Fairness is an overrated quality in games. Especially single-player games. A multiplayer game where the various sides are unbalanced is broken – if you lose, it’s unjust. A single-player game that is unfair is just hard. And if you lose, then start a new game.
In Elder Sign, you take charge of a quartet of investigators who must prevent the god Azathoth from crossing a dimensional boundary into a museum in Lovecraft’s Depression-era New England, from whence he will probably devour mankind. The game is a race against the clock – every turn you spend gathering clues and artifacts to help you in your quest is a turn that Azathoth is getting stronger. The core gameplay presents you with a random assortment of investigation opportunities that are resolved through dice rolls – but it’s not all down to luck. Each investigator has a special ability that bends one rule or another, leveling the playing field or even giving you a leg up on chance if you’re smart.
It’s hard graft fighting Azathoth, and on the rare occasions that you manage to thwart his scheme your roster will most likely be short an investigator or two, and those that remain to you will have little health or sanity left.1
Fantasy Flight must have received a lot of feedback how difficult Elder Sign: Omens was when it came out, because the first significant update to the game added Yig, an substitute for Azathoth. Pity poor Yig: an elder god pushover who exists solely to give players an easy ride. That same update added (as a $2 in-game purchase) Cthulhu – the Lovecraftian horror more famous than the man who thought him up.
Imagine if we had been at the Fantasy Flight meeting where this was decided. After offering up Yig as a sop to those who found Elder Sign too taxing, they were going to dangle Cthulhu in front of the sadists. And make them pay for the privilege. Much cackling followed, we can imagine.
Two-odd weeks after the DLC was released, I still haven’t beaten Cthulhu. Unlike Yig, who just swaps out with Azathoth tag-team style, leaving the gameplay largely identical, Call of Cthulhu tacks an additional stage onto the end of the museum campaign. It is essentially a whole new game, themed as an oceanic expedition to find Cthulhu’s sunken city of R’lyeh. The rules are slightly different and there are new goals and abilities – but you can only take with you what you ended the museum episode with. Every time I play, my bloodied and half-mad investigators stumble their way onto the Ultima Thule and sail off to meet their grim fates. Cthulhu devours the world. I start a new game.
I’m not likely to beat Cthulhu anytime soon. It’s not fair. I’ve tried different strategies, different investigators – the tune of the game sounds different but the end notes are always the same. But I start a new game.
One of these days – on the Tube, or waiting for an appointment, or on a night where my girlfriend falls asleep before me – I’ll defeat Cthulhu. I will have gotten my $2 worth, and then some. And I will start a new game.
5 out of 5
- iPhone, Elder Sign: Omens, $3.99 US, £2.49 UK
- iPad, Elder Sign: Omens HD, $6.99 US, £4.99 UK
- Android, Elder Sign: Omens, $3.99 US, £2.50 UK
1 In giving as much focus to mental fragility as physical stamina, Lovecraft was telling stories that dramatize the modern battlefield better than most contemporary writers.