There have been a lot of harsh, dour video games this fall. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla centered on conquest and amputation. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War featured history’s most cynical dirtbag. Cyberpunk 2077 is Cyberpunk 2077. If it’s all been a lot to stomach, consider a change of pace: the delightful Call of the Sea, which came out last week for PC and Xbox consoles, where it’s also available as part of the Game Pass library.
Death and tragedy aren’t entirely absent in Call of the Sea, the debut game from Madrid-based studio Out of the Blue, but you’re not responsible for the violence as far as I can tell. Rather, you follow in its wake as you work your way through the story of this first-person adventure game set in the 1930s.
You play as Norah Everhart, a woman with a peculiar medical condition and dormant dreams of studying engineering. You start out on a ship, bound for an nameless island 74 nautical miles east of modern day Tahiti. Months before the game’s events, Norah’s husband, Harry Everhart, set off for the island in search of a cure for Norah’s illness. Now, you’re following in his footsteps, the result of receiving a package with sparse contents — a key, a photo of Harry, and blade-shaped relic of sorts — and no explanation. Norah frequently experiences vivid, sweat-soaked dreams about an enigmatic island.
That’s an intriguing if somewhat fraught setup: a group consisting of mostly white people exploring a Polynesian island in order to plunder its secrets. I haven’t played enough to say if that’s something the game meaningfully grapples with. So far, it has not. (I’m partway through the third chapter.) In the early goings, Call of the Sea has leaned away from any such reckoning, falling back on tropes of rightfully trepidatious locals refusing to talk about the “cursed” place, while white people recklessly proceed apace with plans to explore a region they know nothing about. I’m curious to see how it shakes out here.
Call of the Sea is a puzzle game. There’s no combat, and no split-second platforming. This is good, given that I’ve seen some performance issues, though a recent post-launch update addressed some of the game’s initial performance troubles. Even if it hadn’t, I don’t need smooth 60fps to figure out how to flick the right switches in the right order.
All of the puzzles are unique. You won’t come across the same format twice, and you’ll have to learn how each one works from scratch. Beyond that, every puzzle in Call of the Sea is baked into the environment and interwoven with the story in natural ways. Most require multiple steps that have you thoroughly explore isolated areas of the island. Maybe you need to arrange a set of tiki designs in the proper order. First you need to figure out how the designs line up, so you have to head to the abandoned village nearby to pick up clues, and then you have to complete a jigsaw-esque mini-game to learn how those clues play into the grander solution, but then all that did was open a door that gives you a key to yet another stumper. Like the best puzzle games, ultimately cracking the code results in that oh-so-satisfying mix of “Finally!” and “How did I not figure that out earlier?” Each one is challenging, but fair.
Norah’s character makes the puzzles, and moving through the story, even more compelling. She’s brimming with boundless curiosity and always has something to say about anything she sees or picks up. Her voice actor, Cissy Jones, provides a stellar vocal performance crackling with excitement and wonder and fear. (Call of the Sea is basically one big internal monologue for Norah.) She’s also in her 40s — a lead perspective we don’t often see enough in video games.
Outside of the initial setup, Norah’s story itself is best experienced cold. Already, several plot moments have surprised me in how they unfold, as Norah slowly pieces events together by interacting with scrawled letters, hurried recordings, and other forgotten artifacts left behind by Harry’s expedition. (At the risk of revealing too much, there’s also a tinge of Eldritch horror at play.) Like Firewatch before it — another first-person adventure game with a similarly striking art style and cinematic thrust — I get the sense some twists will go down before Call of the Sea ends. I’m not there yet, but I’m itching to see what happens.