I love the water and love swimming, but nothing freaks me out quite as much as the inky darkness of deep unknown waters. And no genre captures that quite as well as the Lovecraftian horror stories of unfathomable monsters sleeping deep below the sea.
“Call of the Sea” doesn’t fully dive into the admittedly problematic tropes of H.P. Lovecraft, but it does wade into the fear of the unknown, both in world around you and within yourself.
Set somewhere in the 1930s, in “Call of the Sea” you’ll play as Norah, a woman with a mysterious chronic illness who’s on the trail of her husband, Harry, and his expedition to a mysterious unnamed island in the South Pacific. Harry was on the hunt for a possible cure when his trail went cold and a mysterious package arrived at your door telling you to go to the island.
“Call of the Sea” plays out over several locations on the island, each distinct and colorfully detailed. There’s usually one central puzzle that will impede your progress with several smaller ones that will provide you with the knowledge needed to overcome the challenge. Along the way, you’ll find remnants of the expedition, notes from Harry and evidence of how things were fraying from the start.
Combined with excellent voice acting from Norah and Harry, it’s an engaging story that does a good job at conveying just what lengths Harry was willing to go to help Norah and what lengths Norah is willing to go to find out what happened to Harry and his expedition.
The puzzles themselves are clever, requiring the player to recognize symbols and pay attention to the environmental clues. See a symbol? What might it mean? How about that path? Looks like something’s missing here, right?
Often, puzzles in video games land on the two extremes of difficulty; either square peg in square hole easy or “I’m not sure how I’d even begin to imagine how this was solved” hard. “Call of the Sea” seems to find a happy middle ground for most of its puzzles, aided largely by an excellent notebook system where Norah will take note of the critical clues in the environment but leave you to piece them together.
If you’re missing something, there will be a tellingly blank space in her journal that will require you to continue to look around the environment for that last piece. Some of this can be a bit frustrating as there are a few places where clues need to be found a specific order or where clues don’t register even as you’re peering at them.
One of the other gripes I had with the game is Norah’s slow walking pace. Sure, it doesn’t make sense for her to be sprinting around the island and jumping off everything, but it can make a some of the later puzzles — particularly one that required a bit of trial and error before I figured the trick — feel like a chore.
Still, there is something to be said about slowing down and taking in your surroundings. And, gosh, those surroundings just look great in “Call of the Sea,” reminding me a bit of the idealized concept art you’ll see for movies. It’s almost like walking through a painting lush with details, color and emotion.
It’s here where the puzzles, the story and the environment all flow together into a great piece of storytelling. As the story unfolds, so do the puzzles and the environment. The initial sense of adventure is reflected with a calm and sunny landing on a white sands beach and the island turns dark and stormy as the grim reality of Harry’s lost expedition comes into focus. Just what happens after that, though, is for you to discover.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Play
Game: Call of the Sea
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Platforms: PC, XBox
Price: $20, Free with Xbox Games Pass subscription
Release Date: Dec. 8, 2020
ESRB Rating: Everyone