The difference between clever and cunning.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lovecraftian Indie Horror

Cosmic Horror is a genre that emphasizes the fear of the unknown and the  unknowable. While not necessarily the first or even best H.P. Lovecraft is considered the genre’s figurehead and founder. Pop culture knows him for his most recognizable creation: the monstrous, slumbering, squid-god Cthulhu. The sleeping cephalopod master of sunken Rl’yeh is so iconic that simply slapping tentacles on something has become shorthand for “ancient, unfathomable evil.” (See the first Hellboy movie, D&D’s mindflayers, and countless other examples.)

Most of Lovecraft’s stories end with his protagonists insane or worse from the mind-shattering entities and implications they encounter. Cosmic horror is about being an insignificant spec in the face of incomprehensible malevolent forces that can’t fought, can’t be stopped, and can’t even be understood without melting your brain. So as you might imagine it’s a difficult concept to build a game around.

At their core most games are about building power, exercising control, and mastering a comprehensible set of rules to achieve success. Concepts like insanity are tough to convey effectively through game mechanics and it’s hard to pit the player against unkillable alien god-monsters in a way that feels fair, much less entertaining.  This hasn’t stopped some intrepid developers from giving it a shot, with varying levels of success. We’re going to take a look at two indie games and their very different takes on Lovecraft’s dark vision.

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land” is a tactical, turn-based RPG set during World War One. The pulpy story pits a squad of British soldiers, adventurers, and mystics against cultists, shambling zombies, and a host of classic Lovecraft Mythos monsters pouring into the Western Front. Weapons, armor, and equipment are all pulled from the time period. 

Trench Warfare

The game plays like a lite version of the X-Com franchise, spending Action Points to move your squad around the map and attack enemies. A basic cover and over-watch mechanic helps keep battles tactically interesting. Other elements are heavily simplified in the name of accessibility. There’s no ammo or weapon maintenance to keep track if. Characters are unable to go prone and you can safely blast away with shotguns and machine guns from the back of your formation without worrying about friendly fire. 

Enjoy defending a trench while you can. Later missions have you pushing across no-man's land.
The Wasted Land is also a short game. The campaign features less than a dozen missions, including a few very short dream sequences. Most missions have you advancing slowly through small maps, beating down waves of enemies that spawn in from all directions. Poison gas, time limits, underground areas (where artillery doesn’t work), and the occasional defensive stand provide much needed variety. The timed missions are arguably the best, forcing you to keep moving forwards and not pick your enemies apart from a distance. 

Later levels start to feature a lot of rushes by bullet sponge melee bruisers. With elephant guns, point-blank shotgun blasts, and artillery strikes in the mix the game needs them just to give you something to focus fire on. Against the background of WW1 it’s hard to argue against humans being brutally effective killers able to match even lesser Mythos creatures. In “The Wasted Land” Lovecraft’s monsters are vulnerable to guns if the guns are big enough.

Shell Shocked

While ripping apart the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath with massed machine-gun fire isn’t quite in the spirit of the source material The Wasted Land does show that confronting Mythos creatures takes a mental toll. Attacking or being attacked by monsters drains sanity. Spells, while powerful, also cost the caster a hefty number of sanity points. Insane characters can freeze up in terror (which is bad) or go berserk and gain a massive speed and attack rate increase for a few turns.

Massed zombie attacks push body and mind to the breaking point.
Dealing with sanity becomes an interesting tactical consideration. When his sanity drains away a berserk machine-gunner can mow down an entire pack of lumbering lobster-mutants. He can just as easily freeze up and be devoured. Insanity eventually disables a character but the short term boost it provided turned the tide of more than one desperate encounter. 

A character with the appropriate skill and a psychology book can restore lost sanity points, which I like to imagine involves simply smacking the patient with the book while shouting “Snap out of it!” In later missions a designated combat psychologist becomes as much a necessity as a medic, if not more so. A few rounds of holding off skittering gribblies is all it takes to reduce a character’s brain to mush without Psychiatric support.

Over The Top

Between missions you can buy new equipment and spend accumulated XP to upgrade stats and skills. Oddly enough all XP is dumped into a common pool where it can be spent on any character. This means it’s pretty easy to max out someone’s primary weapon skill early in the campaign, playing havoc with the difficulty curve. I’m not sure why XP isn’t evenly split between your squad but doing so would have helped pace character progression.

Dialog is more on the pulpy end of the spectrum.
I played The Wasted Land on PC but the game was originally made for the iOS. It shows in the form of an uneven port. The Character and Inventory screens would sometimes be go completely black, requiring a game restart to fix. The sound-track also tended to cut in and out at random. These bugs were annoying but not game breaking.

I had fun playing The Wasted Land, and I appreciate developers Red Wasp making a PC port. It stacks up better in its native mobile environment than in competition with similar PC games like X-Com though. Additional content beyond the single short campaign would have also added a lot of value.

Reasons to Play: Accessible “X-Com lite” gameplay. Tactically meaningful Sanity mechanic. Solid use of WW1 setting.

Reasons to Pass: Short campaign. Uneven PC port. Some tactical elements can be considered over-simplified. 

Eldritch is First Person action-adventure game that successfully combines Roguelike mechanics with elements of the Lovecraft mythos, with just a dash of Minecraft for flavor. Roguelikes, if you’re not familiar with the term, are a style of game that generally features randomized levels, high difficulty, and perma-death. Being plunged into an unknown but hostile environment full of lurking danger is certainly in the spirit of Lovecraft, so I have to give Eldritch a point right off the bat. 

