The Innsmouth Case, developed by RobotPumpkin Games, is a text adventure game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, known for his Cthulhu mythos and unique underwater cosmic horror, has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and adaptations in recent memory. While some still remember the 2005 cult classic, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, we’ve also received the detective titles Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City alongside the recent film adaptation starring Nicolas Cage, Color Out of Space. Yet here comes The Innsmouth Case, a seemingly original take on the Lovecraft formula by placing its narrative within the text adventure structure, where the story is tailored to your choices. While my text adventure experience is limited, having played Zork once or twice through another popular game, I was interested as a literature student and writer in how the merging of reading and gaming would be executed.
Narrative and Tone
The Innsmouth Case begins with the exact same scenario as 2018’s Call of Cthulhu: you are an alcoholic and failing private investigator slumped in your office, when a case walks in the door and prompts you to go to a secluded coastal town where (most likely) the residents are members of an Ancient One-worshipping cult. The first character introduced to you is Dahlia Marsh, the game’s femme fatale who asks you to find her missing daughter. While I found the writing and characters to be cliché, it was soon clear that these clichés were being used for comical effect. When Dahlia shows you a photograph of her daughter, Tabitha, the camera zooms in on the child’s face with dramatic music, and the detective character you play as comments on the strange appearance of the child.
This was such an incongruent shift in tone – an unsuccessful attempt at bathos – that it really sums up what the game’s going for. This is not a horror narrative in the vein of Lovecraft‘s unique cosmic, psychological terror. This is a comedy, and an incredibly silly one that wears a Lovecraft skin. There are multiple problems that players will run into if they try to take this game seriously. Firstly, the protagonist you play as is completely unrelatable. The choices you have for dialogue are only ever ridiculous, ignorant, or clever, with his commentary throughout being unnecessarily antagonistic, rendering his personality unlikeable.
For instance, I went into this game trying to play as intelligently as possible – prepared for the game to be a test of survival. I declined Dahlia’s offer to visit Innsmouth to search for her missing daughter, and thus I got my first ending of a possible 27: ‘Let’s call it a day!’ Okay, I thought, so I’m going to have to play along if I want to see what the game has to offer.
As far as story goes, each character you are introduced to is wildly eccentric and a variation on a cult member, fish person, or crazy person. While I occasionally enjoyed picking the right choices in dialogue decisions to get an item that would unlock a new area, the game defeats any sort of role-playing available, because there are strict paths that get you from A to B down different storylines. To progress through the game, you need to pick the right option, and it often isn’t the one you’d instinctively choose.
While I personally didn’t get on with Innsmouth‘s story, I think fans of very silly humour in a Lovecraft setting will enjoy the twists and turns of the jokes inside the game. I couldn’t quite appreciate them, however, as I never felt the story had earnt it. I wasn’t invested at any point, and while RobotPumpkin is a German developer, I feel the writing of the game wasn’t sophisticated enough to pull off any layers of subtlety or nuance.
Gameplay and Accessibility
The gameplay of The Innsmouth Case solely includes clicking through pages of writing, and choosing dialogue options or actions. However, on the Xbox One version of the game, the sensitivity of the A button is so high that I was often skipping pages, making choices I hadn’t even seen and sometimes wasn’t aware of. This meant I had to go back and replay the same chapter multiple times and try to tap the A button as quickly as possible so that it didn’t skip ahead. This is a particularly sore point, as the game saves by chapter – there is no autosave, you must make it to the next chapter for your progress to be saved. This made for many frustrating moments which could have been solved if the game simply had the option to turn pages forwards and backwards. While the chapter selection makes it easy to go back and replay areas to achieve different results, and holding the B button helps to skip to your next dialogue/action choice, I found these only encouraged me to skip sections of the game’s writing as I couldn’t bear to keep reloading and missing the pages.
While this probably wouldn’t have been a problem had I played the game on PC, with the ease of the mouse, better implementation of the Xbox controller would have saved the playability of this title by miles. Furthermore, the UI interface in the menus makes it very difficult to see where your virtual cursor is, or what you’re selecting. This, again, wouldn’t be a problem on PC, but knowing what you’re hovering over on the Xbox is impossible due to the colour of the highlighted box not being a dramatic enough outline. It also doesn’t help that certain symbols on the menu aren’t labelled with text, so you really don’t know what you’re clicking on either.
Visual and Audio Presentation
The whole of The Innsmouth Case takes place within a book on a table, and this limited presentation works very nicely. I liked the feeling of sitting down with a book in the game, and the animated art for the characters was all very well done. When the Lovecraftian monsters did show up, they were always a good mix of awesome and horrifying, and made me wish the game had leant into the horror more. However, the only thing that let the game down in presentation was the writing itself. Missing full stops, misplaced hyphens, and lines like ‘You blink your eyes that feel crunchy and dry’ are some of the annoyances that can take you out of the experience.
When it comes to the music, at first it was sufficiently eerie and haunting, but as the game went on the repetitive piano motif became nauseating and actually distracted me from reading the words on the screen. The moment I enjoyed, however, was the Arcade area where the motif shifted into a retro synth beat. I particularly liked the poorly-masked parodies of games in the first-person shooter genre too, like ‘Maison of the Unliving’ or ‘BOOM!’, which had its own recognisable rock soundtrack when you played it. These moments restored my faith in The Innsmouth Case, but unfortunately they were too rare to sustain me.
RobotPumpkin Games‘ debut, The Innsmouth Case, holds a lot of promise for the developer. I have always felt that text adventure games have been neglected over the years for an industry that built itself out of narratives from books and other media. While what I wanted from The Innsmouth Case was an intelligent horror oriented around survival, it’s clear that the game doesn’t ever try to be anything like it. Instead, RobotPumpkin have created a solid comical text adventure which will make fans of Lovecraft smile. However, the game as it currently stands is incredibly difficult to enjoy on Xbox, and better utilisation of controller buttons with a clearer UI would clean the game up significantly – ensuring that it doesn’t turn players away.
It’s hard not to wish for a Lovecraftian text adventure which did present escape room scenarios that force you to make quick decisions to stay alive, but what we have here shows that RobotPumpkin is bringing enough personality and enthusiasm to the text adventure genre to revive it, and it’s well worth being excited for their next game. Speaking of …
Plan B from Outer Space: A Bavarian Odyssey
RobotPumpkin Games have announced their new text adventure, a comedic sci-fi adventure which pits Germans against Aliens. You play as an alien and have landed in the small Bavarian town of Unter-Hinterobersdorf. Will you come in peace, or dominate every pretzel-loving, beer drinker in sight? Plan B from Outer Space: A Bavarian Odyssey launches on PC, Android, and iOS this fall, and you can watch the announcement trailer here. The Innsmouth Case has more than proved RobotPumpkin‘s ability to deliver comedy and fun characters, and I can’t wait to see where their journey in creating text adventures takes them, in Plan B, and beyond.
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Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
Developer: RobotPumpkin Games
Publisher: Assemble Entertainment