Importing video games from Japan can be a little tricky. True, the lion’s share of development costs have already been covered in the country of origin, but the cost of localizing (translation, recording new voiceovers, etc.), especially for a title that may not offer a return on the initial investment can turn off potential licensors. Compounding that is the fundamental differences in pacing and gameplay styles between Japan and the U.S.A., which can even further narrow the choices for importing. For every western-palatable title like Biohazard (Resident Evil to you and me) and Silent Hill, there are dozens of titles like Lux-Pain that, while excellent, don’t mesh well with our sensibilities.
For this reason, I applaud Hudson, who took a risk on importing a little-known title named Calling several years after the J-horror boom fizzled out here in the states. The question remains however; is Calling (pardon the pun) worth picking up?
The story of Calling centers around a website called The Black Page, which allegedly allows its viewers to interact with the restless spirits of the dead…at least, that’s what the back of the case told me. The game’s narrative is not nearly as clear, tossing the player unceremoniously into a hellish limbo for its two characters, Shinichi and Rin, to wander through. Why are they there? I think it has something to do with a chat room on the site, and there’s constant mention of a trio of unlikable schoolgirls who died after viewing The Black Page, but there’s also a pretty constant stream of weird storytelling dead ends and random facts and characters that drop in and out of the narrative.
What the game lacks in a clear narrative it more than makes up for in mood. The lonely environments are practically oozing menace, putting the player through a slow burn as they wait for something, anything, to finally break the almost overwhelming tension. When something finally does happen, like the Captain Howdy-like flash of an apparition or something more substantial, it’s practically a relief, until you realize that the suspense will just come creeping back to torture you again.
There’s also the odd charm of the cell phone mechanic of the game, which will occasionally use the Wiimote’s internal speaker to transform the controller into a cell phone for the dead to communicate with you. While there is a certain degree of goofiness to the proceedings (the added length and silicone padding from the Wii’s MotionPlus made me feel extra ridiculous, like I was holding a sex toy up to my ear), it works overall as an excellent aid to keep the mood tense as telephoned threats help keep the player on their toes, as well as keeping the tension high.
Then, the ghosts just come and ruin it.
No matter how tightly wound you are, no matter how immersed you are in the moodiness of the game, the ghosts will quickly snap you out of it every time. In pretty much the only thing resembling real conflict and combat in this game, you’ll be grabbed by a ghost and try to break free by shaking your Wiimote back and forth. Sure, I’ll admit, the first time this happened I jumped a little due to it being a completely unexpected event, but after a while it just becomes an unwelcome mechanic as the ghosts become so omnipresent that you’re caught in an endless loop of running forward a bit, waggling the Wiimote, running a bit forward, waggling the Wiimote. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In fact, in the end that pretty much sums up the game’s experience. Sure, the levels may be moody, and the tension so overwhelming it practically chokes you, but after a while it sinks in that you just aren’t doing anything. You’re basically walking through a series of abandoned buildings getting yourself worked up over nothing, occasionally opening a drawer or cabinet (which are empty about 95% of the time) and shaking ghosts off. The game’s sense of building tension may be expertly designed, but there’s practically no payoff. Sadly, if you hear this Calling, there’s really no need to answer.