Review: Call of the Sea
Call of the Sea is the refreshing and unique take on cosmic Mythos horror that we need more of.
Call of the Sea is a narrative adventure game from new Spanish game studio Out of the Blue and released in December of 2020. This, of course, is not my usual media to review. It is not a tabletop RPG and it isn’t even a resource for such games. It’s not even based on a tabletop RPG As far as I know, this game is only available on X-Box and Windows platforms (including Steam) and is available for free from GamePass (as of this writing) I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but be warned that this review may contain some.
Anyone who has experience with Cthulhu Mythos narratives will find the game familiar in many ways. It takes place in the 1930s and it sits fairly square in the pulp adventure genre. The game itself is a narrative, puzzle based story where there are no enemies to combat, no health meters, and no resources to manage. You play as Norah, a sick woman looking for her missing husband in the Pacific and find yourself steeped in mystery and questions from the outset. All very familiar trappings for a Mythos tale. The artistic style lends itself very well to the awe that the game spends time to inspire within you, while also instilling some dread fairly frequently.
Call of the Sea is an incredible game. There is not much better way to put it than that. So good was it that I didn’t put it down until I finished (6 hours I think, maybe upwards of 8?) and I could not stop thinking about it even after I did. For that reason, I ended up taking notes about the game and resolved myself to write a review that I normally wouldn’t write. But let’s talk about why I loved this game so much.
First of all, the game does something that a lot of cosmic horror and Mythos games don’t do. It places itself in a genre of play that isn’t deadly and dangerous, instead focusing on the telling of the tale and getting you to relate and become the character. This allowed Out of the Blue to explore the themes of Mythos tales without the player getting lost or disconnected from that narrative with an overly long game, complex mechanics, or difficult bosses (fun as those things may be).
Instead I found myself wanting to know what was going on, looking for secrets and information about what happened to Norah’s husband and his crew. At many moments I “knew” what something was, but (as with all good Mythos stuff) I was never really sure if I was 100% right or in what way the things I knew about would manifest. Those mysteries, as much as the story, drove me to keep playing and looking for every interactable object. And, for the curious, this game has all the expected trappings of a 30s Mythos adventure: dark gods, strange monsters, magic and technology that shouldn’t work, mysterious changes, the confusion of someone delving too deep into things they shouldn’t know, odd visions of other worlds. It is all there.
Again spoiler alert because this next bit pretty much focuses on narrative twists and the ending.
Perhaps the best part about Call of the Sea is how refreshing all the other aspects of it were, not just the unique-to-Mythos game mechanics. First of all, much of the foundational work for Mythos tales (especially those by Lovecraft himself) were steeped in racism, bigotry, and xenophobia. Many stories can struggle to shed the presence of these things and it is far too often that writers just blame the era for being what it was. Out of the Blue does it and does it well. Norah begins weak and sick but comes out to the Pacific Ocean to find her husband anyway. She grows stronger and perseveres throughout, and I don’t recall a single instance of anyone saying she shouldn’t because she is a woman. Instead there are the very real “island of death” vibes from everyone to avoid where she’s going. No one should go there.
Beyond that we also get a story that is much less a delve into the madness of the narrator (Norah). Instead Norah follows the trail of her husband and we gain some familiarity with her. Norah is much like the real-life reader of Mythos story but, in this case, the story is being told by her husband whose writings and information become more erratic, desperate, and unfathomable as she finds them. This flips the concept of the unreliable narrator on its head allowing Norah’s story to transform into one of discovering herself and becoming a hero (a wonderful pulpy adventure aspect), only getting stronger, more confident, and more knowledgeable the deeper in she gets. All the while there is building unreliability and confusion from her husband. Not a single bit of it feels forced. It so smoothly does this that at one point Norah realizes she has forgotten why she is solving all of these puzzles. She is following the trail to find her husband, not to discover some lost tribe of fish-people, and in this moment I too found myself surprised realizing that she had, at some point, stopped speaking lines of worry for her husband.
Finally, and most spoilery of all, is the ending. The twist in this tale is a huge one I have not seen much of in Mythos stories. The unreliable narrator, Norah’s husband? Well the whole thing was set up by him and the clues started piling up from the prologue forward, you just never piece it together. But Norah does and realizes her husband discovered the truth of her family and gave her the tools to discover this truth and heal her illness. He would rather sacrifice his relationship with her to allow her to live a healthy life with her people. To make everything that built this story up and make it unique, Out of the Blue takes things one step further and gives you the one meaningful choice in the game: go back to your husband or embrace your heritage. Remain sick or get healthy. Despite the twist looking like everything was orchestrated by your husband (which in fairness it was but Norah definitely stole the show of figuring it all out and surviving), the game gives Norah the choice, the narrative authority. I really loved that.
And that’s the thing. This game is so much a Mythos tale. From unreliable narrator to horror you never see to dark pseudoscience-magic, it is all there. But while it is doing all of this, it deviates so well from much of the core Mythos experience in a way that reminds me how badly I need to get my hands on modern Mythos writers’ work. I know they’re out there and from what I have heard they are doing just this kind of work in written form. Nevertheless, I strongly suggest anyone who loves cosmic horror or the Mythos dive into this game. Anyone with a penchant for story telling and unique ways a story is told? Get it. Like narrative adventure/puzzle games? Get it. Honestly just grab this game when you can and play it through. It is worth your time.