This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
Call of the sea was the last big game I wanted to tackle in 2020 and what a great choice it was to sign off for the year. A surprisingly challenging puzzle game, presented in gorgeous and varied scenery, alongside a well written and open to interpretation story. Parring some technical issues, getting used to how puzzles are supposed to be solved, and having some unnecessary inconveniences in some design decisions, Call of the sea succeeds in everything it sets out to do and is worthwhile for fans of puzzle and narrative games alike.
Set in 1934, players take on the role of Norah Everhart as she arrives in an island near Tahiti; she’s sent there by a mysterious letter sent to her, telling her where her missing husband was heading to and a strange ritualistic knife. Harry – the husband – set off in search of a cure for Norah’s illness that is slowly killing her (just as it did with family members), alongside a crew of 5, and this was Norah’s best clue yet, so she is determined to follow up on it as best she can. This premise, alongside the trailer from back in May, let me to have expectations of a certain “type” of game: A narrative heavy game with puzzles and interactions being more of a pacing mechanic, rather than truly challenging. I was wrong; Call of the sea is a great challenge for fans of puzzles (particularly environmental puzzles) alongside a great narrative. The game does have puzzles that feel really obscure or made by people who don’t want you to solve them, but are actually solvable by using common sense or the game’s logic; that fact alone, makes for a great adventure game. You are on an island that is not welcoming to outsiders and is trying very hard to remain undetected and unexplored; solving easy puzzles would have been pretty lame, in terms of immersion. It took me a while to get used to how I was supposed to solve these puzzles and how the formula for the worked, but once I got used to them, I thoroughly enjoyed my time figuring them out. Basically, each chapter is a puzzle hub, where there are several puzzles that need to be solved in particular orders, using particular knowledge or items gained, before moving on to the next step, until you finish the chapter or find the next hub. I don’t want to spoil solutions or give hints, so I will say that after the initial settling in period, I was hooked on the game’s puzzles and felt great satisfaction in solving them.
My only issue with them is something that permeates throughout the game in certain sections; certain design decisions just did not work for me. For example, I understand why you don’t want Norah to be running around fast, but this is a game that involves a lot of travelling and backtracking so my pinkie was glued for the entire game on the run button, which is a sign that her move speed is not fast enough. There are these frustrating details scattered around the game that I understand as immersion tools, but on the gameplay side are annoying like detailed but slow animations. Nonetheless, the immersive side of the game is top notch overall and creates a delightful experience, for the most part.
The other huge focus of the game was on the narrative and Call of the sea delivers a wonderful and heart-felt story there as well. Norah’s journey is clearly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his work (just to clarify, this is not a horror game, more akin to Guillermo Del Torro’s The shape of water), some other games (like Firewatch for example) that use their environment and gameplay to create a unique experience, but what made me really enjoy it was the performances by the actors, the fantastic writing and characterization, and a clear focus on keeping the game ambiguous and highly interpretive as a result. Norah’s journey could be about a lot of things, what matters is which of those things you resonate best with, how you make sense of that, and how poignant and dreamy the game’s story is; finding out what happened to the expedition crew, as you find clues and things they left behind, is not particularly original, but when executed as well as this, it can be highly enjoyable and meaningful.
Regardless of how praise worthy their narrative attempts are, I do have a bone to pick with developers Out of the Blue; I found the ending to be forced, as a way for the player to get to decide it. I normally am not bothered by allowing interactivity in a linear story, but I feel like the game has an answer it wants to bring forward and it denies itself that opportunity to offer an interactive element. Having seen both of the available endings, I don’t think it has a bad one (quality wise at least), but they both feel as settlements rather than something that the game was leading towards from the beginning; not the actual events of the two endings, more the way they are presented and framed.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the presentation of the game and that is very easy to do so; its outstanding. The tropical environment never gets old, because it looks that good, but the devs actually manage to deliver some great variety in scenery and locations, and clearly had a lot of imagination and great vision to deliver it to the player in such a vivid style. Moreover, the music is really good and has various historical influences and a more orchestral execution befitting of the game’s grand adventure theme. However, running the game’s Windows 10 version (through game pass for PC and that store), I did encounter a few technical hiccups; a hard crash while exploring a hub and a few times stuck on loading screens. Nothing too serious or frustrating, however, and there are manual save slots to use at any time.
Overall, Call of the sea is a beautiful game both in terms of its visuals and story. Its surprisingly challenging as a puzzle and narrative experience, it sounds great, its written excellently, and there’s very little to complain about; some annoying design decisions and an ending I wasn’t too happy with, but other than that, I sign off 2020 (in terms of games) with another GREAT title and another indie studio to keep an eye on for what they do next.