The developers at Red Wasp Design have a great sense of atmosphere. Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is so promising as it boots up, with a picture of Lovecraft in all his gangly ungainly glory. Something scratchy plays at a slightly wrong speed on a gramophone, half way between warbly singing and sinister chanting. This off-kilter spirit of Lovecraft carries into the mission intros, with the characters talking to each other in suitably “period” dialogue. They’re the band of investigators you’d find in any session of Chaosium’s tabletop RPG. Gung ho British soldiers are the cheerful muscle, infused with the can-do spirit of the not quite fallen British Empire. The brains of the party are a plucky psychologist and an occultist in a turban, each with a gun in one hand and a spell book in the other.
It’s World War I. A cult of eldritch god worshippers has insinuated itself among German soldiers. Undead and Leng spiders and eventually worse are shuffling and scuttling about the trenches and mustard gas and ruined cathedrals. It’s up to your ragtag band to get to the heart of the matter.
Then, after the jump, the gameplay happens
Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is a great set up for a game that never shows up. What does show up is a not very good tactical turn-based game that loses sight of the Lovecraft. It quickly grinds to a stuttering stop-and-go all-but-halt littered with tiny pieces, tiny buttons, and tiny numbers. Most of The Wasted Land is a rote you-shoot/they-shoot punch and counterpunch on a grid that might fare better on an iPad, but not by much.
It’s mostly all about gunplay, and upgrading armor and weapons between missions. You can eventually dink around with poorly explained spells. Sanity is another resource to manage in a game where the resource management is obscure and hard to follow. You lose a few points of sanity when you shoot at a monster. This means your psychologist has to work as a medic, in addition to the normal medicking of spending medkits and sometimes taking the time to walk over to a medical station and stand around for a turn or two.
Stats are teensy granular affairs of putting a point here, a point there, much like the gameplay itself. An action point here, an action point there, here a 61%, there a 74%, all scrunched together on the iPhone’s screen as if this were an ill conceived port of something for the PC. Scrolling around the cluttered screen to take a few potshots with a pistol is often more work than it’s worth. Moving your party together is also more work than it’s worth, which is the worst thing you can say about a game’s core concept; in any horror movie or tactical combat game, you have to stick together or those things will get you.
These are problems that have been solved admirably since X-Com, often in the various SRPGs published by Atlus or NIS. But Red Wasp Design seems to prefer detail to elegance, and that’s exactly the wrong call to make on the iPhone. It’s also a damn shame in a game with such an obvious affection for its own characters and the Lovecraft mythos.