Cast your minds back to May 2020, and you might remember Xbox’s Third-Party Showcase: a reel of Xbox Series X games from other publishers. There was Valhalla of course, but also the announcement of The Medium, Chorus, The Ascent, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 and more. It was heavy on darkness, testosterone and space shooters… until Call of the Sea arrived. Like an eye-bath of skittles vodka, it brought gushes of colour and sugar. It was a personal highlight from the evening, and Call of the Sea was jotted down as a one-to-watch.
If there was a question mark hanging over Out of the Blue Games’ debut title, it was what this actually was. The trailer pitched it as an off-brand Bioshock, but we were essentially none the wiser. Well, having played it for it’s eight-hour span, the answer is a little unexpected: it actually feels like a reinvention of the Myst series, thickened up with the storytelling oomph of a top-drawer walking simulator.
Call of the Sea starts you off on a boat, newly arrived at a remote island near Tahiti in the 1930s. You are Norah, a school teacher with no previous expedition experience, and you’re dropped off on your lonesome. Your husband and his entire expedition have gone radio silent, and you’ve taken it upon yourself to find him. All you have are some notes, a key, and the knowledge that your husband has travelled here because of you: he’s on a mission to find a cure for the disease that is ravaging your body.
After a quick orientation in your cabin, you’re tossed onto the island to be immediately walloped with one of Call of the Sea’s two weapons: it’s absolutely flipping gorgeous. The full dynamic range of your telly is put to work, as you move from exotic vibrancy to darker tones, disappearing under a canopy or watching as night moves in. There isn’t a CD Projekt Red-level of detail to the environments, but they’re stylised, chunky and tactile, and you suspect they will stand the test of time well.
Not wanting to play the tropical island card too often, Call of the Sea shifts up its weather, time of day and surroundings to showcase the extremes of the island. Only Chapter 1 and 2 of the story feel anything like the other, and Out of the Blue Games finds different ways to make you gawp. It helps that the emphasis is on exploring the environment at your own speed, as you find these vistas yourself. While movement between them is a little on the slow side (even with the run button), Call of the Sea makes the trudge worth it.
Rather than adopt Myst’s open structure, Call of the Sea is more linear, breaking the narrative up into chapters. It’s a shame that the island is separated with loading screens and couldn’t be explored as one map, but you learn to live with it. Generally, the chapters find you on the tail of the previous expedition, rifling through journals, photographs and notes to build up a picture of what happened, before establishing where they went next. This structure works extremely well, as you get two stories running in tandem – yours and the team before you. Each chapter has a habit of circling someone’s death, similar to What Remains of Edith Finch or Return of the Obra Dinn, and it gives the story a tragic edge. It’s a touch of genius that following in the team’s footsteps also means you get clues to the puzzles.
These puzzles tend to be relics of a long-lost civilisation. You can mostly lump them into one of two groups. One group requires a certain process to get them working, as if you were tentatively poking around a machine. You press stuff, you see what happens, and you work out an order of happenings that make sense. It’s a game of trial and error, but it’s fun to work out how the workings clunk together. The other puzzle-group is more cerebral, requiring you to work out alien languages or decipher codes, and there’s less of an opportunity to fiddle with things to get an answer. These lean on the notes from the previous expedition.
Some of the puzzles will feel familiar; there are variations on the ‘turning bridges to make a path’, for example. But what is common between them is that they find the sweet-spot: you know exactly what they want you to do, and it’s just getting there that is challenging. We arrived at the end without a guide, and only hit a couple of temporary walls, both located – unusually – in the second and third chapters. The third chapter in particular is a series of puzzles within puzzles that’s spread over corners of a large map; it’s mind-bending enough without having to trek to see if you got something right. These are exceptions rather than rules, however, and the level of difficulty is almost uniformly spot on. One puzzle that involves constellations will live long in the memory.
The pay-off for completing a puzzle is the second of Call of the Sea’s big weapons. As the final piece of the puzzle clicks into place, the island will lurch, shift and twist into different shapes. It’s like being dropped into an engine, with its components moving around you. A sequence on a giant organ is sublime (and reminded us not a little of The Goonies), as basalt pillars rose out of the sea to create a path across the waves. It’s awesome in the classical sense, and you feel simultaneously small and important, since you were the one who caused all of it.
These themes continue into the story, which is a cracking romp. More specifically, one of Call of the Sea’s two stories is a cracking romp: the one you find in notes is a bittersweet tragedy, and we were hungry to piece it together. But that first story is in danger of undermining the second, as you find yourself wishing that Call of the Sea centred on Norah’s husband, Harry, rather than Norah. Norah’s story is far less nuanced and interesting, mostly because it’s just a lens for investigating the first expedition, but also because Norah herself is dull. The opening sequences pitch her as a prim teacher who packed impractical clothes, then ditches the characterisation almost immediately, making her as capable as Lara Croft. The dialogue and voice acting can never make her relationship with her ‘pal’, her husband, seem believable, and she too often swerves into earnestness and melodrama rather than anything more developed. She was clearly made to be a cipher, but it would have been nice to gift her something approximating a character.
Believability stretches a little too often when it comes to the plotting, as nobody, not even Norah, thinks that coming to this island, inappropriately packed, was a bad idea. The previous expedition have clearly been to Tents R Us, as they leave an improbable trail of camps behind them. And the island has a habit of locking doors and resetting puzzles after the previous expedition has gone through them. It’s all nitpicking, but you’ll have to occasionally switch your brain off, as there are plenty more plot holes than listed here.
More infuriating are the rough edges, as we had to reset the game twice over the seven or eight hours. For a game that encourages exploration of every nook and cranny (there are achievements for finding secret items), there are too many opportunities to get stuck in the environment. Autosaves are fairly common, but it made us think twice about heading off the beaten path, when Call of the Sea likely wanted us to do exactly that.
These shouldn’t overshadow what has been achieved here. Call of the Sea delivers a story that will keep you hooked until its branching ending, which will in turn leave you staring at the screen for a good five minutes. Call of the Sea will tie you into an emotional knot before you leave, it will linger in the memory, and you won’t want much more than that over its swiftly paced eight hours.
Who said that single player games were dead? Call of the Sea on Xbox was made for Game Pass: a fantastic story stunningly told, full of well-pitched puzzles, with almost zero replayability. It’s one of 2020’s most surprising genre-reboots, taking Myst and transplanting in a heart, and we’re all for it. You’d do well to buy a ticket to its shores.