Thursday, 15 August 2013

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

I got very excited when I heard about Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, which is a game set firmly in the world of  HP Lovecraft - an American writer from the 1920s and 30s who wrote short stories about Old Gods, unspeakable horrors and lands beyond dreams.  He was obsessed with madness, with things living in the shadows of our perception which hate humanity with an intensity that is inconceivable to our mortal minds; powerful, ancient, horrific things determined to destroy our world and everything in it.  You can see why I was excited.

The game itself is a turn-based strategy game; much like Xcom (or, indeed, X-Com), Fire Emblem or Advance Wars.  Each side take turns moving all of their "pieces", and action points determine how much each character can do during those turns.  Moving, attacking or using items all costs a specified number of points and once your characters have used all of these up then it's time for the other side to have a go.  There are no time limits on how long you can take to plan out your moves, you can think for as long as you like, and so this kind of game is well suited to playing on the go.

You control a team of up to 6 characters, some of whom have to survive each mission whilst others are a bit more expendable, and they all have varied skills and attributes.  There are different weapon skills which determine how effective you are with the different weapon types (handguns, shotguns, rifles, machine guns and stabby things), there are skills which govern healing or being able to put a gas mask on properly and there's even a "psychotherapy" skill - because first world war trenches are apparently an ideal place for a bit of person-centred counselling.

In addition to this characters can also use different equipment such as weapons, armour or the ubiquitous first aid boxes.  All of these can also be upgraded later in the game, although there is only one stronger variant for each type of weapon which is a little bit disappointing.  On the other hand there are four different types of armour, various spells and the Sapper can even call in artillery – so there’s a fair amount of options available to you. 

The Wasted Land is split into 11 different tactical missions, with some basic exposition in between, and pits the player against an evil German cult determined to bring the Old Gods back to Earth so that they can destroy humanity and enable a new world to rise from the ashes (Mwuahaha!).  Not the greatest or wisest plan I've ever heard but you know, cultists gonna cult.  Your team, on the other hand, are a nice mix of down to earth Tommies "Crikey! That chap's already dead!" and more mysterious blighters like the extravagantly turbaned Professor Brightmeer.  The action is set across the trenches, no man's land and destroyed churches of First World War France but with Lovecraftian elements added in.  So your characters can cast spells, encounter nasty slobbering monsters or be driven stark raving mad by the horrors they experience.  Lovecraft was an amazingly creative writer and the story and setting is one of the best things about this game.  It uses this very well and it fits perfectly with the gritty realities of trench warfare.  If I wanted to be pretentious I could talk about how the lines of reality are already blurred when man can be so brutal to his fellow man - but it certainly allows for the supernatural to gradually take over the story in a way that might seem jarring elsewhere.  The difficulty level is reasonable, I didn't have many problems in completing it apart from one particular issue which I'll talk about later and money isn't plentiful to the point of being meaningless but still allows you to buy upgrades for your stuff.

It's a strong fashion statement

However it's not all ballgowns, tiaras and the reawakening of primordial forces who should have been left to their eternal slumber.  The game did, admittedly, stand up to some of my basic "is this a rubbish game?" tests (you can't call in artillery underground) but it also suffers from a number of actually quite important problems. To start with, let's look at the whole insanity thing.  In the original pen and paper RPG "Call of Cthulhu" your character had a Sanity attribute and every time they met up with something slimy they lost points from this until, eventually, they went irredeemably insane.  However, in Wasted Land madness is sometimes a good thing and while this may be striking a blow for mental health advocacy it also comes across as pretty contrived.  Here lots of things affect sanity - casting spells, attacking monsters, monsters attacking you etc. and once this gets to 0 you are either paralysed or go into a frenzy – during which you actually get lots more action points for a few turns before you collapse.  This is explained by Prof. Brightmeer teaching you some yoga or something which at least fits in with the milieu but still means that madness is just a temporary state of mind.  And, not only this, but you can be cured at any time by somebody psychoanalysing you - even in the middle of a gas-filled trench surrounded by the shambling dead.  Sanity is treated as just another health bar and it says a lot that in a game full of evil cultists, opponents from beyond the grave and indescribable horror this was the bit which stood out as unrealistic.

The tactics side of things also feels a bit light.  To start with, there are LOADS of enemies.  On some missions I was killing upwards of 60 opponents and this means that it all becomes a bit of a grind.  Most of them have to close to clawing range before doing any damage and so it can feel like you're shooting ducks at the fairground on occasion.  They shuffle towards you, you shoot the closest one, some more appear and repeat to fade.  That's not to say that it lacks challenge, you often have to think about how to manage the situation, but the endless array of attackers that pop up only to be quickly knocked back down can be wearing.  The enemy AI is also not great, and they will often walk straight through a gas cloud - killing themselves before you even get the chance to plunge a sharpened entrenching tool into their rotten chest. 

However the biggest, and almost game-breaking, problem I had with the Wasted Land was how enemies spawn.  There seem to be a number of trigger points on the map and once you reach those points then opponents appear.  The problem is that they appear at the start of their own turn, sometimes right next to you, and will often kill your characters without you being able to do anything about it.  This directly lead to me failing a couple of missions and was an immensely frustrating part of the game.  Eventually you come to expect it, and leave all your characters on opportunity fire to try and combat it, but it's still just really shoddy game design and shouldn't happen. 

So it's strange that, even though all of these problems undoubtedly exist and even though they were definitely really annoying I still quite enjoyed playing this game.   Now this may be because I was on public transport for a lot of it and the game's cast of shambling horrors and reanimated corpses were more enticing than what was actually around me.  It may also be that its turn-based, strategy-lite approach fitted perfectly with what I wanted from a game at that time but I admit that I had no strings attached, uncomplicated fun with it and that is something you should never, ever turn your nose up at.  I mean, the game costs £2.99 or something, the Professor's magnificent turban is worth that on its own.

The Wasted Land is available on iOS, Android and PC.  I played it on a Nexus 7.