This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
As I detailed in part 1 of my epic 2-part Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstopper article, there’s a new regime in place at decades-old game company Chaosium and they’re doing their best to turn the company around. One of the new projects to emerge under the new regime is Cthulhu Chronicles, a mobile game developed by MetaArcade under licence.
In terms of its format, Cthulhu Chronicles is basically an extremely cheaply-produced visual novel – the artwork being either recycled from existing Chaosium resources or derived from public domain photographs from the 1920s (which can occasionally throw the player if you recognise that, say, Charles Fort has been cast as a prominent character). You pick your character who has a Health score measuring how much punishment they can take before expiring, a Sanity score detailing how much their mental stability can be shaken before they are unable to cope, and three basic skills to cover all areas of human activity – Athleticism for physical stuff, Intelligence for mental stuff, and the highly misleadingly-named Appearance for social stuff. When attempting something challenging you can be obliged to make a roll against Athleticism, Intelligence, Appearance, or occasionally Sanity, with your odds of success being based in part on your score in those attributes and in part on the difficulty of the test.
Currently, Cthulhu Chronicles offers only one campaign in nine episodes – a set of adventures in “Lovecraft country” (Lovecraft’s invented territory around Arkham) that tell a continuous story across their span – but more campaigns are promised in future. The monetisation bit of the game works like this: when you first install the game you get three free trials, and you get an extra one per day. Each trial allows you a single attempt to complete a single episode; if you quit or fail, you still lose the trial. If you are not patient enough to just wait for your free trials to recharge, you can buy tickets; if you spend tickets to unlock an episode, that episode is yours to attempt as much as you like forever. This can be especially useful with particularly finicky episodes which play through near-identically until you hit the decision point where you died, or episodes which require a lot of trial and error to successfully complete.
Sam Riordan at MetaArcade seems to have largely been in charge of the adaptation – he gets a co-writing byline on all the scenarios, and all the scenarios not directly based on an adventure published by Chaosium are credited solely to him. Unfortunately, not all episodes are created equal, and episodes which Riordan had to write himself end up being rather linear in comparison to most of the episodes that are based on existing Chaosium-published adventures – though in some cases Riordan radically reshapes the scenario in question to make it fit better into the overarching storyline, and usually it’s to the detriment of interesting gameplay.
Blackwater Creek, in particular, is almost unrecognisable from the original module, which is vastly less linear and scripted than the offering we get here. (And there’s really no excuse there for the lack of branching pathways; it’s the last module in the series, so there’s no subsequent module which depends on a specific outcome being arrived at in Blackwater Creek.) I can’t help note that the episode in which you seem to have the most freedom of action and meaningful choices is Alone Against the Flames, which of course was originally developed as a solo adventure and so is ready for easy conversion to this format. One suspects that Riordan found himself facing a crunch and thus just put in a bunch of linear railroad track for the sake of getting the job done.
Another thing Riordan does is that he throws sequences of stat tests at you, some of which can just cause you to automatically lose if you get them wrong. This is deeply annoying because, whilst a real-life referee in person can judge when a dice roll will help up the tension and make things more fun and when it will just be obstructionist and frustrating; in Cthulhu Chronicles it’s all automated so there’s no point where that judgement can be exercised in play, so it falls to designers being conservative about their placement of such rolls at the point of design – unless, of course, the intention is to stimulate ticket sales by making it migrane-inducingly difficult to get through some episodes. I can understand the economic necessity there, but it’s an unfortunate example of the economic model of the game undermining as opposed to supporting the goal of delivering a high-quality play experience.
On the whole, then, the current Cthulhu Chronicles campaign isn’t quite there yet. I can see potential in the format, but unfortunately Riordan doesn’t quite deliver on that potential. Some points are deserved for including nonbinary characters and gay relationships as plot points (and, in addition, a whole bunch of women), though it feels like a slightly tokenistic exercise – a lazy game designer’s way of gaining some inclusivity points without actually delving any deeper into the subject matter in question or, for that matter, grasping the nettle of the really thorny representation issue as it relates to Lovecraftian fiction set in the 1920s – namely, that of race. (I chose the pregenerated character who’s an Egyptian antiquarian and so far as I can tell racial politics never came up once.) If you are going to try and make an inclusive Lovecraft game, maybe try incorporating some important black characters here and there?
It took a weirdly long time to bring out the Android version, given that it’s an episodic visual novel with a ticket and free trials system – this is a technologically solved problem and not exactly something which it is complicated or awkward to implement on Android, given how many other apps on Android use the exact same model. The only way I can rationalise this is a simple shortage of personnel at MetaArcade to work on the thing – and as such, whilst I will be interested to look at the next campaign when it comes out, I don’t expect it to come quickly. Indeed, I hope it doesn’t – because if it’s rushed then it’ll end up with the same gameplay flaws as the existing one.