Review - Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (DOS, 1994)
When Lord Boleskine visited the small New England town of Ilsmouth, he hadn't a clue of the terrifying sights he would see. All he wanted was a good place to view Halley's Comet, and he ended up witness to some sort of diabolic ritual which culminated in the appearance of a ... Well, almost no one knows for sure what he saw, and those who do won't tell, but whatever it was, it cost Boleskine his sanity. He wound up locked away, while his drawings were donated to the British museum.
All this frightening stuff happens 76 years before the opening of I-Motion's Shadow of the Comet. This game is the first of a new series developed with Chaosium, Inc. based on their Call of Cthulhu paper-and-pencil role playing game, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I-Motion's interest in Lovecraft goes back to the original Alone in the Dark game, but when that series developed its own direction, the designers created this new channel so they could continue adapting the Cthulhian stories.
The player is John T. Parker, a British photojournalist who has become interested in the story of Lord Boleskine. He convinces his publisher to send him to Ilsmouth...just in time for the next appearance of Comet Halley. The plan is to take pictures of the sky on that critical night, and hopefully record some of the bizarre sightings that Boleskine described in his journal.
On his arrival, Parker is greeted by the town's seemingly friendly officials, but you don't have to be listening to the creepy background music to sense that there's something screwy going on around here. The longer Parker stays in town, and the more people he talks to, the more menacing the situation becomes. The majority of the citizens are obviously hostile to his presence, some homicidally so.
Shadow of the Comet is a funky little mixed bag. It's not what you'd call a terribly active game. Most of the time, the player just has to be in the right place at the right time to overhear the right conversation. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But also, the gameplay is a bit limited and extremely linear. The events in the game do not happen along their own timeline. Rather, that timeline is completely dependent on when you accomplish certain tasks. So, don't worry about being "too late" to catch an conversation. It won't happen until you're ready for it.
As befits its literary origins, this is not so much a game as a roundabout way of telling a story. Don't get me wrong, the story itself is a fascinating one. The sense of menace is captured very well by the ever-present ominous soundtrack. The character graphics are also highly effective in creating a sense of dread, without the dialogue itself having to be terribly threatening. No one in Ilsmouth looks innocent. To further drive this point home, the conversations are usually enhanced by character close-ups overlaying the still distant backgrounds. It's a good thing, too. Without these close-ups, you might not realize that your landlord is a dead ringer for Vincent Price.
At times, however, it seems that the lovely graphics are at odds with the overly simplified interface. Many of the buildings in town are shown at an attractive 3/4 angle, but player character Parker can only move in four directions. This makes for a lot of awkward and unnecessary maneuvering just to go through a door. And no, you can't just click the mouse and show him where to go. He has to be dragged by the nose every step of the way, and sometimes even THAT doesn't work. Occasionally, the graphics show an obviously open doorway that you might want to walk through. Then, when you get there, a close up shows Parker knocking on a closed door (!) and when no one answers, he doesn't even try to enter. You should have more control over your own character than that.
The voice characterizations are also quite inconsistent. While many of the voices really help to bring the population of Ilsmouth to life, every now and then you get one that sounds like a Junior High theater audition. Occasionally this inconsistency even stretches to different lines by (supposedly) the same character. But maybe I'm being too quick to judge. Maybe there's a possession subplot I don't know about. Or maybe there should have been a bit more playtesting involved...
Admittedly, I'm picking nits here. But in a game of this sort, atmosphere is everything, and consistency is important to establishing atmosphere. Shadow of the Comet is an admirable first try for I-Motion's Call of Cthulhu line, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe we can expect more in the second attempt, Prisoner of Ice.