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     " Fun but frustrating. "

      Title: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth by Bethesda

      Format: Xbox Horror Roleplaying

      Reviewing Monkey: Mojo Jojo

      The Hype: One of the most popular horror franchises of all time finally comes to the videogame market. Plagued by design issues and delays, there has been as much hype about Dark Corners of the Earth (DCE) as there has been frustration over its delays. Now, Game Monkeys finally gets its paws on the subject of a 3-time E3 honor holder to see if it measures up.

      What This Monkey Thought...

      Graphics: The short version is that the graphics in DCE are a mixed bag. The models and animations are all really well done and add a lot to the depth and drama of the game. That said, there are a very limited number of them (so you'll see the same models over and over again as different characters) and the environments do leave a bit to be desired. Basically, that means that the game is more than passable but shows a bit of its age-having undergone numerous delays and a number of revampings before it hit the market. 3.75 out of 5

      Playability: Though it has been tried a number of times, DCE is probably the first game that ever got the HUDless display right. There is no health meter, no ammo counters, and no crosshairs. Everything, then, is conveyed through story elements. When you take damage your breathing gets harder, you move slower, and your screen goes dim. When you shoot a gun you bring up its iron sights or else wing it from your hip. When there are enemies to worry about it's all relayed through internal dialogue (your character telling you stuff), positional audio, and dramatic music. It's all designed around a core theme: that the game is to be experienced more than played.
           Which, overall, is pretty well accomplished. All of the interactions, combats, and information gathering are done in-character and DCE manages to keep any of it from feeling stale. In other words, every time you discover a clue the story has a reason to put you there and have you discover it. Every time you need to find an object, or solve a puzzle, there is some way that it helps advance the plot. It's a nice feature, and is unquestionably the game's best quality.
           Sadly, it's also this biggest asset that ends up being it's most notable flaw. The game plays as though it's been written by a frustrated novelist intent on forcing the gamer to realize their unyielding vision for the game--forcing you to find THE (as in "the one") intended course of action in a sea of unexplored possibilities. It is easiest explained by simply referencing most of the first hour of play, which has you exploring a town full of side streets and dozens of doors leading to shops and various buildings, all of which are locked and inaccessible except for the ONE door that leads to the next scripted moment. This leaves you running back and forth endlessly within the town, past countless people and business that you really can't explore because the script says "right now you must be doing this and only this." Worse, the jumps between plot points are often long and insufficiently explained leaps, periodically shattering any suspension of disbelief the over-scripted game may have going for it and leaving you to simply try opening all of those doors to find what you should be doing next.
           But while linear plotlines and single-solution puzzles have long sense been the staple of video games, it often reaches a painful new low in Call of Cthulhu. Hyper-scripted well past the point of frustration, it's honestly shocking to find this kind of close-minded development in modern games. While the competition is adding a seemingly infinite number of side quests and exploration possibilities, variable puzzle solutions and multiple pathways through levels, DCE takes us back to the days of side-scroller-esque rigidity. This is especially true in many of the combats, which, reminiscent of the old Dragon's Lair games, are not about skill or entertainment, but about Simon Says-esque performances of pre-determined actions…often learned only through mind numbing and soul crushing repetition. Do this right now, then do that and only that, then run down this hall, now hide here and only here…and if you fail to do any of it exactly right you will die and be reset to do it all again.
            And while later game encounters do allow for some variability in their solution, often allowing you to decide between run and gun slag fests, stealthy Splinter Cell-esque shadow crawling action, or a combination of both, enough of it is so over scripted that I guarantee almost one controller hurl per session. 3 out of 5

      Story and Drama: Focusing on elements pioneered in the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper roleplaying game, DCE focuses on a 1920s world where a small Atlantic costal town has become dominated by a mysterious cult that participates in some kind of demonic worship involving human sacrifices. You play a private investigator who has been hired to find a boy who has gone missing from that town and follow leads that take you not only into the realm of the occult but also into the depths of insanity.
           This all focuses on the presence of a very plausible visceral, reaction from your straight and narrow character to the world he becomes immersed in. Over the course of the game he not only discovers dozens of dead bodies and some pretty heinous acts of cruelty, but also bears witness to a number of creatures that he believes to be demons.
          It's all conveyed through the game's insanity engine, which reacts dramatically to your witnessing any of these horrors. Dizziness, graying out, swooning, decreased physical performance, and even hallucinations are all forced upon you if you see too many things your poor little Ward Cleaver brain can't handle. It adds a really interesting level of depth to a story that is rich with intrigue and psychological horror. 5 out of 5

      Multiplayer and Replayability: There is no multiplayer, and the game is long enough that I can't imagine anyone replaying it…but since it's got dozens of hours of gameplay I can't fault it for either of those. No Rating.

      The Verdict:

       All in all, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a fun foray into an innovative design, but just doesn't do enough to really make it appealing. The overly-scripted combats and puzzles and lackluster graphics will frustrate almost as much as the killer story and exciting design intrigue.

      The Good: Great story, cool HUDless design, and neat insanity effects.

      The Bad: Too many overly-scripted events and dated graphics.

      The Overall Ugly: Fun but frustrating.

      What it's Worth: Buy it used.

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