Report Card: Call of the Sea (Review)

A missing expedition to an island in the South Pacific. A mysterious illness with no cure. A woman in search of her lost husband. These are the pieces that set the stage for Call of the Sea, the debut game from developer Out of the Blue. A first person narrative adventure set in the 1930’s, the game takes inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft and games such as Firewatch and Myst to deliver a tale full of intrigue, mystery, and clever puzzles. The game has been on my radar since I saw the debut trailer, and in a year of big budget AAA open world epics, A smaller story of lost love and adventure was just the pallet cleanser I was looking for.

The game begins as your character, Norah Everhart (played by Cissy Jones) is arriving on the island where her husband Harry had led an expedition in search of a cure for the mysterious illness which has plagued Norah and her family for years. The expedition has gone missing though and before leaving, Norah received a package from an anonymous sender containing cryptic clues to their whereabouts. With these first breadcrumbs in hand, she charters a ship to take her to the island and track down the expedition to see what has become of them, whether or not there really is a cure for her disease, and why the island seems to be the same as the one that’s been appearing to her in her dreams. As far as adventures go, it’s a fantastic setup.

As Norah steps off of the boat and onto the sandy shores of the island, your first impressions are that it seems like a paradise. There are beautiful beaches and gorgeous plant life, but you soon get the feeling that things didn’t go as planned for the expedition and there are dark secrets to be discovered. Items from their camp have been left abandoned, you find journal entries that hint at trouble within the group, and there are signs that they may not have been alone on this island. This is also where you are presented with the first puzzles of the game and where I learned that the game itself is more than I expected.

Based off of that first launch trailer, I was expecting Call of the Sea to be much more in the vein of other narrative adventures that I’ve played such as Firewatch or What Remains of Edith Finch, meaning that it would be heavy on storytelling and atmosphere, and lighter on actual “gameplay”. I would have been fine with this formula, as it’s a genre that I really enjoy and lends itself to great storytelling ,but to my surprise it was much more of a puzzle game than I expected, with each new location that you discover having an interesting new riddle for you to solve before being able to progress deeper into the island.

Each of the game’s six chapters are filled with puzzles both small and big, with each one feeling unique, interesting, and tied to the mystery surrounding the island. The puzzles vary in difficulty as well, with some being fairly simple while others will put your puzzle solving skills to the test. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a natural progression to that difficulty, and I found some of the earliest puzzles to be the toughest to crack, and I freely admit that I was stuck on one for so long that I did the unthinkable and ventured online to find the answer. That frustration was pretty infrequent though, with the majority of the puzzles being fun and quite clever. If you ever find yourself stuck, it usually boils down to searching the area thoroughly enough to find all of the hints that will lead you to what you need to do. It was a pleasant surprise for a game that I thought would live or die on it’s story alone, but the puzzles ended up possibly being the highlight of the game.

The further you progress on the island the weirder things become. As Norah ventures deeper and deeper into the mystery, she’ll discover evidence of the inhabitants that lived on the island beforehand and encounter bizarre sights and secrets that will have her questioning everything that she thought she knew. While there are definite Lovecraftian inspirations and things certainly get creepy at times, this game isn’t a horror title and I wouldn’t call it scary. If anything, it’s a love story. A story about a husband and wife whose love for each other is so strong that they would do anything and go to any lengths for each other. It’s tough to say too much more about the story without delving into spoiler territory as the game is about discovery and it’s best left to you to uncover the secrets of the island, but I will say that on top of all the mystery and strangeness is a heartfelt and sweet story.

With regards to the presentation, Call of the Sea gets high marks in both the visual and audio department. The graphical style is somewhat simple and understated, but don’t think that this isn’t a great looking game because of that. The style fits the game very well, reminding me of the aforementioned Firewatch. And there are plenty of moments when the game is quite stunning looking, especially if you’re playing on the Xbox Series X which is enhanced to support 4K/60fps gameplay and features some beautiful raytracing effects. The way the light beams through the tree branches or the sun glimmers off of the ocean waves is really quite impressive.

The audio is even more of an accomplishment, with Cissy Jones (Life is Strange) giving a fantastic performance as Norah, and Yuri Lowenthal (Marvel’s Spider-Man) as her missing husband. In a game like this, there’s a lot hinging on the performances of the two lead characters, and thankfully these two are some of of the most talented actors in gaming and they really deliver throughout the game. The sound design also shines with the sounds of the jungle coming to vibrant life, and a great original score by Eduardo de la Inglesia. From top to bottom, developer Out of the Blue really nailed the look and sound of the game.

Games like this are exactly the kind of experiences that I love these days. As I get older, my free time is more limited and my reflexes much slower. While I still enjoy the occasional epic, I’m looking less for games that are going to take me six months to complete and have me tossing my controller in frustration, and more for games like this that I can finish in five or six hours and delivers a beautiful and memorable story.

At the end of Call of the Sea you’re presented with a choice. This game isn’t about branching narrative paths or forging your own story, but at the end they give you a decision to make. It’s something that I think the developer meant to be a very difficult decision, but for me it wasn’t. In fact it was easy. I couldn’t fathom making a different choice. And after I quickly made it, I turned to my wife who was watching with me and thought about how lucky I was that the decision came so easily to me. It was a beautiful ending to a great game, and one that left me surprisingly emotional and thinking abut it for days afterwards. For me, that’s the mark of a great game.

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