When I reviewed the fabulous The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games from Bitmap Books a while back, I homed in on a couple of games I know, a couple I liked the look of but have never played and one I didn’t know at all but would like to play next, and even do a bit of a deep-dive into if it was any good… That game was Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, and obviously it was! Aside from the glorious double-page screenshot that caught my eye in the book, and the subsequent, surprisingly pleasing asking price of 95p, which gave me the game on PC using DOSBox via Steam, there were a couple of other attractions, namely H.P. Lovecraft (and I’m talking his horror works rather than some of his questionable views, just to be clear!) and the titular comet, Halley’s Comet.
We’ll start with Lovecraft though, and in particular his Cthulhu mythos, upon which the game is based. His fast-paced, fussily-gothic writing style has always been a bit of an inspiration, and while he’s not my favourite author of the gothic horror genre (see M.R. James for that), I can see where Stephen King was coming from when he called him the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale. His best-known work, The Call of Cthulhu, originally published as a short story in Weird Tales magazine in 1928, has always been a favourite though (especially when it’s got a 3D cover and comes with 3D glasses!), with its ancient unseen, unspoken, unfathomable and unconquerable cosmic evils conjuring their terror through the futility of facing up against them as much as simply being scary monsters!
It was a totally different medium that no doubt brought Lovecraft back to the forefront of my mind as I was reading about all that pointing and clicking though, when I finally decided to have a go at Arkham Horror: The Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games. Serious nerd stuff it is too! It’s a cooperative card game based on the H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, although it also plays great solo, which means you don’t have to mix with any real nerds to enjoy it, just like I didn’t! I actually got it for Christmas 2021 but honestly was a bit intimidated by its complexity, so over Christmas the following year I worked it all out and had a bit of a trial run, then I watched a couple of tutorial videos, and now I’ve done the first campaign scenario for realsies. And it was a blast! You investigate, you fight, you move, you learn skills and gain assets, you encounter and you strategise to progress the cosmic horror and your slide into inevitable madness. You’re soon in a decent flow too, not checking the quick-start guide or extensive rule set every ten seconds anymore, and the story unfolds to an ingenious conclusion (and tough decision) in about an hour (which is about how long it also takes to set up then put away), and then carries over to the other included, connected scenarios. It’s all of a decent quality, although I’d like some more practical storage in the box for the two hundred cards and dozens of tokens. That aside, I’m not really into this stuff, but I like what’s here a lot so just wanted to take the opportunity to record the love somewhere!
That’s kind of why I want to quickly dive into Halley’s Comet here too because the opportunity to shoehorn it in to one of my retro-gaming tales is almost as rare as its fleeting appearances every seventy-six years or so! And yes, I know I effused about the 1986 arcade game of the same name when we looked at both the Taito Milestones collection on Nintendo Switch and the the Taito Egret II Mini here but I don’t think I can put myself through getting good enough at it to see enough of it to be able to write about it standalone! Anyway, the last appearance of the comet itself was in early 1986, and at the time was the biggest thing since Live Aid! Of course, it had been around the block many times throughout history by then, from being attributed as the nativity star followed by the three wise men to appearing in the Bayeux Tapestry, but I guess everyone knew about it this time. By the end of 1985 it was already constantly being referenced on TV, in the news, in magazines and everywhere else (not least by the end of the world fruitcake brigade), and to the nerdy kid in school (where history and science teachers were also in on the act) all those books on the shelves of WHSmith telling you how to see it were going to be Christmas essentials that year!
I ended up with a bunch of these books, some from pocket money but the best of all was one of my all-time favourite Christmas presents… Or should have been! The Halley’s Comet Pop-Up Book by none other than Patrick Moore (yes, he of the cyborg head fame in GamesMaster) was exactly that, full of history, science and all the information the amateur comet spotter needed to see it. And one of the pop-up objects was a telescope with a film strip you could look at through it. It was amazing! Except the telescope had a tear in it. Of course, these were the days when the shops were going to be shut until the 27th, and until the joyful moment when I could exchange it, that was forty-eight hours of torture owning this brilliant present that wasn’t perfect and might never be. Until it thankfully was. Good old WHSmith!
