Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

I quite enjoy strategy games, as they appeal to my logical mind. However, I’m not a huge fan of real-time strategy games; I’ve played them every now and then, and while I haven’t hated them, I’ve always found them stressful. When I’m playing something in real-time, I always feel I need to be constantly paying attention to make sure that some unit isn’t standing around doing nothing or that I’ve failed to spot an enemy approaching from some direction or other. As a result, I have always preferred turn-based games, which allow time to consider each move and ensure that no unit has been overlooked.

Turn-based games tend to exist at two different levels. There’s the large scale, Civilisation type of games, where you’re managing cities and resources, your units tend to represent entire battalions (or other military terms) and combat is somewhat abstract. I enjoy these games (Civ II is one of my favourite games of all time), but those aren’t the games I’m going to be talking about today. Today, I’m going to be talking about the small scale tactical games, where you control individuals on a battlefield. Specifically I’m going to be talking about one such game, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land.

This game was originally released on iOS a couple of years ago, before being ported to Android and PC (on Steam); the iOS version is the one I’ve been playing recently (for reference, it cost me £2.99). The name, along with its association with Chaosium Inc, should give fellow roleplayers a good idea of the subject matter. However, for those unfamiliar with the genre, the game follows the story of a small squad of soldiers/specialists in World War I, who go up against a German occult group and must prevent it from using magic to turn the tide of the war. The game mainly focuses on the missions, with a small amount of story unfolding in snippets of dialogue during combat and journal entries in between the missions.

The actual gameplay is fairly simple; like many games in this genre, each individual has a number of action points per turn, which can be spent in any combination on movement, attacks and other actions (using medical kits, etc…). The missions are usually relatively straightforward (reach a certain location, kill a certain enemy), but the terrain and other features (mud slows movement, trenches provide cover, gas damages those that move though it) ensure that each mission presents its own tactical challenges.
One feature I particularly like (this may not be the only game that does this, but it’s the only one I’ve come across) is that selecting an opponent to attack brings up the statistics on the attack before you commit to it. This allows you to make an informed choice on whether to boost the attack (spending more action points increases the chance to hit) or whether to forego it entirely in favour of something else (a long range pistol shot might only have a 6% chance to hit and not be worth the action points).

There are also some rolelaying elements, in that experience and money can be spent improving skills and buying new equipment. This allows a certain amount of customisation within the squad, choosing whether to specialise everyone in different areas or to give everyone a broad skill base (I suspect that specialisation is the better approach overall, but given the ease with which equipment can be traded, having a couple of generalists is potentially an advantage).

The difficulty level is set to be quite challenging. I’m playing through on normal difficulty, as opposed to hard, and it’s no cakewalk; while I haven’t lost anyone yet, there have been a lot of touch and go moments. This is amplified by the fact that the game saves automatically every turn, so it’s impossible to jump back a few turns if something goes wrong. It’s possible to go back to the start of your turn if you make a genuine mistake (or if you feel that the Random Number God has been truly unfair to you) and it’s possible to restart the mission if you make an absolute mess of it, but for the most part, you have to live with your minor mistakes and hope they don’t snowball too much.
I actually appreciate this… by making it impossible (or at least, absurdly annoying and time consuming) to strive for perfection, it frees you to enjoy a more moderate level of success without feeling inadequate. (Contrast, for example, Resident Evil 4, which I was playing again recently. Sometimes you would make it through a tough section, but feel that you were overly wasteful with ammunition or used too many herbs and would consider whether you should go back and do it better… this game doesn’t let you second guess yourself and simply moves on.)

There are a couple of minor niggles. Occasionally, it’s tricky to get the right angle when selecting a square if there are a lot of units in the way – this isn’t too bad on the iPad, but I suspect would be annoying on a phone (similarly, many of the buttons would probably be annoyingly small on a phone sized screen). It’s also a little hard to figure out the purpose of some of the character sheet elements and the in-game guides don’t cover everything – it’s worth going online and getting some tips if you’re going to play seriously.

Overall, I really enjoyed this game. It’s obviously not a super-slick visual feast, but fans of this type of game won’t be expecting that anyway. It’s engaging enough to devote a decent amount of time to, but the turn by turn nature of it means that it could easily be picked up and put down if you only have a few minutes spare (theoretically… I’ve often discovered that an hour has disappeared without me noticing). The price tag is reasonable, considering that it’s a complete game and there’s no requirement for in-app purchases (there’s one purchasable pack of extra missions, which I believe is pretty much an entire second game). It’s not a long game (it took me a week of on-off playing to complete the core campaign), but I would heartily recommend it for anyone who enjoys tactical war games and has either a tablet or a PC; for anyone with a phone, maybe download the free version (not sure exactly what it includes) to check that the interface isn’t too annoying first.

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