I love a good horror story. The best of them succeed in making you feel uneasy throughout the experience, fearing the moment that the monster will finally show its face and potentially end you then and there. HP Lovecraft is a master of the suspense and his unearthly novels all have that same “dreading the unknown” as a common thread. Conarium takes its inspiration from one of his great works: At the Mountains of Madness.
When you gain control of our protagonist, Frank Gilman, you awaken in a room with a weird glowing orb. It’s giving you a headache and clearly just a little bit of amnesia as well.
You can’t seem to find anyone else still left on the snowy mountain base and you’ll have to make your way down the facility to look for your fellow expedition members. The opening moments of the game establish an eery setting where you feel isolated from the rest of the world with no hope of someone coming to your rescue. The research facility holds a lot of interesting literature and does a good job at building suspense. You’ll also see a recap of some of the documents you picked up during one of the many long loading scenes. (seriously, some of them take ages to load the next scene)
It feels as if what happened just before we get control of the main character is actually more interesting than the story found in the game itself. I want to find out even more about the experiments they were doing in the mountains. Their failures and successes. See what happened to the expedition party that came before you. I’d have much preferred to play as Dr Freud than as boring old Frank. I wasn’t even particularly fond of his rather bland voice acting performance. The man doesn’t sound scared or surprised at all, the only hint of emotion I could grab from his delivery was that he felt somewhat rushed to get to the bottom of the mystery.
In a similar manner to the actors at play, the opening location in the research facility is more interesting than the depths we descend into later, where all hallways look similar. Seems like the ancient civilisation that populated the earth before us could have used an interior decorator.
Gameplay-wise, it’s basically a walking sim in which you move from point A to point B, solve a handful of puzzles and maybe pick up a few collectables along the way. Those puzzles aren’t really that hard to solve if you’ve found the clue. Then it’s just a matter of going through the motions.
I do applaud the game for trying to implement a few novel experiences, but sadly these were the most prone to bugs. About halfway through the game, you’ll have to navigate a submarine through some rather tight gaps. It took a while to get the controls of it down, but it was a welcome change of pace. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t always clear where to go next and I even had a few instances of the underground terrain clipping through my sub. It didn’t make for very interesting trial & error gameplay so I ended up cutting it from my recorded gameplay:
One other frustrating bug was Conarium crashing on me. On two separate occasions, the game would become completely unresponsive. I had to load the previous save file and retrace my steps, even missing a collectable as I was scared to trigger the same freeze again.
Luckily Conarium has a rather generous automatic save file system and also allows for manual saves. While we are talking about the core systems at work though, I’d like to bring up the controls: playing this with an Xbox controller it feels like some of the control configurations came as an afterthought and don’t really apply the evolution of the past few years. Crouching is on the LB button, LT opens your journal, B toggles your notes, RT toggles your equipped item. I just feels like these controls were applied randomly and it made for some really goofy looking recorded videos on my end where I was constantly trying to exit out of something with B, but just opening my journal instead…
Lastly, I’d like to come back to my opening statement. I feel like a good horror game succeeds at building suspense. The buildup before actually seeing the monsters is usually scarier than the actual encounter itself. Here you see the enemies in a passive state long before they actually become dangerous to you, so you’ve had ample chance to look at them from up close.
I never truly felt scared or even at unease while playing Conarium. That’s perhaps the biggest disappointment that coloured my rather negative review of the game: It never succeeded at making me feel anything. The Literature inside the game somewhat does the source material justice, but it’s a short experience with its ~3 hours runtime that left me wondering what could have been.
(A Review copy for Xbox One was provided by the Publisher)