Column: Cthulhu Eats the World: Video Game Review: Elder Signs: Omens

Boy, do I have some good news for all you Lovecraft lovers out there who are also gamers. Based on Fantasy Flight Games’ popular Cthulhu Mythos dice game, Elder Signs, comes this very faithful adaptation that you can play on your Mac, iPods and iPhones, and any mobile device that runs Android. This new video game version pretty much keeps everything that made the board game so good and what minor changes they have made only serve to streamline the game or make it more challenging than ever before. But could it be that you have never played the original Elder Signs? Well, then, sit back (or actually keep reading) and enjoy this nickel tour of the game.

In Elder Signs: Omens, you will run a group of four characters, or “investigators.” Each investigator has a special power, such as the ability to modify dice rolls, reroll dice, gain extra items for completing an adventure, and more. Mixing and matching the investigators in your group, learning how their special abilities work, and choosing just the right four characters for your team is challenging and fun in itself, and that’s before any dice start rolling.

It is your team of investigators’ job to stop the murderous machinations of one of Lovecraft’s dreaded Great Old Ones. Such fan favorites as Yig, the Father of Serpents; Tsathoggua, the Sleeper of N’kai; and even Great Cthulhu himself will be some of the horrors you must face and best in order to win this game. This all takes place in a huge museum stuffed to the rafters with arcane artifacts and old tomes of forbidden lore. All across this museum, adventures will appear randomly. Each adventure will have its own challenges, risks and rewards. Some adventures, if failed by an investigator, will drain them of their precious sanity or health. If either hits zero, then that investigator is effectively dead. But should your investigator triumph at a given challenge, then they will be rewarded with gear, spells and clues that will aid them in future adventures. And if they’re really lucky, then they will receive the highly coveted Elder Signs and that’s what you’re really after.

At the heart of this game is a race against time. You only have so many turns to beat the Great Old One you’re playing against. If you take too long to do this, then the ancient evil is let loose in the world and you lose the game. In order to keep the eldritch evils asleep or out of our dimension, you must collect a number of elder signs by completing adventures that have them as rewards. Sounds simple, right? Well, on the one hand, it is, but, on the other, it is devilishly clever and challenging. Each Great Old One has their own special powers that range from how soon they will be summoned, the ability to summon minion monsters to help thwart your investigators, or the amount of Elder Signs you need to collect in order to defeat them.

So, you get those precious Elder Signs by completing adventures, but how do you do that? Well, with dice, naturally. Each time you take on an adventure, you will roll six dice. You can increase that amount of dice up to eight through special abilities and equipment. The more dice you roll, the greater your chances of success. Each die has a number of strange symbols on it, such as skulls, tentacles, scrolls, and so on. You must match these symbols with the symbols needed to complete an adventure, but things get tricky, since each adventure has multiple parts and as you match symbols, you lose dice. Let me explain. In order to complete an adventure, you may have to roll and match a skull and a tentacle first and then two scrolls and another skull. So, you roll your dice and you luckily get a skull and a tentacle on your first roll, which is good, because if you roll and can’t complete a task, then you must sacrifice a die and roll again. However, in order you match those symbols, you must give up the dice showing them. Which means that in order to get the next part right (two scrolls and a skull), you will only be rolling four dice. So, with each success, your chances of winning the next part of an adventure get slimmer. It’s diabolical, not to mention also very challenging.

The game also has a great pickup-any-play quality. You can jump on, roll a few adventures, and jump right off with the ability to leave and save your game at any time. However, you can only reload a game from the main menu. This means you can’t cheat and reload in the middle of an adventure to avoid a bad roll. Every time you leave the game, you must either save it or abandon it. Yes, there are no take-backs when fighting the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Lastly, I must say that this game is as beautiful as it is crafty. The game is set during the classic Lovecraft period of the 1920s and 1930s, and the artwork reflects this. While this isn’t a graphic intensive game, each adventure has its own great-looking illustration to reflect the kind of horrors you’re about to face, as does each Great Old One, monster, spell, Tommy Gun, etc. To complement the good looks of this game, there is some appropriately creepy music and the occasional sound effect. But really, the true star of this show is the game itself, so thankfully, it is robust and fun enough to firmly hold anyone’s attention for a good, long time.

Final Verdict: Elder Signs: Omens comes with up to five Great Old Ones to do battle with (The Android version I played came with three default baddies, with two expansion packs that added a new Old One each, plus new investigators and new adventures), a slew of investigators to choose from, and a whole bunch of adventures to overcome. Prices vary by platform, but, even at its most expensive, $6.99, it would still be a bargain for the amount of fun you can get battling the forces of cosmic horror in the palm of your hand. You can get Elder Signs: Omens from whatever app store your device uses, or from Fantasy Flight Game’s website here. This game gets both an easy and a high recommendation from me. Now go and toss some dice at the forces of darkness.

About Brian M. Sammons

Brian M. Sammons has been critiquing all things horror, science fiction, dark, or just plain icky for over a decade. His reviews and columns can currently be found in the pages of these magazines: Cemetery Dance, Shock Totem and Dark Discoveries, and on these websites: Horror World, The Black Glove and now here. Not being satisfied at being a humble and handsome critic, Brian has penned a few tales himself. They have appeared in the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, Dark Animus, and Horror Carousel, and in the anthologies Arkham Tales, Cthulhu Unbound Vol. 2, Horrors Beyond, and Twisted Legends, among others. He has also written extensively for the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, in an attempt to corrupt as many new, young minds as possible. Despite all this, Brian is often described by his neighbours as "such a nice, quiet man", and he loves animals.

Brian M. SammonsColumn: Cthulhu Eats the World: Video Game Review: Elder Signs: Omens