Strange, Far Places

Each playthrough begins by dropping your nameless character into a mysterious library, complete with tutorial messages, bits of lore, and a few other amenities. Once you’ve gotten the basics of movement and item use down a set of ominously glowing books tempt further investigation. Each book serves to whisk you away to a series of self contained worlds loosely based off the dark gods of Lovecraft’s stories.

From there you’ll shank happily burbling fishmen, flee nameless horrors immune to your paltry weapons, and haggle with surprisingly dapper Star-Spawn over the price of dynamite you need to blast a path to the exit. Or you can murder the inhuman merchant, help yourself to his inventory, and use your newly acquired tinning kit to eat his corpse. While options in the Lovecraft Mythos are usually limited to “Die hideously” or “Go mad” Eldritch grants the player a pleasing level of freedom to meet its challenges.

Cultists and lesser enemies are vulnerable to the classic knife-tickle.
You’re restricted to a mere two weapons (including expendable stuff like dynamite) and a single spell at a time. A few slots for equipment like boots and amulets grant additional abilities, but Eldritch doesn’t bother with RPG style character development. The right equipment or spell will let you tunnel through walls, levitate across a room or create new blocks to form makeshift stairs and seal up enemies. There’s always a way over, under, through, or around any obstacle if you’re properly equipped.

Thoughts and Dreams

Block-based modular levels aside Eldritch should not be confused with Minecraft or its various imitators. While items and abilities exist that let you destroy and create blocks you don’t start with them and there’s always an associated cost. This is a game about exploration and survival, not building things. A well designed map helps tremendously, letting you see the general area you’ve explored and pointing out major features like exits and shops but leaving hidden nooks for you to discover on your own.

Head on attacks are a bad idea.
Movement is a high mobility affair, reminding me a bit of the old Thief series. You can crouch, jump, sprint, sneak, slide, mantle up low ledges, and lean around corners. Falling damage can kill but never feels unfair. Scrambling, sliding, and climbing around the environment is a tactile joy. 

Stealth and mobility are preferable over direct combat. Sound queues help you track enemy location and alertness level.  Mercifully you’re faster than most creatures and those that can be killed are vulnerable to sneak attacks. Creature loot is generally paltry, and looting the body makes them re-spawn nearby in short order. You don’t necessarily need to get your own hands dirty though. Some enemy types will fight one another and one rampaging Shoggoth can clear most of a level for you if you can stay out of its way. 

Level layout gets quite vertical. Watch your step.
Madness and Death

The difficulty level is high but not impossible. One or two bad decisions can easily set you from well equipped with full health to dead. Your character is fragile and can’t carry healing items for later use. The “Weeping Angel” inspired statues are particularly brutal and will likely kill you a few times before you figure out how they work. 

Death, when it invariably comes at the psuedopods of some gibbering horror, wipes your progress and re-randomizes the worlds. Banked artifacts (which fuel your special abilities and can be spent as currency at shops) are saved and unlocked worlds remain unlocked, but that’s it. Anything you’re carrying is lost, including the maguffins you need to complete the game.

Do not taunt happy-fun-shoggoth.
It is very much to Eldritch’s credit that deaths made me want to jump back in and try again, now armed with the knowledge of whatever killed me, rather than snap my keyboard in half. Most were due to carelessness and overconfidence or not understanding some new hazard. Though you can visit unlocked worlds in any order you’ll likely want to start with the first one each time to properly equip yourself for the challenges of the later. Difficulty spikes sharply as the world’s progress. Eldritch isn’t a very long game, but the randomization and high difficulty give it a lot of replay value.

The Thing on the Hard Drive

Descending through the depths is a matter of constantly balancing exploring for resources VS risking damage and death. Sometimes it is safer to make a rush for the exit and not chance blundering into something horrible. Other times it’s better to carefully sneak and backstab your way past enemies, carefully evading and disarming traps. Learning to read the environment and balance risk and reward on the fly is the key to survival and success.

Eldritch lacks a sanity mechanic (not that one would necessarily have improved this type of gameplay), and the slightly cartoony graphics don’t do much to inspire dread at first. The sound work is wonderfully atmospheric though and you’ll quickly learn to identify nearby creatures and other elements long before you see them. There’s also a certain pucker factor to being cornered by a roiling mass of ravenous, indestructible flesh or picking your way through a group of slumbering ten-foot squid beasts.  Scattered journals and the fact that your character re-incarnates after each death hint that you may not be entirely mortal yourself. 

The free "Mountains of Madness" expansion gets downright unsettling at the mountain's core.
If you have any tolerance for the Roguelike genre Eldritch is an easy game to recommend, packed with challenge, replayability, and character. If you hate losing progress the game will likely make for a more stressful than enjoyable experience. With strange eons even death may die, but Eldritch will send you to your doom far earlier and more frequently than that. 

Reasons to Play: Entertaining mix of Roguelike mechanics and Lovecraft Mythos. Excellent First-Person movement and exploration. Wide range of effective tools and tactics. Strong sound design. Giant Penguin VS Shoggoth fights.

Reasons to Pass: High difficulty and punishing death penalty for players unused to Rogue-like gameplay. Slightly cartoony graphics and most creature design not particularly horrifying.



Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.