Like many people I’ve met or talked to in the gaming community, I’m a fan of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Setting aside the author himself – since he was an objectively terrible person filled with rampant misogyny and overt racism – the stories he wrote and the mythos ingrained into them changed the landscape of both literature and horror for the better, and left a legacy that still writhes its way into popular culture in nearly every medium. Books, movies, games, television shows, musical acts, and more have all drawn from the deep chasm of source material Lovecraft left in the wake of his writings. One of the latest examples of this is Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, a tactics-RPG borrowing from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG.
I think part of the problem with adapting the Cthulhu mythos so much is that, at some point, we hit a level of saturation that’s caused the horror of it all to become watered down. The original stories all hinged on a degree of imagination, of allowing the reader to fill in the blanks for creatures out of nightmare that defied description; Lovecraft himself never put together a lot of truly descriptive text for most of his creations, preferring to allow us to each dream up our own interpretations and internal variations on the eldritch beings that lurked in the shadows of his tales. This tactic, obviously, does not translate into more concrete media such as video games, which rely on graphical representations of these creatures, and that’s the one of the problems I ran into with Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. The creatures here, by and large, simply aren’t that terrifying in their depictions.
The biggest problem I had with The Wasted Land, though, was a really, really important one when we’re discussing anything that’s derived from a literary source: the writing. A cheesy story built from poorly-scripted dialogue and ham-fisted British accents to attempt fit into the World War I setting falls very flat, and that’s unfortunate because I think the setting and the mythos have a lot to offer, if done right. It really seemed like the action plan here was to throw in a couple of “jolly goods” or other vaguely British terms for the sake of preserving an idea, more than actually sticking to a real theme, which ends up being a distraction and takes away from the overall experience.
However, we’re primarily talking about a tactical game here, not a book; we can overlook the writing as long as the gameplay is great, right? Of course we can! However, the gameplay in The Wasted Land wasn’t good enough for me to do that. Sure, there’s some solid stuff going on here and the landscape you’re navigating, rife with trenches, pits, burned-out churches, and so forth is solidly designed, but the underlying mechanics don’t really hit a home-run and the tendency of any given mission to suddenly and unexpectedly turn the battle one way or another builds a scenario where there’s almost certainly a “right way” to approach any given battle, and it’s one that can only be found through lengthy trial-and-error rounds of feeling your way through the game’s convulsions.
It may sound like I’m completely panning Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land here, and maybe I am, but there was some fun to be had while playing. It just ended up becoming more of a tedious task, trying the same mission a few times until I could get it “right” and get through. I’m not a tactical genius or anything, but I know my way around the genre and usually find that there’s a lot of was to approach most of them, and that doesn’t seem to hold up here. Add in that the majority of your party are central to the plot and force a restart if they die, and you give up one of the most compelling aspects of the Cthulhu RPG, the inevitable mortality of everyone who stands against the tentacled beasts from the depths. Still, for a meagre $4.99 investment on Steam, this could be a welcome addition for the Lovecraft addict who just can’t get enough of the universe – but I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone else.
[+Good terrain and environment] [+Decent tactical game] [-Forced, poorly written story] [-Lots of replaying to find the ‘right’ way] [-It’s just not Lovecraft without eminent fear of death]