if you don’t have patience for unskippable dialogue or frustrating puzzles you may want to try a different game. Additionally, I find the price of $20 a little high for how frustrating a third of the game is. But I would consider it a must-get for puzzle fans during a sale! Find Röki on Steam here.

3.9 out of 5 stars (3.9 / 5)

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Ring of Pain Review: An Addictive Dungeon Crawler

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Ring of Pain is a rogue-like dungeon crawler developed by Simon Boxer and Twice Different. In the game, you travel through layers of a dungeon collecting loot and killing monsters. Each layer holds a series of cards containing enemies, curses, boons, and exits. As a character, you gain equipment, spells, items, and stat increases that help you defeat your enemies (or just run away better). 

Ring of Pain is a fantastic game. I received it in a charity game bundle, but it had sat untouched in my Steam library for a year. On a whim, I decided to try it out, telling myself I would play an hour or two and then review it. I ended up playing for four hours, only stopping because I had prior engagements. Every time I sat down to write this review, I instead played another couple of hours in Ring of Pain. The point of this story is not my weak will, but instead the highly addictive nature of Ring of Pain.

A screenshot of gameplay from Ring of Pain.

The gameplay had a good mix of strategy and luck, making it rewarding to succeed. There are also many viable strategies to pursue, which means there are many ‘correct’ ways to play the game and still see success. As someone who can get frustrated with rogue-likes, I liked how each run was relatively short but rewarding. This meant that I didn’t feel like I was sinking hours into gameplay that led nowhere. Also worth a mention is the absolutely stunning artwork that masters being atmospheric, creepy, and comical. 

My biggest gripe is that I wish there was more diversity of items. I sometimes felt as if I was just getting the same boring equipment over and over again. That being said, the developers have been consistently adding new content to the game since it released. Therefore, my largest issue is being addressed. 

Ring of Pain is a great game, and I highly recommend it for those who enjoy quick rogue-likes with dungeon-crawling elements. However, try another game if you get frustrated by random generation that could be impossible to surmount. 

Available on Steam for $20, I would say the price point is a little steep for the diversity of content. However, it’s a must-get during a sale!

4.7 out of 5 stars (4.7 / 5)

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