Call of the Sea has been on my wishlist since I first saw its trailer a few months ago. It stood out back then due to its lovely visuals and mysterious premise – and it stands out now because it’s a recent addition to the Xbox Game Pass which isn’t another shooter.
Having the subscription during the past year of lockdown has been beneficial as it’s given me the chance to fill those extra free hours by trying titles in genres I wouldn’t normally be interested in. Take Yakuza 0 for example; I was able to give it a go without the risk of buying a game I might not enjoy and ended up finding something that’s a lot of fun. My only complaint about Microsoft’s line-up is that tends to be action-heavy and as a result, I’ve already played most of the narrative-based releases available.
That’s why I jumped on Call of the Sea by Out of the Blue shortly after its release at the beginning of December. Set in the 1930s, it tells the tale of a woman named Norah Everhart who suffers from a strange illness which causes black blotches to appear on her arms. She embarks on a journey to a small island 74-miles east of Tahiti after her husband Harry disappeared there while searching for a cure. What is she going to find waiting for her and where has her spouse gone?
The articles I’ve read about the game since completing it have tended to liken it to Myst and The Witness. I have to say that neither of these sprang to mind during my playthrough and I don’t entirely agree with these comparisons, outside of the appearance of challenges on an island. To me, it felt more like a series of escape rooms: finding the clues to solve each puzzle within a chapter opened the doorway to the next and allowed Norah to progress on her quest.
The clues mentioned there come in various formats but you can usually glean a lot of information from the items left behind by Harry’s team and the notes scattered around each location. You always seem to be just one step behind your husband so you must use his drawings, letters and photographs to figure out how he made it past the current obstacle. If you get stuck, you can always look at Norah’s journal for a recap of the story so far along with the most important details.
Although Call of the Sea isn’t the most challenging or the longest adventure I’ve ever experienced, it did feature a nice difficulty curve and didn’t outstay its welcome. There was one particular puzzle which had us stumped for a good 30-minutes around two-thirds of the way in (I’m putting this down to tiredness due to the late time) but at no point during our eight-hours did we feel the need to turn to a walkthrough. The pace felt mostly constant, a good thing as you don’t want your momentum to be slowed down in narrative titles like this.
Later Levels 🎄 (@LaterLevels) December 19, 2020
There were only two minor negatives I picked up on in terms of gameplay. First was that I didn’t enjoy the later swimming sections as much as some of the other parts of the game because they felt a little slower; and second was that Norah really isn’t a fast walker. This does make some narrative sense as she explains her illness causes weakness but even holding the ‘run’ button doesn’t speed her up very much. Still, at least you have plenty of stunning scenery to look at while you’re strolling along.
I couldn’t help but take a couple of screenshots while playing and post them on Twitter. They’re exactly what you’d expect of a tropical island – white sands, blue waves and glowing sunsets – and several friends in Twitch chat remarked how much the graphics looked like Firewatch. The settings in the later chapters change to a stormy beach complete with shipwreck, a mountain-top with murals and an ancient temple, each of them beautiful in a distinct way.
Norah’s inner monologues through her journey reveal details about her relationship with Harry and it’s lovely to see that these protagonists consider themselves as equals. Forget the 1930s view about a woman’s place being in the home; the way these two refer to each other as ‘my dear old pal’, a reference to their favourite song, shows they’re best friends as well as partners. It does go some way towards making your final decision more poignant but sadly it’s not as poignant as it could have been.
The start of Call of the Sea feels as though the island is crammed full of mysteries, and certain items uncovered hint at something dark and horrible happening to Harry and his expedition. This feeling continues throughout the title but observant players will be able to figure out what’s going on well before the conclusion is reached. At certain points we found ourselves talking to the screen and asking Norah why she still didn’t have a clue, because it just seemed so obvious to everyone watching.
This did the protagonist, who initially seemed like a very intelligent and determined woman, a disservice by making her come across as somewhat oblivious. Her habit of expressing shock at something alarming revealed in Harry’s notes and then immediately making a humorous comment about the next item observed made her seem distracted. Not that you wouldn’t be distracted if you had a weird illness and your husband had disappeared on a remote island several months ago, but you get what I mean.
Still, the final choice players find themselves confronted with in chapter six is a fitting one. The fact it’s a binary decision was frowned upon by one person who joined us for our stream but to me, it felt as though it suited the characters and their situation. There’s no good or bad ending regardless of which option you pick because Call of the Sea is a game which explores what it means to love someone and being true to yourself, and as such there are no perfect answers.
This is the first release from Out of the Blue and it’s a very promising start. Despite the shortcomings of the narrative and the minor niggles I had with the gameplay, I’d recommend Call of the Sea to adventure fans or anyone who’s looking to get lost in a story set in a beautiful location. If the team can take what they’ve learnt from making this game and use the experience in their next project, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.