Considering how popular the Cthulhu mythos has been in recent years, it’s a cosmic mystery why it took so long for the venerable Arkham Horror board game series to get its first video game adaption. That makes it even more of a shame that Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace gives it such a middling digital debut. Its particular take on Lovecraftian horror feels faithful in the details, but uninterested in challenging some of its own troubling preconceptions – or even being very scary. Couple that with soft ball puzzles and pushover combat encounters, and this dark ritual feels largely harmless.
Mother’s Embrace is an adventure game structured like most Arkham-themed card or board games: you control a group of investigators who hop between Prohibition era locales like prestigious universities and old spooky buildings in search of clues. Solving the great mystery of a weird and wondrous force that threatens all of reality without being consumed by it yourself requires a balance of both physical and mental fortitude, but every move forces you to make tough choices that look to disrupt that balance – be it through bizarre mind breaking discoveries or brutal bone breaking confrontations.
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Your tale here is divided into “scenarios” focused on single locations and with a set of specific objectives, be it finding an old voodoo priest in New Orleans or investigating a mysterious murder in a fabulous mansion. In each of these chapters, you’ll stroll around the environment questioning the locals, collecting journals and notes, and investigating suspicious points of interest in order to piece together a solution to whatever problem brought you there in the first place. The overt nature of all these activities rarely makes you feel like you’re doing any actual detective work. You’ll find yourself simply stopping at every single highlighted area in hopes that it adds a clue to your notebook, making you more vacuum than gumshoe.
It’s not quite as simple as hoarding everything you find, of course. Many of these interactions have more than one way to navigate them; should you pick the lock on a chest or should you break it? In each array of options, only one is correct. Choose poorly and you risk failing the task, punishing you with a tick on the Mythos Clock, which hangs in the top right corner as a mechanical manifestation of existential dread. After five ticks, the clock strikes midnight, and the Old Gods send you a stern message in the form of combat debuffs, forcing sanity skill checks on the spot, or stealing items out of your inventory, to name a few. This adds an element of risk to searching a new location, but the consequences were never harsh enough to dissuade me from always giving each choice a shot.
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Depending on the investigators in your party, you may not have to pay the cost of failing them at all. Each one has their own specialties – scientist Kate Winthrop excels when tasks involve searching, while Federal Agent Roland Banks knows his way around logic puzzles – and will drop a hint pointing towards the right answer when these complex interactions arise. Their strengths are best treated as random bonuses though, as there is no indication of the kinds of interactions you’ll encounter in any given area, and therefore no real way to plan a party composition around succeeding at them with any regularity.
Where party organization really matters most is when the snooping stops and the shooting starts. The Baldur’s Gate 3-style turn-based tactical combat revolves around the various ways your sleuths can spend action points to take down foes like cultists and weird tentacle creatures. Guns, melee weapons, and magic come in amusing assortment of shapes and sizes, all of which require a certain amount of the five points each character gets per turn to use. This cost is dependent on the weapon each investigator is using, but also their proficiency with that weapon type. A gun that takes parapsychologist Agatha Crane four points to shoot only takes three for jazz trumpeter and apparent crack shot Jim Culliver, for example.
This didn’t affect my strategy going into most combat scenarios, though. So long as you have ammo, guns are usually the best option no matter the wielder. They do great damage from far enough away that the largely simplistic and dull enemies rarely pose a threat. Towards the end of the campaign, if you’re thoroughly checking every corner for possible goodies, you’ll have more consumable healing items and ammunition than you’d ever reasonably need against such unworthy opponents. The only real worry is instead the aforementioned Mythos Clock which ticks with every combat round, serving to make the rare tough encounter a bit more ferocious, but not enough to make them any more interesting.
So with maintaining the body being a fairly simple task, managing sanity proved to be the biggest challenge in Mother’s Embrace. You take sanity checks on a majority of interactions you make, tests of your investigators’ mental fortitude that will harm their mind if they fail. Some of these checks seem reasonably disturbing, like coming across a dead body resting on a glyph drawn in its own blood. However, many of them instead stretch your suspension of disbelief a little too far – why would the fibers of my mind be fraying when I read that a body has gone missing from a graveyard in the newspaper?
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If any investigator’s sanity meter drops to zero then they gain a trauma, a debuff that cripples them permanently (or until you let them rest at your headquarters between scenarios). Each investigator has their own list of possible traumas, and as they pile up they can become real detriments. Those include things like a character having a lower chance to critical hit or even hurting themselves occasionally, making them more compelling threats than most of the other consequences in Mother’s Embrace.
But while I cared about keeping them operational, I didn’t really care about the investigators themselves. The seven different starting options (and five more you meet along the way) are made up of largely one-note caricatures, be it the somber gravedigger Will Yorick or the sassy dilettante Jenny Barnes. They have a reliable stock of puns and one liners, reacting as you’d expect them to based on their jobs and backgrounds with few surprises to make them standout. But outside of the little blurb that accompanies them in their stat screens or exposition that they dump on you the first time you meet them, these characters have no real arcs or compelling motives.
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The story itself is a rote Lovecraftian murder mystery, one that would have benefitted greatly by breaking away from some of the genre’s unfortunate trappings in more meaningful ways. Mother’s Embrace’s inclusion of black protagonists and major npcs despite the eponymous author’s noted disdain for most people of color is a welcome step forward, but not a big enough one to also include a less harmful depiction of mental health issues and those struggling with them. Its depiction of patients in asylums lacks nuance, reducing them to either blubbering husks or violent monsters with little in between, and only serves to further isolate people in the real world who may suffer from non-Old One related mental illness. Even when the story is at its most serviceable, all the gore and intrigue of its gruesome events are taken at face value, with almost no examination of its themes for something deeper or as a metaphor for the human condition, as the best Cthulhu stories usually do.
But while the story itself is only skin deep, it at least looks great while telling it. Apart from some very generic animations both in combat and during exploration, the costumes and character designs really stand out and the use of color and lighting does a great job of setting the otherworldly mood, especially towards the end of its six or so hour adventure. You can replay Mother’s Embrace after your first playthrough with a new starting investigator as well, but there’s not much reason to do so as nothing significant will change besides some dialogue.