CALL OF CTHULU: SHADOW OF THE COMET / Infogrames / PC
Hoo! Graham! Watch out for those tentacles!
In the opening cinema, we see the Ultimate Warrior summon a tentacle beast, and we're then introduced to our protagonist, reporter and astronomer John Parker. Parker is following up on the research of the now-deceased Lord Boleskine, a man who went mad after a visit to the colonies. Of course, Boleskine visited the Massachusetts village more commonly known as Innsmouth, though it's called Illsmouth in this game for some reason. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the work of H.P. Lovecraft will recognize this as the cornerstone story of his Cthulu mythos, so you know what's coming next -- creepy cultist villagers working in secret to revive ocean-bound horrors who will enslave the world and etc.
Shadow of the Comet shares a game engine with Infogrames' oddball Eternam
, as you can tell by the close-up facial portraits during dialogue and the "eye lines" from your character to certain usable objects in each room. Fortunately, it doesn't share Eternam's weird 3D overworld where you have to clumsily shoot a laser at marauding bats; it's a straight-ahead adventure game engine, but it does have the peculiarity of mandating keyboard control instead of using a standard mouse-centered interface. The interface actually resembles the old AGI Sierra games somewhat, in that you move around using the arrow keys, but there isn't a parser for commands. Instead you press TAB to bring up your standard adventure game menu of actions once near an object you can take or manipulate. It's a bizarre choice for an early-mid-90s adventure game and I'm really not sure why it was made over a fully mouse-based interface. The "talkie" CD version adds limited mouse control for movement, but you click on virtual arrows instead of directly where you want to move, so it's still a little cumbersome and weird.
Shadow of the Comet is definitely rich in atmosphere, though, and that's the game's strongest point by far. Between that and the oddball keyboard controls, it really more resembles old Amiga horror-adventure classics like Personal Nightmare or Ween: The Prophecy. The atmosphere is owed to a combination of strong background art, the aforementioned full-face dialogue portraits and very good sound work. However, as you might surmise from the 2/5, we're far from dealing with a masterpiece here. The sprite work is unfortunately mediocre on the whole, and especially when certain characters start turning into horrific monsters in the later going, which brings some of the game's tenser scenes to a more corny than creepy conclusion. The "big face" portraits are also an interesting idea, but the unfortunate decision was made to copy nearly every character's face from the (almost certainly unlicensed) likeness of a famous Hollywood actor. It's distracting and sort of fourth-wall-breaking to have almost every character be someone like Jack Nicholson or Lon Chaney.
The combination of the odd and clumsy movement scheme with obtuse puzzles and tons of cheap ambush deaths is what really drags this one down and makes it a chore to try and complete, however. There's also a particularly nasty missed item "gotcha" near the beginning of the game that rivals King's Quest V for sheer shittiness. "Creep factor" is also absolutely vital for a Cthulu game, and it's just too lacking here between the weak character sprites/animation and the less-than-intimidating cast of villains.