The First World War demonstrated humanity’s capacity for self-destruction on a scale never before seen. The introduction of aerial combat, trench warfare, and chemical weapons, among other cruel innovations, contributed to a death toll that topped 15 million and left much of Europe an utterly devastated wasteland.
It’s fitting, then, that this grim setting should figure prominently in a game about unimaginable horrors. Rookie studio Red Wasp Design’s iOS release Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is the latest videogame foray into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Primarily a turn-based strategy game, The Wasted Land grew out of lead designer Tomas Rawlings’ work for Chaosium, publishers of the tabletop Call of Cthulhu RPG, and adapts some of that game’s systems. In both its mechanics and its aesthetics, The Wasted Land demonstrates keen reverence for the source material. Yet like Lovecraft’s work itself, it’s an uneven effort that oozes style and promise, but doesn’t fare as well under scrutiny.
The Wasted Land’s plot is adapted from one of the tales in Lovecraft’s series of Herbert West: Reanimator stories. Here, a German villain stands in for Dr. West, the American mad scientist who travels to WWI Europe for the endless supply of fresh corpses it provides for his insidious experiments. A group of intrepid British investigators, guided by occult expert Dr. Brightmeer, is charged with rooting out the German cult and dispatching the ancient horrors it has unleashed in the trenches. The player manages the Allied team, who are enjoyably characterized through in-mission dialogue text.
Character animations are impressively rendered, but even more striking are the maps, which fairly reek with the stench of corruption. Clouds of toxic gas billow over the muck of the blasted no-man’s-land between trenches and razor wire. The Cyclopean monsters you fight are appropriately icky, waving sickly green tentacles and emitting squishing sounds when they move. Like Lovecraft, Red Wasp understands the importance of atmosphere in horror.
Gameplay follows a familiar genre pattern. Units are granted Action Points each turn, which you can spend on a combination of movement, item use, and attacking. Preserving some points allows a character to employ Overwatch, a guard mode that lets him take a potshot at an approaching enemy on the enemy’s turn. More interesting is how The Wasted Land adapts the tabletop RPG’s Sanity system. Each investigator’s Sanity rating shrinks when getting hit by or shooting at a monster, or when casting a spell. At Sanity 0, your investigator will either freeze in fear, unable to act, or enter a manic state, granting you bonus Action Points for a turn until the unit collapses. In one of the most goofily endearing mechanics in recent memory, Sanity can be restored by another investigator “using” one of Freud’s psychoanalysis books on the panicking character.
Between missions, you can upgrade your investigators and their equipment with XP and cash earned from combat, although precisely how those stats are earned is unclear. No matter how much you upgrade your team, though, you always feel underpowered—which makes for tense and enjoyable encounters. Feeling overwhelmed in the face of eldritch horrors from beyond the stars is only appropriate for a Cthulhu game. But The Wasted Lands suffers from balance issues that often make it feel more frustrating than challenging.
Take spell-casting. Balancing spells with insanity is a neat idea, but spells fail far too often and are far too weak to be worthwhile. In every level, if one of your mission-critical characters (5 out of 6 in your party!) dies, you instantly fail. While the ability to roll back to a previous objective instead of having to restart the mission outright is appreciated, you can sometimes fail a mission before you start it by not bringing the right equipment—and the in-game economy isn’t robust enough to compensate if you buy the wrong stuff. There’s no fog of war on the maps, but the inability to zoom out makes for a lot of tedious scrolling. (Strangely, you can pinch to zoom in, which is largely unhelpful.) These factors and others contribute to several jarring difficulty spikes; achieving mastery sometimes feels like a process of trial and error rather than learning and adaptation. Progressing through the game, you get the sense that good ideas are present but more polish is needed before the systems function as smoothly as intended.
Those rookie stumbles manifest most tellingly in the final mission, which is better described as “absurd” than “difficult.” While attempting to navigate the tower defense-like path through obstacles like poison gas clouds and tentacle monsters, you’ll face multiple opponents who can one-hit-kill you, other monsters who can fire paralysis spells that ignore line of sight, entrenched machine gunners who get four shots at you per turn, constantly dwindling resources, and a 25-turn limit. Oh, and infinitely spawning enemies. At one point there were so many enemies on screen I had to wait more than three minutes for all of them to take their turns. On the fast speed setting. The frustration of multiple failures soon morphed into bemused chuckles. I half-expected a popup notification telling me I could spend real money on a game-breaking superweapon.
Perhaps the final mission is Red Wasp’s expression of Lovecraft’s vision: nothing can save the feeble mind of man from the horrors of the Old Ones. But it’s likelier a reflection of the kitchen-sink mentality of an inexperienced yet ambitious team: like the rest of the game, the last mission tries to do a little too much. Yet despite its unevenness, The Wasted Land is a striking debut from a promising small studio.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.