Right, we’ve dallied long enough! Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet was developed and published by Infogrames for MS-DOS in 1993; there are PC-98 and Linux versions too but no idea when they came along. From what I can gather, it was originally just called Shadow of the Comet and also didn’t have mouse support – you just used the arrow keys together with dedicated action keys to get stuff done, which I wish I’d known sooner but we’ll come back to that! Somewhere along the way we did get mouse control though, meaning we can refer to it as a proper point-and-click adventure game for our purposes here! I believe the graphics were also souped-up and “voice-acting” was added at the same time, so I assume we’re talking about the later CD rerelease (where the original was on floppy disk). And we can also assume that’s the one we’re discussing here! It’s all set during the previous visit of Halley’s Comet in 1910, and our star of the show, a British photographer called John Parker, is visiting the New England town of Illsmouth (a play on Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, of course) to get some pics. And the reason he’s gone to all that trouble is because during the comet’s previous-previous visit in 1834, a guy called Lord Boleskine decided that was the best place on Earth to see it thanks to certain “conditions” in the vicinity. The trouble is that while he was enjoying the view he got a bit too involved in the other local stuff as well, went totally insane and spent the rest of his days in a lunatic asylum! Years later, after getting clued up on the incident, our man Parker decides he’ll pick up the cause but no sooner has he arrived than he stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy and needs to try and survive the three days until the comet arrives while also gradually uncovering Cthulhu’s curse and putting a stop to the incoming simultaneous arrival of the Ancient Ones with nefarious plans for a big old doomsday…
When I said earlier that obviously the game turned out to be good otherwise you wouldn’t be reading about it, that wasn’t necessarily always the case! In fact, the first fifteen minutes or so didn’t go well at all, but having set my mind on covering the game in more detail here, I decided to start noting down my experiences so I could at least share something somewhere – a kind of diary, if you will, so I’m going to share that with you pretty much word-for-word now because apart from anything else it actually covers a lot of what I’d have said later anyway but with a lot more brevity!
First impressions: Some beautiful imagery from the get-go… A lighthouse, an owl, a lunatic asylum, lots of comets… Bonkers voice acting. Makes Silent Hill sound Oscar-worthy. So bad it’s more than good! The script they’re reading from doesn’t seem to be terrible though. You’ve heard what everyone has to say long before the captions next to their big weird heads have caught up so there’s a lot of waiting around, although when you’ve got a close-up of someone speaking that does mean you’re treated to them being frozen with some weird expression on their giant faces while they wait too!
Point, click, hold the mouse button down takes a bit of getting used to for movement. The music would be at home on an Amiga. Simple, menacing melodies. Right click brings up a load of icons. No idea what they mean yet but they do seem to make the game freeze too for long periods. Maybe they’re waiting for their own captions somewhere unseen. Now seems to be totally stuck. Can’t do anything except right-click to get the icons. Need to read some instructions… In the course of my own eldritch investigations I’ve learnt that I’ve already got them and they’re hidden away in the game directory! Okay, there’s keyboard controls too. Will try those. And pressing enter scrolls through conversations so I can start the game again and get back to where I was last frozen pretty quick. And I’m frozen again. It’s every time I try and pick up the telegram on the table in the room where you first gain control. How about I pick up something else?
Hooray! Right, we’re finally on our way. I know what the icons mean now, and I’ve got a list of keyboard controls although I’m getting pretty fluent with the mouse controls too, clicking right to do what enter does with the keyboard and skip through captions I’ve already heard, and I think it’s time to actually try and play the game! It’s running in DOSBox in Steam and I’m not sure how stable that all is on my laptop so I’ll take it as a hint I need to save regularly, and also make sure I’m saving when there’s no busy egg timer doing its thing where the mouse pointer is supposed to be! Clues all read now, I’m out of the first door and by the time I’ve been through a couple more I’ve worked out there’s subtle white lines on the edges of the screen where you can move to next if there isn’t a door in your face. I’m soon out of the guest house I started in and wandering about the town, chatting with the dude in the town hall, and finding another clue, and I reckon I might be enjoying myself here!
And with that, we can leave my mini-diary! Things certainly started a bit buggy, but once I worked out where that bug was and that I could get around it with a temporary combination of keyboard controls and doing something else, I never had another problem. That I since learnt the game was originally built for keyboard only does give the slightly clunky mouse controls some context too. They’re just not very elegant, especially when it comes to movement where they just seem to have tried to replicate arrow keys and therefore are not as precise as you sometimes need, so I ended up using the arrow keys on the keyboard for prolonged or rapid directional movement but the mouse in confined spaces, for example, when investigating a room, as well as for everything else, where I did find it more intuitive for object manipulation; which, incidentally, also isn’t massively elegant with either method! There’s one early-ish puzzle where you need to use alcohol to reveal a secret on a drawing but you can’t just look at the drawing from your inventory; you have to work out you need to put it on a table first, then for the action of rubbing the alcohol on it, you just select it in your inventory and everything will happen automatically in an awkward cutscene from there. And once its done, you need to pick it up, put it away and replace it with a map where another interactive cutscene will allow you to use the secret it just revealed, albeit after several attempts also hampered by some new unintuitive controls! Keep saving all the time is now my biggest advice, but all of this stuff could easily have been done in a single inventory screen, and actually the meat of a few of the puzzles like this one was in working out how to apply the solution in the game rather than finding it in the first place! On the whole though, apart from occasional obscurity or having to look where you would never think of looking, the puzzles you’ll come across aren’t too outrageous if you keep your eye out for everything. As long as you know about developing photos…
I’m probably making it sound worse to play than it soon becomes though; within the first hour or so you’ve worked out the game’s little quirks and from there it’s proper Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror, although as foreboding as the mystery becomes from the outset, the most horrifying thing about the game really is the appalling voice acting! I guess it was admirable to have this much of it in a game at the time, but it’s bordering on for the sake of it at times, and while technology has moved on, we did still had standards back then! Makes no mouse control on the original floppy disk version seem almost attractive! Anyway, your first game day involves a bit of detective work, by exploring, collecting items and talking to lots of people to establish the weirdness that’s unfolding around you. This was probably my favourite part of the game – immersing myself in the mostly very atmospheric hundred or so screens that contain the game, slowly piecing together the information revealed by around forty characters you’ll meet as you go, which is conveniently automatically summarised in your notebook to reference later. Also convenient is the map function, which allows you to jump to locations you’ve already visited as long as you’re not in an “active” area that restricts it, which certainly ups the immersion even if there were times in the mandatory maze-like forest or being chased around an endless crypt where I’d have appreciated it!
