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H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu has stood the test of time, appearing in everything from South Park to the Penny Arcade video games. iOS has its own dose of Cthulhu with Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. It takes its name from a famously difficult tabletop game that ended with everyone dead or insane. Wasted Land lives up to that reputation; it’s unforgivingly difficult. This is a niche title to be sure, but if you manage to advance beyond the early stages, you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment. It captures the spirit and feel of Lovecraft perfectly.

Non-Euclidean pulp horror

Lovecraft has always been a sort of shorthand between horror fans. Like the Velvet Underground or Fugazi among music fans, this is a sign you’re in the know, or at least know enough to fake it. The sad state of movie horror is likely why you’re seeing so many nods to Lovecraft in pop culture, because the otherworldly horrors in his pulp horror are far scarier than Jigsaw or radioactive hillbillies.

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, takes elements of Lovecraft’s Reanimator story and builds it into a more complex narrative. You lead a group of allied soldiers through the trenches of World War I against a conspiracy of German cultists that seek to use the war’s massive casualties as zombie soldiers. The setting allows for some unique level designs, allowing for trench warfare to figure into the strategy elements of the game.

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Bashing your head against the wall

Wasted Land is difficult. If you grew up gaming on the NES, then you likely remember when beating a game wasn’t always an inevitability. Difficulty in games has become a bigger topic in light of games like Demon Souls. Now Wasted Land isn’t that difficult, but you can expect that it isn’t going to be easy to advance through even the early levels of the game. It could be a bit jarring to restart levels where you’re still getting tutorial hints, but this is Call of Cthulhu, so it shouldn’t be any other way.

Wasted Land isn’t a heroic epic; this is a horror movie. Trying to break your party up to plow through cultists and zombies just makes it easier to pick you off. The strategic thinking here is much more about balancing support and attacks, as well as range and melee. The game doesn’t tell you to load up on first aid kits, but do so and you won’t regret it. The stats system in Wasted Land is as complex as its paper RPG progenitor. This is another old school flourish, giving you nostalgic flashbacks of Ultima and Dragon Warrior.

Minimalism isn’t ugly

The Retina graphics on the iPad have lead to a lot of games that look almost as good as the Xbox360 and PS3. Wasted Land does have full Retina support, but it isn’t a big graphical powerhouse like Infinity Blade. That primarily is a choice of style, as Wasted Land is set in World War I where everything is a bit muddy and ruined. The muted color palate is an appropriate choice. The stages all have a good amount of design to them, with complex paths that force you to think strategically.

While you can easily see the amount of work that went into the stages, the character models don’t show the same level of detail. Most of the models look different enough, but they lack any real polish. This method isn’t terrible when you’re talking about the faceless minion and walking dead, but the major heroes don’t have anything to distinguish them either. Every character gets a portrait above their stats, but the onscreen models should be distinctive.

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Conclusion

Like most RPGs, Wasted Land isn’t going for the Angry Birds crowd. This is a focused and deliberate attempt to create an old school strategy RPG. The story keeps enough of Lovecraft to color the world, but is original enough that it can still be surprising. If you’ve ever used a 20-sided die, you should own this already. The game is $4.99 from the App Store.

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