Developed by new studio Out of the Blue, Call of the Sea is a Lovecraftian inspired narrative puzzle game with a strong focus on exploration and story. Set in the 1930s, you play as Norah, a woman with a mysterious, body-altering illness, as she uncovers the mystery of what happened to her husband, Harry, and his expedition on a mysterious Polynesian island. But are these mysterious mysteries mysteriously connected? Similar to games like Gone Home and Firewatch, you’ll have to search the island for clues and notes left behind to find the truth.
I’m currently reading a HP Lovecraft collection, so the most exciting aspect of Call of the Sea for me is the Lovecraftian influence in the story and environment. There are tense and disturbing moments as you uncover the fate of the crew that came before Norah and the madness that threatened to engulf them, along with Norah’s journey of self-discovery and the true reasons she was brought to the island. But it never becomes a horror game, unfolding more like a love story told with a cosmic horror tone. It works surprisingly well, with much of Norah’s fears caught between finding her husband before he succumbs to the island’s madness. It shows how much the writers ‘love their craft’, if you will. Okay, let’s forget I said that and move on.
The island itself is a beautiful cel-shaded work of art. I was surprised at the variation in landscapes — from the opening beach and the colourful underwater sections; to the towering stone temples and the eldritch dream sequences. And while the game is very much in ‘walking simulator’ territory, I rarely found it tedious as each level is dense with notes to read or murals to look at. I was driven to uncover as much as I could, and learn about what happened to Harry and his crew, as well as those who lived on the island long before.
The vast majority of the game is narrated through Norah’s internal dialogue. Games focused on a single character can fall flat if the voice actor isn’t up to par. Fortunately, Norah’s played by Cissy Jones who has an extensive career in gaming, like Firewatch and Half Life: Alyx. Jones’ delivery is outstanding, always nailing it whether she’s loving, confused or downright horrified. Even on the occasional moments where the script clunks with some dated language, she manages to make it sound natural.
Harry’s voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal (Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Castlevania), also provides an excellent performance, as he narrates Harry’s various letters left for Norah, as he searched the island for a cure to her illness and battles the madness that attacks his crew.
Call of the Sea isn’t just about exploration, but of course also puzzles. The game’s logic puzzles are mostly well made, providing plenty of clues, but never leaving me feeling like it held my hand. The simpler ones involve tasks like finding a series of symbols for Norah to record in her journal and figuring out what order to place them onto a totem, but they do get more complex and abstract further on; like arranging a device to form different constellations.
However, there is one puzzle towards the end of Chapter 4 that had me so frustrated I had to take a break. Twice. The clues gave the impression the puzzle was far more complex, seeming to require combining symbols to create new meanings; but actually, had nothing to do with that. It was the closest I’d come to experiencing the madness that pervades so many of Lovecraft’s characters.
But aside from that, the puzzles were manageable, requiring some thought or looking at them from different angles. It was immensely satisfying to figure out the more abstract puzzles. And if I was really stuck, I’d backtrack and find a clue that I’d missed, which was easy to realise thanks to empty slots in Norah’s journal.
If you love puzzle games and/or a strong narrative, Call of the Sea and its gorgeous island getaway is the perfect way to end the year. Despite one madness-inducing puzzle, I found the puzzles to be gratifying, and the story to be heartbreaking, heart-warming and disturbing in all the best ways, carried by an excellent cast of voice actors. A Lovecraftian love story sounds ironic, but as Norah says, “True love stories don’t end with a wedding. They end with a funeral.” (I swear that doesn’t sound THAT dark in-game).