While the game’s title does obviously give things away in advance, in-game it’s only really when you’ve explored and puzzled and talked and noted your way to the end of the first day that what’s going on starts to properly establish itself. With the other characters it’s not just talking (and making sure you say the right things) that will aid your progress either, but just keeping an eye on what they’re up to, like who’s in the bar with who, or who’s leaving who’s house, or who’s just hanging around in the background and possibly listening in. Oh yeah, despite some very “functional” animation to go with the other character’s voices when their faces are filling the screen during conversational cutscenes, you’ll also notice those faces are often familiar! There’s definitely a Vincent Price, a Jack Nicholson and a Sean Connery, and there’s even an appearance by Mr Lovecraft himself!
The first day is mostly laid-back as far as pacing goes, although it’s worth not taking things too much for granted because there are actions you can get wrong here that are not only going tocome back and haunt you a bit (or much) later on, but are literally going to end the game too, and you’re right back to the beginning. Some seriously old-school design, so at risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s a good idea to keep saving! That also goes for what’s coming over the next two days because you’ll soon forget about anything being laid-back and if there’s one thing you might learn at the end of the first day like I did, you certainly won’t want to be hanging around congratulating yourself for finally solving a puzzle! This is where the strength of the story now also comes to the fore though, and where – once it’s all done – you look back and realise is where the strength of the game also lies too. While I happily pottered about during the first day over several play sessions, day two and especially day three are hard to leave once you’re sucked in, and the way it exposes you to everything Lovecraft, shall we say, is really phenomenal. Without spoiling it any more than I already have, you’re in a Cthulhu story, and while it’s an intentionally terrifying place to be, you couldn’t really ask for more of an adventure game!
Considering it was a screenshot in a book that first drew me to the game, I’m not sure how I feel about the way it looks overall. Exterior views mostly go for a digitised-realism, and that’s where the graphics are at their strongest, especially when you get the alternate night views of some of the austere but perfectly dressed New England architecture, as well as the beautifully lit and varied woodlands. It occasionally falls a bit flat, like they’d run out of ideas, but when it needs to be atmospheric it is, and sometimes it’s even magical. Interiors are less so, going for more of a cartoon adventure look that was ten-a-penny on the 16-bit computers and early point-and-click games in general. It works and it’s fine but it’s rarely exceptional. And the facial close-ups will always look weird to me, Vincent Price or not! Just like the voice-acting will always be totally outrageous! You might think there’s no need for sound effects on top of that, and for a lot of your time here there actually there aren’t many – the odd shutting door, shrieking bird, gust of wind and stuff like that. A few areas, like the graveyard (predictably) really lay the spooky stuff on thick though! I like the soundtrack a lot too, which is also very 16-bit in its styling, very b-movie in its dynamic delivery and it does a lot to set the scene, from ambience to whimsy to high tension. Really cool main theme tune too – think an ominous Mike Oldfield!
Lovecraft rarely makes a successful transition from print to any kind of visual medium – all that “unseen” just doesn’t translate! What is seen (and heard) here though is just a bit of flavour for what is fundamentally a very competent piece of interactive Lovecraftian fan-fiction that slowly rewards your efforts with more of its lurking horror. That said, it’s not a great point-and-click adventure, and that’s mostly because it wasn’t originally intended to be one, but I found it to be immersive and engaging and enjoyable on the whole over its ten or so hours regardless… First thirty minutes or so aside! And after all that, I know what you’re still asking – did I ever actually see Halley’s Comet after all that reading? Well, I’ve been thinking, having just played a bit more of the Taito game, maybe I will cover it in more detail here sometime after all, and I’m going to need something else to say about it, so you’ll just have to wait until then!